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Thursday, September 26, 2002


I have a weakness for looking at election results, especially if they are broken down into small units. For instance, take this town by town breakdown of the September 17 Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial primary.

At one time, there were five candidates in the Democratic primary for governor of Massachusetts, my once and (possibly) future home; State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, State Senate President Thomas Birmingham (D-Chelsea), State Senator Warren Tolman (D-Cambridge) and former Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Steven Grossman. Grossman quit the race over the summer, leaving four candidates. O’Brien won with 33% of the vote, followed by Reich (25%), Birmingham (24%), and Tolman (18%). Results can be found here.

Shannon O’Brien had a lot of advantages going in:

O’Brien was the one woman in a four-way race. All four are generally on the liberal side of things - all to differing degrees generally supportive of gay rights, all pro-choice, with no one actively promoting capital punishment. (The Catholic-conservative Ray Flynn/ Billy Bulger/ Stephen Lynch faction of the party - generally pro-life, unsympathetic to gay rights, and divided on the death penalty - is unrepresented in this race.) There is a tendency for women in Massachusetts to prefer other women in an election, all else being equal.

Perceived as the most “moderate” candidate in the race by most, she was the default choice of centrist or conservative (fiscally or socially) Democratic primary voters. She is also as a result perceived as the most electable candidate, the one likeliest to defeat Republican nominee W. Mitt Romney.

O’Brien was the only candidate to ever hold statewide elected office, and indeed the only candidate who had run statewide before. Going in, only Robert Reich had comparable name recognition among her opponents. Birmingham was well known in Beacon Hill circles, in his home district just north of Boston, and among avid followers of state politics, but essentially unknown to everyone else. Even Warren Tolman’s own constituents might have had trouble recognizing him. Steve Grossman probably had even lower recognition figures than Tolman, except among party apparatchiks.

O’Brien was the only candidate with a base outside Greater Boston, hailing from Easthampton in the western part of the state. Anyone who was going to beat O’Brien would have needed to either unite Greater Boston or win a convincing victory in smaller power base, say the Merrimack Valley, or the Southeast. With three Boston-area candidates in the race that was a tall order.

No one candidate was able to unify Greater Boston or, really, any portion thereof. No one candidate was able to dominate the Merrimack Valley, which was a three-way battleground. O’Brien took Methuen, Haverhill, and North Andover to compensate for losing big in Lowell to Birmingham and in being beaten in Andover by Reich. Southeast was a two-way race between O’Brien and Birmingham.

Sen. Tolman was initially running as the “reform” candidate. He is the first candidate in state history to run under “Clean Elections” rules (as a result of the 1998 “Clean Elections” ballot question), which gained him some state financing not available to other candidates. It also gained him some respect from reform-minded voters. He was dueling for “outsider” votes with former party chair Steve Grossman; though Tolman is a sitting state legislator, he’s not a Beacon Hill power figure the way Tom Birmingham is. But when Robert Reich entered the race, with his national stature, name recognition, and aggressive campaign, Tolman’s candidacy, already a longshot, was doomed (as was Grossman) to certain failure. Playing by the rules of Clean Elections limited his ability to fundraise, and his anti-Reich ads probably benefited Birmingham and O’Brien more than they did Tolman himself.

It’s hard to figure out what Tolman’s strong areas were. He had no real base; the only towns of any size in the state he carried were the Metrowest communities of Watertown, which he had represented, and Waltham, where he beat Reich despite Reich’s tenure at Brandeis University, located there. (The result could also be a typo for all I know.) His only runner-up finishes of note were Chicopee (borders Springfield and Holyoke) and Marlborough (western fringe of Metrowest area), two smallish cities with almost nothing else in common. In some areas where either Reich or Birmingham did especially poorly, Tolman finished third.

Of the other three candidates, you’d have to think Reich, running on a reformist platform, would have been best positioned to win over Tolman voters. He would have needed to add about half of Tolman’s votes to overtake O’Brien. On the other hand, Tolman was the one out of the four that most people assumed could never win – if these voters’ second choice was Reich rather than either not voting or choosing another candidate, wouldn’t more of them have chosen Reich in the first place?

Birmingham did well in most working-class cities and towns in the eastern half of the state, carrying Lynn, Fall River, New Bedford, and Lowell as well as his own strongholds Chelsea, Everett, Revere, and (narrowly) Saugus. (His district also included parts of Cambridge and Somerville, both of which went for Reich.) Birmingham was also the choice of most black and Hispanic voters in Massachusetts. As could be expected, he was weaker in white-collar suburban communities like Westborough and Hingham. But, outside of Springfield, he did poorly in the center and west generally– even in areas like Fitchburg and Holyoke where union support is a big plus. And he even lost some towns to O’Brien one would tend to think of as Birmingham’s base – Brockton, Quincy, and especially Lawrence. The Lawrence defeat is especially odd considering Lawrence’s large Latino population.

Birmingham ran what the Boston Globe called an “urban strategy,” which might have worked if he could have taken either more Western votes from O’Brien or more progressive votes from Reich or more votes in Greater Boston in general. As Senate president, he couldn’t credibly run on a “reform” platform, but he is well liked among many liberal/progressive activists (contrast with House Speaker Tom Finneran, much despised and loathed by the same activists) and they will miss him whether they know it or not. I wonder why he ran for governor –maybe he thought the union vote would carry him. He gave up a lot when he gave up the Presidency of the state Senate.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich came out of nowhere, mounted a late bit that excited many people, particularly reform-minded liberals, but fell short. Though generally pro-union, Reich supported NAFTA as a Clinton cabinet member and this came back to haunt him. Whether they would back him over O’Brien would be an interesting question, but with Birmingham in the race the union types had what was for them an easy alternative. When Reich entered the race, former state party chair Steve Grossman had no angle to play – Reich took away the “outsider” and “reformer” tags, in addition to preventing Birmingham from access to the “progressive” vote. Grossman then dropped out. Tolman’s campaign ran ads attacking Reich, and there’s no doubt Tolman’s vote cut into Reich’s. Tolman even outpolled Reich in certain areas.

College towns like Cambridge were Reich’s primary source of support. The generally white-collar, affluent liberal suburbs of Metrowest (from Brookline and Newton out to Framingham) also proved a strong source of Reich voters, as “reform” candidates always do well in primary elections there. Reich also did surprisingly well in Western Massachusetts, emerging as the main alternative to O’Brien in nearly every community in the four western counties (except in Springfield, where he finished fourth) and even carrying college towns Amherst and Northhampton, right in O’Brien’s back yard. Greenfield and Pittsfield – places one wouldn’t expect to take to a candidate like Robert Reich - ended up being a virtual draw between O’Brien and Reich. Reich was an issue driver for much of the campaign; he pushed all the candidates to take stronger stances in favor of gay rights, among other issues.

Reich, however, did poorly in Central Massachusetts, which doomed his campaign. Worcester County’s cities and towns, whether blue-collar (Fitchburg) or white-collar (Northborough), struggling (Gardner) or prosperous (Shrewsbury), semi-urban (Leominster) or rural (West Brookfield), largely shunned Reich. I suppose that’s not to be unexpected given the lack of “reform”-minded voters and the higher percentage of moderates and conservatives here compared to the rest of the state. He could, however, have reasonably hoped for a better showing in Worcester itself. Worcester, the state’s second most populous city, has a large number (even for Massachusetts) of colleges and students, and a high-turnout bloc of affluent residents and neighborhoods whose voting patterns more closely resemble those of Metrowest than those of a mill town, including a sizable and influential Jewish population. (Which sounds like stereotyping, but that’s exactly how one would describe most towns in the state where Reich won.) Reich trailed both O’Brien and Birmingham in Worcester.

Reich also did poorly in communities in Bristol and Plymouth Counties across the board, from Fall River and New Bedford on down. But “reform” candidates don’t generally do well down there either, and there’s no obvious source of votes for him there. Moderate to conservative voters, blue-collar union workers, and Latino or Portuguese minorities, three groups squarely behind other candidates, are the main voting blocs there. (Apart from perhaps some of the wealthier communities of the South Shore – it’s perhaps the most Republican part of the state, but Democratic primary voters there tend to be strongly liberal.)

Reich would have needed to find some more support among minority communities, which would have helped him in the state’s larger cities. Such an outreach move if successful would have taken the wind out of Birmingham’s sails and gotten Reich a foothold in cities like Lowell and New Bedford. It’s hard to win a statewide race, even a four-way race, while finishing no higher than third in any of the state’s three largest cities and carrying only three of the state’s dozen largest communities (Cambridge, Somerville, and Framingham, the latter only barely).

O’Brien did well enough in her home territory, outside of the student-heavy towns Reich carried. She managed to win Worcester, overcoming Birmingham’s east-side appeal and Reich’s west-side appeal, and cruised in the rest of Central Massachusetts. She carried often-overlooked, fast-growing Cape Cod (except for the Reich-leaning outermost towns, where a large percentage of Democratic primary voters are gay.) Despite (or perhaps because of) the negative advertising assailing her record as treasurer, O’Brien did not get her clock cleaned in Metrowest, which is often how “insider” candidates lose gubernatorial primaries in Massachusetts. She even managed to carry Boston itself, beating Reich by over 5,000 votes and Birmingham by about 1,000 votes, probably based on her perceived electability and her appeal to moderate voters in neighborhoods like West Roxbury and Hyde Park.

Most importantly, almost nowhere did O’Brien finish below second place. She was the primary alternative to Reich in towns Reich carried and the primary alternative to Birmingham in towns Birmingham carried. With a handful of exceptions, she was competitive everywhere.

So what does all this mean for Shannon O’Brien’s chances of being the first Democrat to be elected governor of Massachusetts since, believe it or not, Michael Dukakis?

O’Brien is a westerner, a rare bird in statewide politics. This will help her out west, obviously, and to some extent in Central Massachusetts as well, which could blunt Republican strength west of I-495. She’s a woman, which helps with women voters. She can count on liberal support, since liberals are suspicious of Romney, a member of the deeply conservative Mormon Church, more so than they were of classic dying-breed-everywhere-else Republicans like Bill Weld, Paul Celucci, and Jane Swift. (For his part, Romney claims he’s no right-winger – he opposes gay civil unions but professes to be pro-choice.)

The towns who backed her the strongest also tend to be the places Republican candidates have fared well in gubernatorial elections in recent years; western and central parts of the state, the North Shore, the South Shore, Cape Cod, and to a lesser extent, the Merrimack Valley. Other than Boston and Springfield, the other places a statewide Democrat counts on to come through in a tough race all chose someone else in this primary contest. Contrast that with the bases of the other candidates – Reich’s college towns and liberal Metrowest suburbs, and Birmingham’s lunch-bucket towns. The only way for a Republican to win a race statewide is if some of those communities don’t turn out for the Democratic nominee. Which sounds like long odds, but it’s worked for the GOP three times in a row and may work again. Though O’Brien is not actively disliked by any of the party factions that backed her opponents, she may have some trouble appealing to what should be her base, more so than her primary opponents would have. She’s been blamed in part for budget deficits, criticized by minority groups for insufficient diversity of staffing in her office, and for the usual patronage flare-ups endemic to the office no matter who’s held it over the years.

This race is the only thing people will turn out for – there are no serious challenges, either to Sen. Kerry or to anyone in the all-Democrat House delegation. The state legislature is firmly in Democratic hands and is not seriously contested. The negative opinion of the national GOP in Massachusetts won’t matter much in this race, either. This isn’t a situation like the 1996 Senate race, where John Kerry bested Bill Weld in large part because the national GOP ticket fared so poorly in Massachusetts that Weld would have had to beat Bob Dole’s numbers by 30 points. Mitt Romney can’t really be tied in any real way to President Bush, who lost the state by a country mile and will lose it by a country mile again in 2004, or to Gov. Swift, who stepped aside when polls suggested she was unlikely to be re-elected. So there are no coattail effects here; the candidates are going to have to win or lose on the strength or weakness of their own campaign.

O’Brien is essentially running even with Romney at present. This race is simply too close to call either way right now.



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