Massachusetts had once been a breeding ground for presidents. But after Mitt Romney’s failure to unseat Barack Obama, it now looks more like a graveyard for White House aspirations.
Romney on Tuesday became the third straight major-party nominee from the Bay State, after John Kerry in 2004 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, to lose his bid for the presidency.
“The fact is Massachusetts is not a particularly good training ground for running for president in the last decade or so,” said Elaine Kamarck, a professor of public policy at Harvard University and a former White House aide to President Clinton.
The Massachusetts electorate is more highly educated than voters in much of the country, Kamarck noted, and often embraces brainy candidates, even when they lack personal warmth. The same qualities that win here can make a national candidate appear “snobby and distant,” Kamarck said.
Such was the criticism of Romney, whose self-styled image of the “CEO governor” persuaded voters in this famously blue state to elect a Republican in 2002.
Romney is not a Bay State native, but his resume is classic Massachusetts: business and law degrees from Harvard, success in a white-collar profession. Romney founded the Boston-based private equity firm Bain Capital in 1984.
Romney’s opponents during presidential runs in 2008 and 2012 successfully painted him as out of touch with the middle class.
Dukakis, like Romney, was a noted numbers guy who declared in his speech to the Democratic National Convention that “this election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence.” Dukakis’s competence won him three gubernatorial races in Massachusetts but did not inspire the rest of the country to pick him over the affable George H.W. Bush. (Bush was born in Massachusetts, but his family moved out of state soon after.)
Bush’s son George W. used Kerry’s affinity for sailing and windsurfing to portray the senator as an embodiment of Massachusetts elitism.
“None of the three were great at sitting down in a diner and just chewing the fat about last night’s game,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University.
Kamarck added that Massachusetts is “a very secular state” and that “our politicians are not accustomed [campaigning] to religious people.”
“We don’t talk about Jesus in our lives, even if we have Jesus in our lives,” she said.
Even Romney, perceived as the most devoutly religious of the three, struggled to win over Christians, who looked at his Mormon faith with raised eyebrows.
Massachusetts wasn’t always jinxed. Two of the nation’s first six presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, hailed from Massachusetts and served in the Legislature and in Congress.
Calvin Coolidge held almost every elected office a person could hold in Massachusetts before winning the White House. The Republican was a city councilor and mayor in Northampton, served in both houses of the Legislature, and was lieutenant governor and governor.
John F. Kennedy, elected president in 1960, represented Massachusetts in the House and Senate.
But now, “Massachusetts has become something of a backwater,” said Thomas Whalen, a professor of social science at Boston University and a presidential scholar. “We’ve sort of seen the passing of a generation of great Massachusetts politicians, and there’s really no clear person to pass the torch to.”
To whoever the next presidential candidate from Massachusetts might be, Kamarck offered some advice: “Spend a lot of time in the South, go hunting, and stay away from fancy sailboats and windsurfing.”