Elections highlight shifts in Boston voting

Recent special elections put spotlight on changing electorate

In the spring issue of CommonWealth, we wrote about the shifts occurring in the distribution of votes in Boston, highlighting the big increase in votes coming from downtown and other northern neighborhoods populated mainly by white, younger, and educated professionals (Statistically Significant, “Where the votes are in Boston”). We wrote that these residents, who have flocked to areas that witnessed significant population growth in recent years, vote in large numbers in state and federal elections, but have so far not shown the same inclination to cast ballots in municipal races. A candidate for mayor this fall who is able to engage these voters, we argued, could reap a significant advantage and reset the city’s political landscape.

What has also become clear is that it is not just the geography of where the votes are in Boston that is changing, but also the factors influencing how city residents vote. The recent special primary elections pitting Steve Lynch against Ed Markey for the Democratic nomination for the US Senate and Linda Dorcena Forry’s race against Nick Collins for a state Senate seat encompassing South Boston, a good part of Dorchester, Mattapan, and some of Hyde Park give us more data to review.

Markey, a veteran congressman from Malden, has evolved into a classic suburban liberal, while Lynch, a South Boston congressman, has remained true to his blue-collar Boston roots. Yet Markey won Boston in the Democratic primary. Although the Markey campaign appeared invisible in many neighborhoods across the city – lacking the signs and other traditional indicia of campaign activity – the Markey vote was strong in all the places we had expected it would be strong. Markey beat Lynch in the upscale parts of Charlestown, as well as in all of the downtown neighborhoods, by significant margins. In Ward 3 (Downtown, North End, Chinatown), Markey defeated Lynch by a margin of 1,881-827, despite the fact that much of this area falls within Lynch’s own congressional district. In the rapidly changing South Boston waterfront (Ward 6, Precinct 1), Markey only lost to Lynch by a margin of 286-254. These results reflect the changing demographics of these areas; we have seen an influx of more liberal, issue-oriented professionals who for the most part are not native Bostonians.

The geographic pattern of Markey’s support in Boston is a clear example of larger trends we outlined in our previous article. Most anyone who’s ever been in politics looks at the election results in his home precinct first. In Jamaica Plain’s Ward 19, Precinct 3 (where Larry lives), Markey beat Lynch 256-22; in the South End’s Ward 9, Precinct 3 (where James lives), the vote was 221-56. Interestingly, Markey’s margins in precincts of Jamaica Plain were greater than some of Lynch’s margins in precincts in South Boston – a further indication of the gentrification of Southie’s Wards 6 and 7. Markey also did quite well in minority communities, but his real margins occurred in communities such as Jamaica Plain and the South End that are full of young, educated people.

Perhaps the most interesting statistic from our perspective was how well Markey performed in Roslindale. In many ways, Jamaica Plain has become the South End with trees (i.e., politically liberal with smaller-sized households), and Roslindale is not far behind. In most every precinct in Roslindale, Markey prevailed or was neck-and-neck with a congressman who had represented much of that neighborhood for more than 10 years. In some of the precincts near Roslindale Village, the margins were significant. This is something no one could have predicted a few years ago.

After the resignation of state Sen. Jack Hart of South Boston earlier this year, two well-known candidates announced campaigns for his seat – Nick Collins, a white state representative from South Boston, and Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American state representative from Dorchester. In the Collins-Forry Democratic primary, Collins understandably amassed enormous numbers in most of the precincts in South Boston. Similarly, Forry rolled up very large margins in predominantly black Mattapan, winning some precincts by a margin of 13 and 14 to 1. Forry’s numbers were also extraordinarily strong in Dorchester precincts – a number of which are racially mixed or even predominantly white. Remarkably, her list of winning precincts included Ward 13, Precinct 10 – known in city politics as “Savin Hill over the bridge” – a once reliably conservative-leaning white enclave, where she benefitted from the work of Danny Ryan, one of the great poll workers of the modern era, and also from the settling of some old South Boston/Dorchester scores. In this precinct, Forry squeaked by Collins by a narrow margin of 290-284. In contrast, Lynch soundly defeated Markey in this precinct, by a margin of 399-196.

This is no longer the Savin Hill of years past, where attendance at St. William’s (alas, no longer even an operating parish) and having a large number of children was a prerequisite to getting votes in a Democratic primary. Instead, neighborhoods such as this, across Dorchester and across the city, have large numbers of younger educated people who are neither married nor Catholic. In turn, these voters are less politically active during municipal and local state level elections. It was Forry’s exceptional numbers across Dorchester which brought her to victory in the First Suffolk Senate District’s Democratic primary, while Lynch’s limited success in Dorchester in the US Senate primary was contained to a handful of precincts along the coast.

While these two elections serve to verify our theories about changing voting patterns in the city of Boston, they also leave us with numerous unanswered questions as we approach yet another election season. Will some of the candidates for mayor now look at Roslindale differently as a result of these contests? Will minority candidates and left-of-center candidates now view many coastal Dorchester precincts differently as a result of these elections?

In June, Markey soundly defeated Republican Gabriel Gomez in the general election for the US Senate seat vacated by John Kerry. Markey successfully captured a majority of votes across Boston’s varied Hispanic communities, a demographic seen as a key component to a possible victory by Gomez, the son of Colombian immigrants. In East Boston’s Ward 1, Markey triumphed, winning by a margin of 2,572-1,093, as he did in the Puerto Rican community of the South End’s Villa Victoria, and throughout the Hispanic communities of Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, and Roslindale. Markey’s margins in black neighborhoods were stronger; he won many precincts by a margin of 20-1. Gomez only carried a dozen or so precincts in South Boston, Dorchester, and West Roxbury.

Many years ago, the political scientist V.O. Key and others suggested that the basic reasons one person voted for another could be categorized as “friends and neighbors; ethnicity; and ideology” (Larry has recently suggested that gender is now an equally important variable as well). In the primary election between Markey and Lynch, we saw ideology trump geography in Boston. In the primary between Collins and Forry, geography clearly trumped ideology. Finally, the general election between Markey and Gomez saw ideology trump ethnicity.

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How will these factors play out in the upcoming mayoral and city council campaigns? Will a candidate who has a geographic base all to himself prevail in a crowded primary? Will ideology trump geography? Is ethnicity as important as it was a generation ago in our multicultural city? How important a factor is gender?

A generation ago, no one could have predicted that a candidate from the suburbs would defeat a candidate from Boston in a Democratic primary in Boston. Certainly, no one could have anticipated that a Haitian-American woman would be representing South Boston in the state Senate. Boston is a very different city.

Lawrence S. DiCara is an attorney with Nixon Peabody in Boston and a former Boston City Council president. James Sutherland is a Ph.D. student in political science at Northeastern University.