The blue-red color divide in Massachusetts
Politically, Massachusetts is now 3 regions
On a national political map, Massachusetts is reliably blue, a Democratic stronghold. The congressional delegation is all Democrat, the State House is overwhelmingly Democrat, and every constitutional officer is a Democrat. While Republicans occasionally break through (Scott Brown’s US Senate victory in 2010 or the string of Republican governors elected from 1990 through 2002), the default position of the state has been to vote Democratic.
But within the state a different type of phenomenon is occurring. Statewide voting data indicate Massachusetts is becoming more and more politically polarized at the city and town level. Blue Democratic towns are becoming bluer and red Republican towns are becoming redder. The middle ground, communities where the two parties battle for supremacy, is disappearing. Recent election outcomes are more and more the midpoint between two increasingly polarized voting blocs.
Political colors are also becoming more concentrated geographically within the state. Blue dominates in the western part of the state and in Greater Boston. Red dominates in central Massachusetts and north and south of Boston. Instead of a patchwork quilt of towns across the state voting Democrat or Republican, communities now seem to vote in political clusters. To win, candidates are driving up turnout in their own political strongholds rather than competing for votes in the smaller number of towns where the final margin is anywhere close to an even split.
Before 2010, 80 to 90 percent of Massachusetts cities and towns were within a predictable, 30-point range on either side of the overall state margin of victory in any particular race. The 30-point range means that in a hypothetical election with a 10-point victory for the Democrat, most towns voted somewhere between a 40-point Democratic victory (the actual 10-point victory plus 30 points) and a 20-point victory for the Republican (30 points minus the actual 10-point loss). The 30-point cushion allows for some deeper red or deeper blue towns, but nothing too extreme either way. Prior to 2010, nearly all of the state’s municipalities fit this pattern.Since 2010, however, far fewer towns are within this predictable distance of the statewide margin, with more towns delivering massive wins for either the Democrat or the Republican. Overall, state results are now determined more by which campaign can drive up the margin on its own home turf, rather than real competition in towns that might go either way.
The number of municipalities within 30 points of the statewide margin plummeted to just 57 percent of towns in the 2013 Senate special election between Democrat Ed Markey and Republican Gabriel Gomez, the lowest in the period for which records are available. Practically speaking, this shift means the home turf of either party is now further toward the political extreme, with little back and forth travel across the middle of the political spectrum. The outcome is a smaller version of what we see at the national level, where the partisanship of each congressional district has increased dramatically in recent decades.
Nationally, partisan redistricting initiatives to ensure safe electoral outcomes have played at least some role in increasing partisan polarization between congressional districts. This dynamic does not apply to Massachusetts cities and towns. While the full explanation will require more research, polarized voting patterns in Massachusetts are probably due in some part to larger regional trends. The deep blue western Massachusetts, for example, has emerged in recent decades as a part of a larger blue region extending over the border into New York.
This polarization in Massachusetts at the municipal level is also beginning to take hold regionally, with de facto partisan clusters now dividing up the state. The western part of the state is Democratic, as is Boston and its nearby suburbs, while the central region and the areas north and south of Boston tend to vote Republican. While Boston has always been blue (except in extreme Republican blowouts such as the 1972 Senate race between Republican Edward Brooke and Democrat John J. Droney and the 1994 governor’s race between Republican William Weld and Democrat Mark Roosevelt), the homogeneity of the other two regions is a much newer phenomenon.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the changeover to the new, more polarized map took place, but it probably occurred at some point between 1996 and 2002. In 1996, Sen. John Kerry’s victory over Bill Weld produced an election map that was the first to show real resemblance to what we see today. In 2002, Mitt Romney and Shannon O’Brien again divided up the state in a familiar way. From 2000 to 2008, consecutive lopsided wins for Sens. Kerry and Kennedy caused the red portions of the state to all but disappear in those elections. Come 2010, 2012, and 2013, both Senate and gubernatorial elections produced an even more pronounced version of the now-familiar map, as illustrated by the map at left of two-party vote share in the 2013 special Senate election between Democrat Markey and Republican Gomez.
The maps showcasing the results from these recent elections have taken on a consistent look and feel, with three main regions featuring specific partisan voting patterns. The borders of these regions move back and forth somewhat, depending on which party is winning and the size of the margin. In Democratic wins, the blue creeps in a little further from the west or expands out a little further from Boston. In Republican victories, the red bleeds in a little closer to Boston and a few towns in the west-central part of the state flip to red. But, overall, the shape of the map remains the same and the margins of victory within communities in the region appear to be increasing.
This regionalization means voters in many parts of the state are now less likely to live near a town with a different voting pattern. Homogenization is thus reinforced, as the day-to-day lives of voters require little encounter with those with opposing views. A Pittsfield voter in the 2013 special US Senate election looking for a town voting for Gomez would have had to drive 39 minutes to Chester. Markey, Elizabeth Warren, and Deval Patrick could take three different routes across the western part of the state from Northfield to Mt. Washington with little risk of setting foot in a town won by their Republican opponents. Similarly, Brown’s campaign bus could have driven I-90 from Framingham to Springfield without passing through any municipality backing Warren but for a brief glance at Worcester out of the right hand window.As we look ahead to this year’s governor’s race, the geographic polarization of our state may mean the campaigns focus on a combination of base building and border wars. Each side will look to drive up turnout in its base areas, while pushing the borders a little further back into their opponent’s territory. But will we see active campaigning from each side deep in the other party’s regions? Towns on the western border of the state went for Patrick by an average of 55 points and Ed Markey by 49. So as scarce campaign time and resources are allocated, it seems unlikely the dark red or dark blue towns will get much attention from the other side.
Steve Koczela is the president of the MassINC Polling Group, a subsidiary of MassINC, which publishes CommonWealth.