Battling for the urban vote

Suburbs are losing their clout as the road to the governor’s office now runs through the state’s cities

robert lewis jr. stood on a stage in Dorchester, gripping a podium and firing up the crowd in front of him, hollering, “Isn’t it so great to be with a winner?”

There wasn’t anything unusual about the setting Lewis found himself in. He runs a foundation that uses baseball to mentor city kids. Before that, he held high positions at the Boston Foundation, and in ex-Boston mayor Tom Menino’s administration. He’s a political and civic fixture in Boston neighborhoods.

The guy Lewis was with this September evening was another story. Four years ago, Charlie Baker got drubbed up and down Boston. He lost the city to Gov. Deval Patrick by 47 points, and trailed Patrick in Boston’s majority-minority precincts by 77 points. Baker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign was politically toxic in the neighborhoods Lewis works in. Yet here was Lewis, kicking off Baker’s general election sprint in Dorchester, and trading energetic high-fives with the Republican gubernatorial hopeful. “Charlie shows up,” Lewis roared. “He’s there, in the batting cages, on the fields, walking the streets. This guy is in the boardroom and on the block.”

Most of the comparisons between Charlie Baker’s current run for governor and the one that fell short against Patrick four years ago jump straight to Baker’s sunny new demeanor. But the overhaul of Charlie Baker’s gubernatorial bid goes far deeper than the question of whether he acts gregarious, or prickly. The real difference is where Baker is campaigning, and whose votes he’s chasing. That’s what put Robert Lewis Jr. on stage alongside Charlie Baker in September.

Baker launched his campaign in Lowell. He’s repeatedly barnstormed through Lawrence, Springfield, Chelsea, and Worcester. He marched in the annual Dorchester Day parade sporting a “Dorchester Strong” T-shirt. Baker held more than 100 campaign events in Boston before ringing in his Republican primary victory with Lewis, in Dorchester. As he races toward Election Day, Baker is taking the fight to Martha Coakley, his Democratic opponent, in the urban communities where Massachusetts Democrats usually shine.

Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Mitt Romney strung together 16 straight years of Republican control of the governor’s office by mining the bedroom communities surrounding Route 128 and Interstate 495 for votes. The last three significant statewide races — Scott Brown’s 2010 US Senate win over Coakley, Patrick’s successful 2010 reelection bid against Baker, and Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 tilt against Brown — broke the mold Weld, Cellucci, and Romney established. All three races hinged on voting in urban communities, not the suburbs. Brown topped Coakley by making a raid across Democratic lines. Patrick largely erased the urban gains Brown had made, and two years later, a relentless Warren get-out-the-vote operation blew Brown’s doors off in the same cities that had handed him his Senate seat in 2010.

The Brown, Patrick, and Warren victories all speak to a changed electoral landscape. Urban communities are now handing Republicans far more lopsided defeats than they were when Baker’s old bosses, Weld and Cellucci, were winning their races for governor. So it’s not enough anymore for Republicans seeking statewide office in Massachusetts to crank away in the suburbs. They also have to pay serious attention to their margins in the cities, where demographic shifts are making Massachusetts urban centers increasingly hostile places for Republicans.

The state’s changing political geography leaves Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker in very different places, as they head toward November’s election. Coakley is hoping to harness the rising Democratic tide, while Baker has to find a way to reverse it.

Cities getting more Democratic

Scott Brown swept past Martha Coakley in 2010 by rolling up enormous margins in the suburbs, and eroding Coakley’s margins in Democratic-leaning cities. He turned heads when he won Lowell by 5 percentage points. But in most cases, Brown didn’t have to win cities; all he had to do was keep things close enough to let his strong showings in the suburbs carry the day. He did well by only losing Worcester by 5 points, and staying within 10 points of Coakley in Brockton. In Fall River, losing by 16 points was still good enough to put Brown 21 points ahead of the pace Romney had set in that city in 2002.

The victory map Brown established in January 2010 isn’t just remarkable because Brown ran strongly in cities that had backed Deval Patrick in 2006, and would line up behind Patrick again that November. Brown’s real accomplishment was winning in a state where the political climate simply is less welcoming to Republicans than it was in the 1990s.
Towns that vote Democratic are getting bluer, and Republican towns are getting redder.
The past two decades have seen Massachusetts politics swing in a partisan direction. State election returns once looked like a quilt, with patches of Republican red and Democratic blue towns scattered from the Berkshires to Cape Cod. Now, however, Massachusetts has sorted itself into three distinct electoral blocs: solidly Democratic towns run from the New York border to the Quabbin Reservoir, and from Boston out to a ring of well-to-do suburbs, with little but solidly Republican towns in between the two. (See “The Red-Blue Color Divide in Massachusetts,” CW, Winter 2014.) This regional partisan sorting means relatively few towns swing between the Republican and Democratic columns anymore. Statewide elections in Massachusetts now mostly hinge on turnout and margins of victory.

The state’s new political polarization hasn’t just carved out partisan regions, like the Democratic west and the solidly Republican southeastern suburbs. Municipalities in these newly polarized regions are now far more partisan than they were when voters sent Weld, Cellucci, and Romney to the governor’s office. Towns that vote Democratic are getting bluer, and Republican towns are getting redder. This is a looming problem for Massachusetts Republicans, because in two of the last three major statewide elections, bigger wins in the suburbs haven’t been enough to offset ever-widening Democratic margins in the cities.

To size up local partisanship, CommonWealth looked not just at the winners and losers of individual towns in different elections, but also how far from the overall electoral margin an individual town’s votes fall. This approach strips away the effects of a Democratic or Republican win in any given year, and measures how Democratic or Republican a given town voted relative to the state at large.

In 1998, for instance, Paul Cellucci beat Scott Harshbarger by 3.4 points statewide. Harshbarger beat Cellucci by less than 2 percentage points in Worcester. So, in that contest, Worcester was roughly 5 points more Democratic than Massachusetts as a whole. Cellucci lost Boston by 20 points, a result that put Boston 24 points outside the statewide margin.

The chart to the left shows widening partisanship among both Democratic- and Republican-voting towns. The movement matters most in densely-packed cities, where a shift of a few percentage points equals scores of votes.

While Worcester voted more Democratic, by 5 points, than the state as a whole when Cellucci won the governor’s office, when Elizabeth Warren stormed past Scott Brown two years ago, Worcester was 16 points more Democratic than the rest of Massachusetts. Similar swings toward Democrats from the 1998 election to the 2012 election took place in other cities: in Springfield (from a 16-point Democratic lean to 40 points), Chelsea (14 to 42 points), Holyoke (12 to 32 points), Lawrence (7 to 50 points), and Boston (24 to 41 points). Brockton went from being 2 points more Republican than the Massachusetts electorate in 1998, to being 28 points more Democratic in 2012. Most of these cities were already Democratic-leaning communities, but now Democrats are running up the score by brutal margins, like Elizabeth Warren’s 58-point plastering of Scott Brown in Lawrence.

Some Massachusetts cities, such as Fitchburg, Chicopee, Taunton, and New Bedford, now tilt Democratic by smaller margins than they did in 1998. They’re the exceptions, though. Most urban areas in Massachusetts are moving deeper into the Democratic column, and it’s complicating Republicans’ electoral math.

Suburbs lose their clout

Scott Brown’s 2010 Senate victory marked the end of the familiar suburban-centric political map in Massachusetts, and the emergence of a victory map running through urban areas. Brown’s 2010 win was remarkable because he carved out a statewide majority, despite some serious Democratic headwinds in cities.

The campaign strategists behind Patrick’s 2010 reelection campaign and Warren’s 2012 Senate run recognized these headwinds, and exploited them. Warren and Patrick’s campaigns were built on the same premise: Scott Brown had run relatively well in 2010 in cities where he shouldn’t have, and if Democrats turned out their voters in those cities, Republicans wouldn’t have an answer.

Patrick invested enormous amounts of time and money building up his campaign on the South Coast, while his running mate, Tim Murray, pushed hard in and around Worcester. A half-hour after the polls closed in November 2010, a friend called Doug Rubin, Patrick’s senior political strategist, with returns from Taunton. Scott Brown had taken the city by 15 points the previous January; Patrick flipped the city back to the Democratic column. “At that point, I didn’t know whether we were going to win or lose,” Rubin recalls, “but I knew that our strategy had paid off.” The Taunton results foreshadowed big Patrick wins in Fall River, New Bedford, and Worcester.

Two years later, Warren’s Senate campaign built on Patrick’s urban strategy. She put together a formidable get-out-the-vote operation that swamped Brown in cities like Lowell, Lawrence, Holyoke, Chelsea, and Springfield.

Demographic changes are helping drive Massachusetts cities toward Democrats. Charlie Baker’s 77-point loss in Boston’s majority-minority precincts in 2010 was indicative of broader Republican struggles to win over nonwhite voters.

One-fourth of all Massachusetts residents live in the state’s 10 largest cities: Boston, Springfield, Worcester, Lowell, Cambridge, New Bedford, Fall River, Brockton, Lynn, and Quincy. Most of these cities have turned sharply against Republicans. They are becoming tougher ground for Republican candidates as they become less white.

Between 2000 and 2010, the 10 most populous cities in Massachusetts grew as quickly as the entire state did. But the state’s largest cities experienced tremendous demographic churn. These cities were already home to a disproportionate share of nonwhite Massachusetts residents, but between 2000 and 2010, the state’s largest cities became both less white in absolute terms, and less white in relation to the rest of the state. The white population in the state’s 10 largest cities dropped from 60 percent in 2000, to 53 percent in 2010. (Roughly one in four Massachusetts residents are nonwhite.) The Commonwealth’s overall minority population grew between 2000 and 2010, but it grew far more quickly in large urban areas.

Large minority populations have delivered increasingly lopsided margins to Democrats in recent years. In 2010, Baker suffered defeats of at least 20 points in 10 cities with significant minority populations (Boston, Brockton, Cambridge, Chelsea, Holyoke, Lawrence, New Bedford, Randolph, Springfield, and Worcester). Scott Brown won in 2010 despite losing seven of those same communities by at least 20 points; in 1998, Cellucci had been blown out in just two of them: Boston and Cambridge.

Coakley, Baker go where votes are

Even Martha Coakley’s most fervent supporters will admit that speeches aren’t the attorney general’s thing, that something in Coakley goes flat when she gets behind a microphone and starts speaking to a crowd. But, standing on a sun-drenched lawn behind a Baptist church in Jamaica Plain, surrounded by members of the black clergy, Coakley has a noticeable spark in her. She’s come to this church outside Jackson Square to receive the endorsement of a number of Boston ministers, including Gregory Groover, the head of the city’s Black Ministerial Alliance, and Ten Point Coalition co-founder Jeffrey Brown. She seems to feed off them. In a populist riff on her standard stump speech, Coakley touches on predatory lending, early education, health care disparities, street violence, and criminal justice. She kicks Wall Street banks, and tells the ministers, “I’m a fighter. I will be a fighter.”

After Coakley’s speech, reporters ask Groover about Coakley’s standing in the polls. “Polls are alright,” Groover replies, “but it’s the people on the ground,” not polls, who deliver votes. “We’re concerned about the people in our community,” Groover says, vowing that “they will be out in large numbers” for Coakley.

Neighborhoods like this represent the teeth of Demo-cratic strength in Massachusetts. They paced Deval Patrick to his 2010 reelection over Charlie Baker, and lifted Elizabeth Warren over Scott Brown two years ago. Coakley can’t beat Baker this November without repeating Patrick’s and Warren’s performances in places that look like Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain. And both she and Baker know it.

Coakley fell far short of expectations when she won the Democratic primary in September. She topped Steve Grossman by 6 percentage points, when most public polls had given her a 20-point edge over her closest Democratic rival. But if the primary balloting unnerved Democratic insiders who have been suspicious of Coakley since her 2010 Senate campaign, it also showed that the Democratic nominee was strongest in the places where she’ll need to be strongest in November. Coakley shone in Springfield, New Bedford, and Fall River. She won Boston by 13 points overall, but 33 points separated her from Grossman in Boston’s majority-minority precincts. The state Democratic Party is looking to press this advantage; one of the first fundraisers it had after the primary was held exclusively to boost its communities of color machinery.

Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley is a longtime Coakley supporter. She’s taken Coakley to Sunday church services in Dorchester during the campaign, and believes those trips bode well for November. “She’s at ease in that environment,” Pressley says. “I appreciate that she wanted to meet people where they are, and engage with them in a meaningful way. There wasn’t anybody who didn’t know who she was, and a lot had met her before. People know her, and they know who she fights for.”
Baker has spent inordinate amounts of time campaigning in areas he lost handily 4 years ago.
And while Democrats acknowledge that Coakley doesn’t have the charisma that Patrick and Warren harnessed to drive turnout in the cities, they feel they have something equally potent: a ballot campaign, sponsored by labor, community activists, and faith groups, with its base of support in urban communities. There’s little formal opposition to the ballot question granting paid sick time to workers who don’t receive sick time benefits from their employers. But Baker opposes the question, Coakley’s campaign hopes to turn it into a wedge issue, and Democratic Party officials are counting on the pro-sick time campaign to help drive turnout in the cities.

“In this campaign, no one has a better field organization than the earned sick time campaign,” says Steve Crawford, a spokesman for the ballot question campaign. “We’re hiring people and putting them on the street. We’re registering people to vote, identifying them, following up, and making sure they vote. This isn’t something we’re creating now. It’s been over a year, and it’s statewide.”

For their part, Republicans have been attacking the Democrats’ strength since Baker entered the governor’s race last year. Kirsten Hughes, the state Republican Party chair, launched a tour of urban neighborhoods by bluntly telling the Boston Globe, “It’s no secret that the reason we lose on Election Day is because we lose in urban cities.” Baker has spent inordinate amounts of time campaigning in areas he lost handily four years ago, and when he’s not in the Lowells and Lawrences and Dorchesters of the state, he’s talking about them. He rolled out his economic development plan flanked by supporters from Springfield and Worcester. Before arriving at his primary night party in Dorchester, he stood outside Florian Hall, the Boston firefighters’ union hall, shaking every hand he could.

Meet the Author

Paul McMorrow

Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

“I’ve campaigned in a lot of Democratic communities, and we’ve gotten a very positive reception in these kinds of places,” Baker said on primary day, standing outside Holy Name parish school in West Roxbury, a high-turnout Boston polling place. “I said in the beginning of the campaign, I’m going to chase 100 percent of the vote. If you’re going to do that, you have to show up in a bunch of places Republicans don’t usually go.”

Baker seems determined to reverse the grim math facing Republicans with the sheer force of his physical presence. “You need to show up and make the case,” he says. “You have to make the sale. But you can’t make the sale if you don’t show up.”