Advantage Democrats

Despite recent GOP gains, Democrats have advantage in retaining the White House in 2016.

THIRTY YEARS AGO this month marked the last time a Republican assumed the presidency with the approval of Massachusetts voters. Ronald Reagan won 49 states in the previous November’s election, including every state in New England. Four years before, he won all of them but Rhode Island.

This month, a new Republican governor, Charlie Baker, takes charge on Beacon Hill along with an expanded Republican minority in the state Legislature. Baker and his colleagues represent a small part of a GOP wave that shifted the Senate majority in Washington to the Republicans and helped return New England Republicans (Frank Guinta of New Hampshire and Bruce Poliquin of Maine) to the House.

But the results of the 2014 campaign are misleading if Republicans believe they give them a shot to win over Massachusetts in 2016 as Reagan did in 1984. “I would bet everything I own that there’s no way,” says Erin O’Brien, the chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Indeed, the dynamics of presidential elections have so changed in the intervening years that the Bay State, along with as many as 18 other states, are practically locks for the Democrats in presidential elections, even though that Democratic tilt is clearly not the case in other years and other races. And the state’s evolution from persuadable to partisan-lock mirrors a shift that’s occurring across the country.

This may sound funny, given November’s election results, but the evolving presidential map, which once so favored Republicans, now gives the Democratic candidate a nearly insurmountable advantage in 2016.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia, accounting for 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to become president, have gone Democratic in each of the six presidential elections since 1988. Another state, New Hampshire, has gone Democratic in five of them. Republicans have a similarly powerful lock on 20 states, but those states only account for 165 electoral votes. The 11 states that will decide the election have mostly trended Democratic. Obama, for instance, won Florida and its 29 electoral votes in each of his campaigns, along with Ohio with its 18, and Virginia, which offers 13.

The Republican landslide majorities of the 1980s grew out of the seeds that ultimately destroyed them. At the time of Reagan’s rise in 1980, Republican moderates were still well represented in Congress. Massachusetts sent two moderate Republicans to the House that year, Silvio Conte and Margaret Heckler, and the other New England states sent five more. Both  Massachusetts senators were Democrats, but each of the other five New England states sent one Republican and one Democrat to the Senate.

In the 1950s and 1960s, political scientists say, the parties agreed on key issues and were dominated by party moderates. That started to shift with conservative Republican Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run and the rise of Reagan. But the moderate wing of the Republican Party was strong enough to give Reagan credibility in the Northeast in 1980, even as his conservative credentials made him the favorite in the South and West. “Republicans used to be a very different party, a party that had tremendous strength in the Northeast,” says Robert Boatright, who teaches political science at Clark University in Worcester.

But the growing strength of that conservative wing of the Republican Party eventually crowded out party moderates. New Englanders weren’t as receptive to the socially conservative message that Republicans increasingly touted elsewhere, or to their ambitious plans to downsize the government. In the 113th Congress of 2013-2014, New England sent only two Republicans to the Senate, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Susan Collins of Maine, and none to the House.

The Republican moderates who remain in other parts of the country have hardly distinguished themselves from their conservative colleagues. In a study of partisan voting in 2014 conducted by Congressional Quarterly, House conservatives voted against President Obama’s wishes on 89 percent of votes in 2014. Republican moderates in the House disagreed with Obama 86 percent of the time. By contrast, the split in the Democratic Party, between moderates and liberals, is much wider.

The other problem for the GOP is demographics. Republicans have long had a problem attracting non-white voters, but the party’s rightward shift hasn’t helped any. If white voters were as large a constituency as they were in the 1980s, Republican presidential candidates wouldn’t have to worry. But whites’ share of the presidential election electorate is steadily eroding, declining from 87 percent in 1984 to 72 percent in 2012. The downturn means once solidly Republican states like California are turning reliably Democrat.

A gender gap is also emerging. Before the 1980s, white women voted Republican at nearly the same rate as white men. But the socially conservative bent of the current Republican Party has opened up a gap between them that has gotten as wide as 11 percentage points (in 2000) and settled in at 8 points in 2012. The result: 62 percent of white men voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 but only 54 percent of women did so. With white women voting at a greater rate than white men, the shift is bad news for Republicans. In 1984, white men and white women each formed an equal part of the electorate, but in 2012 white women made up 38 percent of total voters, and white men only 34 percent. “Mitt Romney would have won if the electorate looked like it did when George [H.W.] Bush was running or Reagan,” says O’Brien.

White voters tend to turn out at higher rates than other ethnic groups, but the gap narrows during presidential election years, helping Democrats. In 2012, black voters, for the first time, voted at a higher rate than whites. Two in three registered blacks, or 67 percent, voted. For whites, it was 64 percent. But in the 2010 midterm election, when Republicans took back control of the House, 49 percent of registered whites voted, while only 44 percent of blacks cast ballots. With the exception of the increasing rate of black participation in the two most recent presidential elections, the pattern has remained consistent for decades. The same trend holds true for Hispanic and Asian-Americans, about a third of whom vote in midterm elections and half of whom vote in presidential years.

Research by University of Maryland government professor James Gimpel indicates that, for every 1 percentage point increase in the immigrant share of the population, the Republican share of the vote drops by 0.6 percentage points.

The electorate also gets younger in presidential years, another plus for Democratic candidates, since younger voters prefer them and older voters tend to prefer Republican candidates. Half of registered voters under 30 voted in 2008, compared to two-thirds of voters older than that. But in the 2010 midterm election, only a quarter of the under-30 crowd voted, while half of voters older than that turned out.

The 2014 campaign followed the same pattern. Nearly two-thirds of voters were over the age of 44, compared to a bit more than half in 2012. Three in four voters were white in 2014, compared to 72 percent in 2012. These shifts occur in Massachusetts as well, helping Republican candidates in non-presidential election years, such as Charlie Baker last year and Scott Brown five years ago.

Baker was elected in November with slightly more than a million votes, just a hair more than his opponent, Democrat Martha Coakley. But in 2012, Massachusetts voters cast more votes for both Obama and for Romney than they did for Baker. Obama won the state with 1.9 million votes to Romney’s 1.2 million. In the 2010 special election that sent Brown to the Senate, Brown won with 1.2 million votes to Coakley’s 1.1 million.

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Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
Hahrie Han, a political scientist at Wellesley College, says the lower turnouts in midterm and special elections help Republicans. “It’s a lot easier for small groups of highly motivated voters to have greater influence,” Han says. In Massachusetts gubernatorial races, it’s also harder to pin GOP candidates with any baggage voters associate with the national Republican Party. Coakley, for instance, tried to convince voters to reject Baker simply because he is a Republican, but Baker successfully made the case that he’s not like the Republicans that run Congress. Brown made a similar case to win his 2010 special election, but had a harder time in 2012 against Elizabeth Warren when he had a Senate voting record to defend.

Han agrees that Democrats have an advantage both in Massachusetts and nationwide going into the 2016 race, but she argues that the Democratic advantage is not insurmountable for the Republicans. “The fundamentals, things like the state of the economy or the number of casualties in a war, are incredibly predictive of elections since the beginning of the 20th century,” she says. If the economy fails to gain steam, or goes back into recession, Republicans may sweep all the swing states and gain an easy victory. They also may surprise people, Han argues, by going after undecided voters in states outside their comfort zone. “It depends on the extent to which you believe that political parties and the work that campaigns do can have transformative potential,” she says.