Republican Party's problems persist in New England

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To be sure, Massachusetts has long been a Democratic bastion in presidential politics; with the exception of the two Eisenhower and two Reagan elections, Democratic candidates have carried the state in every presidential race since 1928. But Republicans have often proved competitive in elections for state-level offices in recent years, despite a perennially steep numerical disadvantage in the party registration of voters and a state electorate that is among the most liberal in the nation. When Romney was elected to the governorship in 2002, he became the fourth consecutive Republican to hold the office since the retirement of Michael Dukakis in 1990. Like his three immediate predecessors, Romney initially positioned himself as a pragmatic moderate who broke with the national Republican Party on certain social and cultural issues, especially legalized abortion, and who was willing to compromise with Democrats in the state legislature — most notably on the state’s universal health care coverage law, the first in the nation and the centerpiece of Romney’s legislative accomplishments as governor.

By his final year in office, however, Romney had begun to move toward the ideological right in preparation for a national presidential campaign, jeopardizing his popularity in liberal-leaning Massachusetts. When he publicly announced his retirement as governor in early 2006, Romney’s job approval rating had dropped to 46 percent, and several surveys measured it at less than 40 percent during his final months in office. As a result, Romney-the-presidential-candidate has been unable to counteract the state’s fundamental pro-Democratic tilt in by drawing on any strong residual personal appeal from Romney-the-governor’s tenure in office; one recent poll found that just 42 percent of Massachusetts residents approved in retrospect of his gubernatorial performance, while only 23 percent considered Romney — who grew up in Michigan and also owns properties in New Hampshire and California—to be a fellow Bay Stater.

But even a more moderate, and more personally popular, Republican candidate would find it very difficult to loosen the Democrats’ hold on Massachusetts in contemporary presidential elections. While the state’s historically Democratic tilt was once primarily a reflection of its large population of Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants, this ancestral partisan alignment is reinforced today by more recent changes in the social coalitions of the two major parties. As American voters become more divided along religious lines, the low proportion of evangelical Christians — and relatively high proportion of secular voters — within the Massachusetts electorate further hampers Republican attempts to compete for its electoral votes. The Democratic Party’s recent gains in allegiance among the well-educated sector of the mass public also work in its favor in Massachusetts, which ranks first in the nation in the share of its population holding a graduate degree.

Because of these trends, Massachusetts has become less politically distinctive over time in comparison to the rest of the Northeast, which has moved steadily toward the Democrats in presidential elections since the 1980s in apparent response to the increasing conservatism — especially social conservatism — of the national Republican Party. With the exception of New Hampshire, where Obama is favored but Romney remains competitive, the 11 states from Maine to Maryland are now considered safe territory for Democratic presidential candidates, with the electoral college giving neither side a strategic incentive for mounting an active campaign to persuade or mobilize voters. While we in Massachusetts have a highly competitive, well-funded Senate race this year to keep us engaged (and entertained), the 2012 presidential election was over here before it even began.

Hopkins is assistant professor of political science at Boston College.