The 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary in Massachusetts featured a close race between Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, and Bernie Sanders, from the neighboring state of Vermont. After heavy campaigning in the state by both candidates, Clinton ended up winning by approximately 17,000 votes, or 1.4 percent. But how did she do it? How did a state with a well-deserved reputation for liberalism, and that borders Sanders’ home state (where he received 86 percent of the vote) go to the more moderate (but still progressive) candidate in the race? Where in the state did Hillary and Bernie do well, and why did they do well in those places? Those are the questions that I hope to answer here.
First, here is the overall map of the results (to enlarge any maps here, right-click on them, open them in a new tab, and change the width. The width can be increased up to 2400):
As these maps show, Hillary’s main concentrations of support were cities, and some Boston suburbs, particularly the wealthier ones west of Boston. Hillary’s strength in cities was largely bolstered by her very strong performance among minority voters – the precinct results in Boston and Springfield show clearly that Hillary performed much better in the areas of those cities with large minority populations than in the areas that are mostly white (though she won many of the mostly-white neighborhoods as well). Hillary’s best town in Massachusetts (and the only town in the state where she received over 70 percent) was Lawrence, which is about 2/3 Hispanic. The trend of wealthy suburbs voting for Hillary can be seen clearly not just in the towns immediately west of Boston (such as Newton, Wellesley, Weston, and Lexington), but also on the coast, where the wealthier towns of Marblehead (east of Salem) and Duxbury (north of Plymouth) stand out, and in towns such as Andover and Longmeadow, which are generally better-off than their neighboring suburban towns. Hillary’s strength with wealthy suburban voters can be seen in the following map, which compares Hillary’s performance in 2016 to her performance in 2008. Hillary won the 2008 primary by a substantial margin, but with a very different electoral coalition – Obama did much better in the wealthy suburbs in 2008. Thus, the only areas where Hillary improved on her 2008 performance are minority-heavy cities (Boston, Springfield, Brockton) and wealthy towns (pretty much everywhere else where she improved):
Hillary has performed very strongly with minority voters in practically every state this primary season, so it is no surprise that they would go strongly for her in Massachusetts. Wealthy voters are more likely to 1) be establishment Democrats and 2) be opposed to socialism, so their support for Hillary also makes sense. However, Hillary also performed better than many people expected in college towns such as Cambridge, Waltham, and Williamstown. Hillary’s win in Williamstown, in particular, was surprising because not only is it dominated by a college, and not only is it heavily white, but it even borders Vermont. This is more evidence of a pattern that we first saw in New Hampshire – that elite private colleges are voting differently in this primary than public colleges and universities. Consistent with that pattern, Amherst (home to the University of Massachusetts) voted heavily for Bernie, as did the precinct in the town of Dartmouth that is home to UMass-Dartmouth.
Bernie’s strongest areas in Massachusetts were small rural towns, working-class and middle-class white suburbs, and hipster-ish urban areas. Bernie scored 70 percent in Franklin County, a rural, heavily white, very liberal county that contains Greenfield. Most of Bernie’s best towns in the state were in Franklin County, on or near its border with Vermont. Bernie also did very well in neighboring Hampshire County, just south of Franklin, which contains Northampton and Amherst. While Bernie did do well in the Five Colleges area of Hampshire County, he didn’t do any better there than in the surrounding rural towns. Bernie also swept the rural areas of Worcester County, which are trending Republican. In Eastern Massachusetts, Bernie did well in the Lowell suburbs as well as the entire northeast coast from Gloucester to the New Hampshire border. He also won most of the suburban/rural towns of Bristol and Plymouth counties. Finally, while Hillary won most of the inner suburbs of Boston, Bernie won Somerville, which has become a haven for hipsters. He also won the Allston/Brighton neighborhood of Boston.
There is another interesting pattern going on here. Excluding the four westernmost counties of Massachusetts, the areas where Bernie performed well roughly overlap with the areas where Donald Trump performed well in the Republican primary: heavily white, rural and suburban, working-class and middle-class (but not upper-middle-class) areas of eastern Massachusetts. Why would Bernie and Trump, who are running very different campaigns and are largely considered political polar opposites, perform well in the same areas? Much of it has to do with the fact that both Bernie and Trump are running as outsiders. Working-class and lower-middle-class whites, regardless of their political affiliation, are substantially angrier at “the establishment” and “politics as usual” than richer voters, and the simplistic, populist solutions to economic issues that both Bernie and Trump are offering (“Break up the banks!” “Build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it!”) are appealing to those voters. Meanwhile, upper-class voters, who are less angry at the state of the economy, are turned off by these sorts of appeals.
Finally, let’s take a look at turnout. Turnout in the Massachusetts primary was quite high, and in fact easily comparable to the 2008 primary. Here is a map comparing the turnout between those two elections. Towns colored blue had higher turnout in 2016 than in 2008, while towns colored red had higher turnout in 2008.
What patterns can we deduce from this map? First, contrary to what many people have been saying, it is clear that Bernie has inspired many people who don’t usually vote in primaries to vote for him this time. Almost every town in the Bernie strongholds of Hampshire and Franklin counties saw substantially higher turnout this year than in 2008, and elsewhere, the towns of Salem and Somerville, both of which Bernie won, also saw large increases in turnout compared to 2008. However, that trend goes both ways, since Boston and Lawrence, both of which Hillary won by large margins, also saw substantially higher turnout in 2016. Many of the areas with lower Democratic primary turnout in 2016, however, confirm a trend that I first noticed in the New Hampshire primary. Those areas, including Hampden County, southern Worcester County, the Fall River/New Bedford area, and the suburbs of Lowell and Lawrence, are all areas where Donald Trump performed very well in the Republican primary. Massachusetts has a semi-closed primary, which means that registered independents (who outnumber registered Democrats in Massachusetts) can vote in whichever primary they want. Thus, the logical conclusion to draw for these areas is that a substantial number of independent voters, who voted in the Democratic primary in 2008; voted in the Republican primary, for Trump, in 2016. This same pattern also existed in the working-class towns in New Hampshire. Thus, Trump actually is getting some noticeable crossover support from a particular type of independent voter. That doesn’t mean that he won’t be crushed in Massachusetts this fall, however.
I hope I was able to answer any questions that you might have had about the Massachusetts primary! Any questions, comments, thoughts, or ideas can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.