Boston’s challenge for the GOP
GOP has trouble connecting with non-white voters
The partisan divide between cities and less urbanized areas is growing into one of the defining characteristics of Massachusetts politics. The suburbs are often held up as the place where elections are won or lost, but a steady long-term shift in urban voting is rendering suburban voters less able to change the outcome. Cities’ relatively small geographic size belies how densely packed with votes they are. And in recent years, Democrats have been running up the score in cities by larger and larger margins, helped in part by minority populations that cluster more in cities than in suburban and rural areas.
Here in Massachusetts, the role of Boston in recent statewide elections illustrates this point—and the challenge facing the state GOP. Boston’s population is growing and becoming more diverse and at the same time becoming less friendly to Republicans. The general elections so far this decade have resulted in the largest-ever Democratic blowouts in Boston, a warning sign for Republicans hoping to become competitive statewide. As Republican Charlie Baker seeks to win the corner office this fall, he and his party must work to stem the tide in Boston, or risk being swamped by it.
The city of Boston has only voted for three Republicans in statewide elections since 1970 and none since 1994, when incumbent Gov. Bill Weld triumphed in 345 of the state’s 351 cities and towns. The margin in Boston has been greater than 40 percentage points for the Democrat in every election but two in the last decade or so: Scott Brown’s Senate win in 2010 and Mitt Romney’s successful gubernatorial bid in 2002.While not impossible, the challenge of winning statewide in the face of a massive loss in Boston is considerable, and growing. That’s not to say Republicans need to win Boston, per se. Indeed, it would require an active imagination to believe a statewide Republican candidate will win Boston anytime soon. But he or she must keep the Democratic margin within 40 percentage points or so.
Only losing by 40 points may seem like a modest goal, but it may be the best outcome Republicans can hope for any time soon given the changing composition of the electorate in the city and the current state of the GOP. Boston may have been long out of reach for most Republican candidates, but the situation is getting worse—and fast enough that it threatens to overwhelm the margins the GOP has generated in the red parts of the state.
Republicans have had considerable trouble winning over voters of color in recent years all across the state. While white voters went narrowly for Scott Brown in 2012, Elizabeth Warren’s overwhelming support in communities of color (86 percent among black voters) provided her entire 8-point margin of victory.
In Boston, majority-minority precincts have voted for Democrats by margins of 59 to 84 points since 2002, the earliest date for which the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website provides breakdowns at the precinct level. Majority white precincts almost all went for Democrats as well, but by considerably smaller margins, with some voting Republican. As the city becomes more diverse—and trends suggest that it will—Republicans will find themselves digging out of a deeper and deeper demographic hole.
Charlie Baker has already measured the depths of this hole once, falling to Deval Patrick in 2010 by 77 points in Boston’s majority-minority precincts (yellow bar). Remarkably, Patrick’s margin of victory in these precincts was below those of other candidates in recent elections. So the lack of a popular, African-American incumbent governor on the ballot will not be enough to move these neighborhoods back in the direction of Republicans.
Whether they can make inroads among minority voters is unclear. But party leaders seem acutely aware of the need to try. On the morning of the state GOP convention in March, the front-page of the Globe featured a story on Republican outreach efforts in minority precincts in Boston. “It’s no secret that the reason we lose on Election Day is because we lose in urban cities,” state GOP chairman Kirsten Hughes told the paper. “It’s not rocket science. We have to go to places we haven’t typically gone.”
Going to new places will mean finding a way to effectively connect with voters of color. But nonwhite voters here in Massachusetts feel a stronger connection with the Democratic Party on a variety of issues, and Massachusetts voters as a whole hold the national Republican Party in extremely low regard.
Views of the national GOP, while never strong here in recent years, have shown little evidence of recovering. In 2012, Democrats defeated both Brown and Richard Tisei in part by tying them to the national party. Nationally, views of the Republican Party have grown somewhat more positive since their nadir in 2013 as memories of the worst of the brinksmanship fades. But in Massachusetts, just a quarter of voters held a favorable view of the congressional Republicans when we asked in October 2013.The clock is ticking on the GOP to address these problems. According to the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston’s share of the total state population will continue to grow through 2030, increasing its influence on state politics.
Steve Koczela is the president of the MassINC Polling Group.