In the 2020 elections in Massachusetts, Democrats have reached their zenith. Holding their own in blue-collar white working-class turf while dramatically increasing their margins in both historically Democratic and historically Republican suburban and urban areas, the party of Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey is at the peak of its power.
President-elect Joe Biden thumped incumbent President Donald Trump by a 34 percentage-point margin, winning almost twice as many votes as the incumbent president. In the State Senate, 37 out of the 40 Senate seats are held by Democrats, the strongest Democratic majority in Massachusetts history. In the State House, 129 out of 160 seats are held by Democrats, further compounding Massachusetts’s status as a cobalt-blue state.
Massachusetts Democrats have much to celebrate, but there are indeed signs that they should not rest on their laurels; already, their coalition shows signs of potential fracturing. The persistent presence of Republican Governor Charlie Baker shows a path for Republicans to win statewide, and several key demographic and ideological differences are starting to show fault lines in Massachusetts politics.
Democratic Senate Primary Woes
Much of political world’s attention focused on Massachusetts this year due to the marquee Senate race in September’s state Democratic primary between incumbent Senator Ed Markey and 4th District Rep. Joe Kennedy III. A clash of age, style, and ideology, the contest riveted both Massachusetts voters and the nation. Ultimately, Markey won easily, soundly defeating Kennedy by just under 11 points. This victory was hailed as a triumph of the progressive movement over “moderate” establishment politics, but there are potential warning signs under the hood.
Pictured above is a precinct map of the Senate primary from political cartographer Cinyc9. Markey performed best in the rural west and in the Boston suburbs. Kennedy performed best in Bristol and Plymouth Counties (his MA-04 is largely based in Bristol County) and in rural central Massachusetts.
Markey’s strength comes from his previous time representing the 7th and 5th congressional districts, which span the affluent northern suburbs of Boston inside the I-95 belt. Many vote-rich Democratic towns and cities are located here, including Cambridge, Somerville, Malden, Arlington, Belmont, and Lexington. Markey got 79% in Cambridge, 80% in Somerville, 69% in Malden, 77% in Arlington, 75% in Belmont, and 76% in Lexington. Similar patterns emerged elsewhere in this region of the Commonwealth, and he racked up a lead of tens of thousands of votes that Kennedy would be unable to overcome.
In contrast to Markey’s strong support from affluent predominantly-white suburban communities, Kennedy’s strength was greatest with non-college educated white voters, African-Americans, and Latino voters. Looking at the map, one can see that Kennedy’s best precincts in the city of Boston are in the central part of the city, home to the minority-heavy neighborhoods of Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, and the South End. Markey’s support is much more concentrated in wealthier, whiter areas towards the north and west of the city like Mission Hill, Jamaica Plain, Allston-Brighton, and Back Bay. Closer to the New Hampshire border, the white-working-class heavy towns of Methuen, Dracut, Tyngsborough, and Haverhill, and the Latino-heavy cities of Lowell and Lawrence, all broke heavily for Kennedy.
As the party gravitates towards suburban progressivism, a growing divide will emerge between blue and white-collar Democrats that has not fully taken place yet in Massachusetts. The party is trading trawlers in New Bedford for business executives in Dover and Weston. The results from the November general election portend this as well.
Analyzing the General Election
The presidential election saw Joe Biden rout Donald Trump in Massachusetts. Compared to both Donald Trump’s 2016 performance and Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance (even accounting for a mild favorite son effect due to Romney’s previous governorship), Biden overperformed massively.
Pictured above is the 2012-2020 precinct loyalty map for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, done by election analyst Drew Savicki of 270toWin. Biden flipped Romney-won precincts all over, but these were mostly concentrated in heavily college-educated and affluent Middlesex, Norfolk, Essex, Plymouth, and Barnstable Counties. However, even as Biden improved massively, Trump did flip some Obama-won areas, notably in working-class Bristol County’s South Coast and far-flung rural towns in central and western Massachusetts.
Examining the South Coast, the map below shows that Biden improved virtually everywhere except notably in Fall River and New Bedford.
What do Fall River and New Bedford have in common that the other towns in the area do not have? They are heavily working-class and have large populations of culturally conservative Catholic Portuguese-American voters. These voters are longtime Democrats but a combination of Trumpian appeal and cultural liberalism from national Democrats and Democrats closer to Boston has set in motion rightward movement.
Pictured above are the biggest precinct swings rightward. from 2012 to 2020, as calculated by election analyst Alexander C. Without exception, all in the top 40 are in the heavily Latino or Portuguese cities of Fall River, Springfield, New Bedford, Worcester, or Holyoke. Pictured below is Alexander C.’s chart of the biggest precinct swings leftward.
These are markedly different areas than the former set of precincts. Wellesley, Sudbury, Medfield, Dover, Cohasset, Weston, and Sherborn are all some of the wealthiest towns in Massachusetts. Granted, Romney was likely golfing buddies with many of these voters, but still, a genuine suburban realignment is taking place in Massachusetts. As another map shows, it has been a long time coming.
The presidential data is not the only election that supports the evidence for these shifting ideological tectonics. Question 2, to establish a ranked-choice voting system in Massachusetts failed by roughly 9 percentage points statewide, but it performed best in suburban Massachusetts (once again along the uber-progressive Route 2 corridor) and failed miserably outside of the Boston metropolitan area and similarly culturally liberal areas (college towns and the Berkshires). Election analyst and reporter Jessy Han’s map of the Question 2 results is here:
This is a map that shows strong urban-rural polarization. Voters in culturally conservative cities like Fall River, New Bedford, and rural towns like Winchendon, Florida, or Oakham did not feel compelled to vote Yes in the same way that voters in Lexington, Arlington, or Cambridge did. The reasons for this are many and could have a whole article devoted to them, but the fact remains that the areas that Question 2 failed in are highly correlated to areas of cultural conservatism and distanced from modern progressive liberal messaging. If there is a path for a statewide Republican to assemble a coalition of the politically non-active (not the types of voters who would be clued into politics and would know the perceived benefits of ranked-choice voting), it would look something similar to the map for Question 2.
Essentially, all of these data points signal the fact that the suburban realignment is happening in Massachusetts, but that the rural realignment that counteracts it either has not happened or is proceeding too slowly to really register. Compared to wild swings seen in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, rural Massachusetts’s Democratic voting habits still run strong, perturbed only a small bit by Trumpian populism.
There is no danger of Massachusetts voting Republican federally now, but eventual victories are won by winning small victory after small victory. Nobody saw Fall River leaning right of the state for the first time in recorded history, but it nonetheless happened. If Massachusetts Democrats Party atrophy and become weak, the GOP would have a ripe opening to make further inroads with non-college white voters and minorities, and eventually routine statewide victories beyond just the governorship.