Monday, November 26, 2012

Do contested primaries help or hurt candidates for governor in Massachusetts?

Republicans have seen success limiting primary fights

Governor Deval Patrick has said that he will not run for a third term, meaning Massachusetts will have a wide-open race for Governor in 2014. Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray and Treasurer Steve Grossman have indicated they are thinking about running for the Democratic nomination, and there is speculation that former Republican gubernatorial nominee Charlie Baker may throw his hat into the ring for a second time. History shows that there will be more candidates putting their names in and out of contention before the final decision is made by the voters on November 4, 2014.

How does the number of candidates in a party's primary affect its nominee's performance in the general election? Massachusetts Democratic Party leader John Walsh is on the record as saying that he likes contested primaries because the party benefits from the competition. Others say that a contentious primary weakens the eventual nominee and reduces the chances of a general election win. Which of these notions is borne out by the facts? I try to shed some light on the matter by examining the performance of Democratic and Republican nominees for Massachusetts Governor since 1960.

For the purposes of this article I will not focus on independent candidates (who never have a primary), or third-party candidates who normally don't have competitive primaries. While it may not hold forever, only Republicans and Democrats have been elected Governor of Massachusetts since 1858 when Republican Nathaniel Banks replaced Henry Gardner of the Know-Nothing Party.

In order to make comparisons between the percentage of the vote won by a candidate in a general election race that might have a variable number of independent and third-party candidates, I use the column Adjusted Share. The Adjusted Share is calculated by adding up the total number of votes for the Democratic and Republican candidates together, and then calculating the percentage of the two-way total won by the individual candidate in that row.

In the 14 races for Massachusetts Governor from 1960 until 2010, Democrats and Republicans are tied with 7 wins a piece:

In the next two tables I break down the list of races into a list of candidates with contested primaries, and a list of candidates with uncontested primaries, so we can compare their rates of success. The following table shows the 18 individual candidates that had a contested primary. Of those nominees, 7 were winners (39%) and 11 were losers (61%).

The next table shows the 10 individual candidates that had uncontested primaries. In this group 7 were winners (70%) and 3 were losers (30%)—a much higher success rate. It is interesting to note that in the 50 years from 1960 to 2010, only 2 Democratic nominees for Massachusetts Governor have had uncontested primaries: Michael Dukakis in 1986 and Deval Patrick in 2010, both incumbents.

The 39% success rate for nominees with contested primaries versus the 70% success rate for uncontested nominees provides some evidence that contested primaries might be a disadvantage for a nominee in the general election. However, a large percentage (50%) of the uncontested nominees were incumbent governors which might provide its own advantage. It is worth looking specifically at the open races where there was no incumbent in the general election, also mirroring the situation we have for the 2014 race.

When looking at the 8 races since 1960 with no incumbent, there were 4 candidates who were nominated without a contested primary, listed with a bold 1 in this table. Of those 4, the only one to lose the general election was Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey who was defeated in the 2006 general election by Deval Patrick. The other 3 uncontested candidates (John Volpe appears uncontested twice and Mitt Romney once) were winners, giving a 75% success rate for candidates with uncontested primaries in open races. The 12 nominees in the list with contested primaries won 42% of the time, a much lower rate than the 75% success rate for the 4 uncontested nominees. Also notable: all of the uncontested nominees in open races were Republicans.


I have shown that candidates with uncontested primaries have seen more success in Massachusetts gubernatorial elections since 1960, but are contested primaries a cause or an effect? Do uncontested primaries increase the chance of general election success, or do weak candidates attract primary challengers? Or is the perceived advantage of an uncontested primary due to statistical noise? While the very small sample size makes it difficult to find a statistical correlation between contested primaries and general election success, it does make it possible to look at the specifics of the 8 open races and come to the following conclusions.

Republicans are often able to avoid contested primaries

The most notable thing about this list of open gubernatorial races is that all four of the candidates with uncontested primaries are Republicans. There is a strong tendency for the Massachusetts Republican Party to identify the candidate who is next in line, so to speak, and to coalesce around and defend that candidate from possible challenges. The most striking instance of this is Mitt Romney's ability to work behind the scenes with Massachusetts Republican Chairperson Kerry Healy to convince Acting Governor Jane Swift to defer to his candidacy for Governor in 2002. It became clear after the fact that an incredible amount of pressure was put on Acting Governor Swift to not run for governor because of her perceived weakness as a candidate.

The Republican strategy has seen fairly strong success, with a 75% win rate in open races. The one failure was the 2006 loss of Kerry Healey to Deval Patrick. It is possible that Healey was hurt when prospective Republican candidate Christy Mihos—encouraged by the party establishment to not run for the Republican nomination—decided to run as an independent. In addition, Deval Patrick ran a very strong grass roots campaign and Healey was unable to make a large enough dent in Patrick's lead by going negative late in the campaign. Even with Healey's loss, it is hard to argue with a 75% success rate.

Democrats rarely avoid contested primaries

In the 50 years from 1960 to 2010 there have only been two uncontested Democratic primaries for Governor: incumbent Governor Michael Dukakis in 1986 and incumbent Governor Deval Patrick in 2010. Even though Patrick officially avoided another Democratic on the primary ballot in 2010, Gale Ross challenged Deval Patrick for the nomination, and only dropped out after not receiving 15% of the vote at the Democratic Nominating Convention.

As a further indicator of the inevitability of multi-candidate Democratic gubernatorial primary races, it is worth noting that 3 of the 8 races that show up in the Races with No Incumbents table were actually situations where the incumbent Democratic governor was challenged and defeated in the primary!

  • In 1964 Francis Bellotti defeated incumbent Governor Endicott Peabody in the Democratic primary and went on to lose to Republican nominee John Volpe.
  • In 1978 Edward J. King defeated incumbent Governor Michael Dukakis in the Democratic primary and went on to win against Republican nominee Francis Hatch.
  • In the next election in 1982 former Governor Michael Dukakis defeated incumbent Governor Edward J. King in the Democratic primary and went on to win back the governorship against Republican nominee John Sears.


Based on history and the current political tea leaves, it is almost certain that there will be a contested primary in 2014 for the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts Governor. Given this inevitability, it is not surprising that Democratic leaders indicate a desire for a contested, but clean and issue-based primary race. It would not be unprecedented or surprising if the Massachusetts Republican Party identifies its chosen candidate and successfully maneuvers to make sure that the chosen Republican is uncontested in the primary, and this would seem to provide them with a better—but not assured—chances of success in the general election. That being said, the Massachusetts Republican party is in a state of disarray after major losses in the 2010 and 2012 statewide elections and they may not have the unity to successfully anoint a gubernatorial nominee without a primary fight.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A partisan ranking of Massachusetts House districts

Rankings, challenging districts, and redistricting shifts

While the success of a legislative candidate has a great deal to do with the qualifications, ideas, communication skills, and work ethic of the candidate, there are also fundamentals on the ground in terms of the candidate's party and the tendency of the voters in the district to vote for a Democratic or Republican, which can affect the outcome of a legislative race.

In the article How Democratic or Republican is my town? I constructed a partisan ranking for each Massachusetts town by averaging the percentage difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates in Governor, Senate and Presidential races from 2006 to 2012. In this article I look at how this partisan ranking breaks down across different geographic regions, namely the Massachusetts House of Representative districts. I will give a partisan ranking to each MA House district based on the partisan score of its municipalities, look at districts that may be challenging for incumbents of a particular party, and also examine the few districts that shifted significantly in partisan lean after 2012 redistricting changes.

It is difficult to directly calculate partisan ranking for House districts using town and city partisan scores because the districts do not fall directly on municipal boundaries. In addition, the Massachusetts Secretary of State does not release precinct-by-precinct results for statewide elections. In order to approximate the partisan ranking for a House district I do a weighted average for the district based on the number of precincts from each municipality in the district. This weighted average approximates a direct calculation using precinct-by-precinct voting numbers in cases where I checked, the exception being in large cities that contain many House districts. The weighted average ends up painting big cities like Boston with a very large brush, showing all districts completely contained within the city as having the same partisan ranking. That is not too concerning for my purposes since the Commonwealth's large cities like Boston are very Democratic. Even so, I may look at the Boston ward and precinct numbers directly in a later article.

Here are the calculated partisan rankings of each House district, both pre- and post-redistricting, sorted by the post-redistricting number. A positive score indicates a Democratic lean corresponding to the average percentage that a statewide Democratic candidate has beaten Republican's in that district, and a negative number indicates a corresponding Republic lean. The representative listed on each line is the person elected in November 2010, serving from January 2011 through January 2013. The most Democratic district by this ranking is the 25th Middlesex District currently served by retiring Rep. Alice Wolf of Cambridge and soon to be represented by Rep-Elect Marjorie Decker. The most Republican district is the 9th Norfolk District currently served by Rep. Dan Winslow of Norfolk.

Here is a searchable online spreadsheet with the same data and an interactive map:

Challenging Districts

While it goes without saying that Republicans have greater success in Republican-leaning districts and Democrats have greater success in Democratic-leaning districts, there are Republicans elected in Democratic-leaning districts and vice versa. The next table shows the four most Democratic-leaning districts that were represented by Republicans in the 2011-2012 session, and the four most Republican-leaning districts that were represented by Democrats. Of the four Republican's, only Rep. Shaunna O'Connell will return in 2013. Rep. Paul Adams of Andover lost a bid against Sen. Barry Finegold for the 2nd Essex State Senate seat, and Reps Steven Levy (Marlborough) and Richard Bastien (Gardner) lost to Democratic challengers Rep. Danielle Gregoire and Rep-elect Jonathan Zlotnik.  In the Republican-leaning districts on this list, all of the Democratic incumbents, Reps Calter, Miceli, Nyman, and Garry, were able to defeat Republican challengers on November 6.

Biggest Redistricting Shifts

The Democratic or Republican lean in most House districts did not change dramatically in the 2011 redistricting resulting from the 2010 U. S. Census. This is a testament to the even-handedness of the redistricting committee—it is clear that the committee resisted obvious gerrymandering of districts in favor of either party.

The following table lists the 11 districts that had a Democratic shift of more than 3%, and the 11 districts that had a Republican shift of more than -3%. Of the 22 districts in this table, only two districts changed partisan lean, both changing from leaning Democratic to leaning Republican. The 2nd Hampden District served by Democratic Rep. Brian Ashe of Longmeadow went from a +4.22% Democratic lean to a -4.00% Republican lean—even so, Rep. Ashe was able to defeat Republican challenger Marie Angelides 57% to 43%.  The 12th Bristol District served by Republican Rep. Keiko Orrall of Lakeville shifted by over 28% from a +17.22% Democratic lean to a -10.89% Republican lean, most likely a factor in Rep. Orrall's win over Democrat Roger Brunelle in a presidential election year that was favorable to Massachusetts Democrats.

It is clear that the Democratic or Republican lean in a legislative district is only one factor in the success of a particular candidate, but these rankings provide a convenient benchmark to evaluate how strong a candidate needs to be to overcome the partisan lean of a district's voters.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

How Democratic or Republican is my town?

A partisan ranking of MA municipalities from P-Town to Lynnfield

We often hear people say things like "Central Massachusetts is getting more conservative" and "Western Massachusetts is really blue" when discussing elections and politics. But what can we say from a quantitative point of view about the Democratic or Republican tendencies of various geographic areas of the Commonwealth?

While it is possible to look at the partisan voter registration records in each municipality, Massachusetts allows voters to register as unenrolled, and a majority of residents now register without party affiliation. A better gauge of the Democratic/Republican breakdown in a geographic area is the difference between the number of Democratic and Republic votes in actual elections.

I have collected the results of the statewide elections for Governor, Senator and President from 2006 through 2012 and averaged the difference between the percentage of the vote won by the Democrat, and the percentage of the vote won by the Republican. The results give an estimate of the Democratic/Republican lean of a municipality, with a large positive number indicating a larger percentage of Democratic votes, and a negative number indicating a greater percentage of Republic votes.

First the map:

We can see Western Massachusetts, the Boston Metropolitan Area and other urban areas, the tip of Cape Code, and the Islands show strong Democratic tendencies in statewide elections. Central Massachusetts, parts of the North Shore, and Southern Massachusetts—from Tolland in the west to Dennis in the east—are much more Republican.

Looking at a ranking of municipalities from most Democratic to most Republican we also see that, while there are only slightly more municipalities that have a Democratic lean (186 vs. 165), the margins are much higher on the Democratic side. The most Democratic town in Massachusetts by our measure is Provincetown with Democratic candidates receiving 73% more of the vote on average, while in the most Republican town of Lynnfield, a statewide Republican candidate will only receive 28% more of the vote than her Democratic rival, on average. The transitions between more Democratic and more Republican areas are fairly smooth with islands of blue explained primarily by population density.

There are plenty of Republican-leaning towns in Massachusetts, but there is still a considerable Democratic slant for statewide candidates in the Commonwealth. A subsequent article will examine what these statewide municipal rankings imply about various Massachusetts legislative districts.

  • Searchable spreadsheet with percentages and rankings
  • Full map and data set

    And an alphabetical listing by municipality name:

    Tuesday, November 13, 2012

    Warren realizes largest gains in working-class cities

    Martha Coakley's loss to Scott Brown in the January 19, 2010 special election to replace Senator Ted Kennedy was a shock to the Massachusetts political establishment. Scott Brown's dynamic campaign seemed to come from nowhere and catapulted him past Attorney General Coakley by winning favor with key Democratic constituencies including working-class families and rank-and-file union voters.

    The Massachusetts Democratic Party vowed never to be caught napping again, and Elizabeth Warren's 54% to 46% victory over Senator Scott Brown on November 6, 2012 was a testament to that resolve. Conventional wisdom and polling results suggest that Warren's victory was due in part to a strong message of working-class populism and a fear of a Republican-controlled U. S. Senate, combined with an unprecedented ground game coordinated by the Warren campaign and the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

    We examine the effect of Warren's campaign message and ground game through a municipal and geographic lens, highlighting towns and cities where Warren showed the largest gains compared to Coakley's 2010 results.

    The Map

    To examine the geographical and municipal changes from the 2010 special election and the 2012 presidential election we have color coded this map to show the percentage of the vote obtained by Martha Coakley in 2012, subtracted from the percentage of the vote obtained by Elizabeth Warren in 2012. The white-shaded municipalities are places where Martha Coakley out-performed Elizabeth Warren, and the darker the color blue, the higher the percentage Warren showed over Coakley.

    Most of the municipalities where Elizabeth Warren showed the biggest percentage improvement are working-class cities like Fitchburg, Worcester, Springfield, Revere, New Bedford, Lowell, and Lawrence. Here is the chart of the top 21 municipalities where Elizabeth Warren outperformed Martha Coakley by the largest vote percentage:

    Elizabeth Warren was able to realize 10-15% improvements in all of these municipalities, even moving from a losing position for Coakley in cities like Revere, Lowell, and Fitchburg, to a winning position for Warren in 2012.

    It is striking that these large gains were realized throughout the Commonwealth, from Springfield and Holyoke in Western Massachusetts, to Fitchburg and Worcester in Central Massachusetts, Lowell and Lawrence in the Merrimack Valley, Lynn and Revere on the North Shore, to Brockton, Fall River, and New Bedford in the Southeast.

    The key similarity between all these communities is their working-class demographics and the much larger voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election. The Warren campaign and the Massachusetts Democratic Party were obviously successful in communicating Warren's message and also getting their voters to the polls on November 6th. The ability of Elizabeth Warren to realize large gains in working-class cities was a large reason for her comfortable margin of victory.

    Full dataset and map