There will be no bunting hung aspirationally in Copley Square, no promise of exultant fireworks over Boston Harbor. Election Day 2016 will likely dawn calmly in the Commonwealth, and Election Night will provide suspense only from afar.
Long a national leader in churning out formidable presidential candidates, Massachusetts is on the verge of a drought, one that could incite a crisis of confidence in a state that has long prided itself on its political mettle. Top Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Deval Patrick have foresworn interest in the looming campaign, leaving no local to toe the starting line for the 2016 race that has already begun.
Bereft of a favorite-son (or daughter) contender, the Bay State can expect some measure of sidelining. But campaign veterans say the state’s political infrastructure is such that it will retain outsized influence over the 2016 campaign: with its rarified status as a campaign-cash goldmine, its vaunted lineup of native political operatives, and its proximity to New Hampshire and its first-in-the-nation primary.
“Massachusetts has so much money now that it’s obviously going to play a key role,” said Stuart Stevens, a top strategist for Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns.
In every presidential election since 2000, the state has proffered a major contender, including two nominees, and is the only one in the union to have produced four men who won major-party nominations since 1960. It is an unmatched record of producing the best and brightest befitting a people who fashion themselves just that.
Only California and Texas, far larger states with five apiece, have outperformed Massachusetts in that time, and California’s tally includes Nixon three times, while the Lone Star State counted on a pair of Bushes, twice each. Those two states, of course, have a better winning percentage.
But even absent a hometown candidate, Massachusetts’s record of political generosity will lure hopefuls here.
The nation’s 14th-most populous state wrote checks to presidential candidates at the sixth-most generous rate in 2012 and seventh-most in 2008, according to Federal Election Commission data.
And among its chief exports is the operative class, the political specialists who rise with successful politicians, their skills honed by the state’s unique brand of electioneering.
“Massachusetts produces, certainly more operatives per capita than any other state in the country — it’s pretty remarkable,” said David Plouffe, one of the masterminds behind Obama’s political rise, who himself got his start managing former representative John Olver’s campaign in 1992. “You’re still going to have the presidential campaigns populated from a lot of people from Massachusetts.”
Part of the state’s success in sending operatives to work in the national arena owes to the fact that so many of its candidates have run on that level. Local candidates naturally gravitate to strategists with whom they are comfortable and candidates from elsewhere are then drawn to the experience those aides have had on a national stage.
Indeed, when Hillary Rodham Clinton wanted last year to plot her potential 2016 bid, she turned to three Democratic strategists with Bay State roots, Jill Alper, Charlie Baker (not the Republican running for governor this year), and Michael Whouley, all of the Boston-based Dewey Square Group. And if Vice President Joe Biden decides to run, he’ll probably lean on longtime confidants Larry Rasky and John Marttila, both Boston-based Democratic strategists.
Many of those who cut their teeth on Romney’s 2012 campaign, working out of his North End headquarters, will be in the 2016 Republican primary mix. Rand Paul, the freshman senator from Kentucky and likely presidential candidate, recently met in Boston with several top Romney advisers, including Beth Myers, Bob White, and Ron Kaufman. The meeting was put together by Spencer Zwick, who was Romney’s national finance chairman and is seen as a good get for any presidential contender.
“I think it starts because we have had a number of candidates who have sought the presidency,” said John Sasso, architect of Michael S. Dukakis’s 1988 campaign and a key adviser to John Kerry in 2004. “Also, we have, shall we say, intense campaigns. And there’s a certain level of training with that [that] helps in national campaigns.”
Ultimately, the amalgam of campaign finance largesse and a cultural heritage that treats politics as sport, guarantees Massachusetts a relevancy in presidential campaigns that far outweighs its Electoral College presence for years to come.
That is, though, not the same as serving as a springboard, a role to which the state has grown historically accustomed.
Beginning in 1960, the year John F. Kennedy became the first Massachusetts product to win the presidency since Calvin Coolidge, who was born in Vermont but governed here, national parties have bestowed nominations on four Bay Staters.
Massachusetts also played a starring role in 1988, the only time two general-election candidates born in the same county, with George H.W. Bush born — though not raised — in Milton and Dukakis from Brookline. Norfolk County, in fact, has been dubbed the “County of Presidents,” birthplace of Kennedy and Bush, as well as John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
That historical tally does not include Massachusetts candidates who either came close to the nomination or exerted outsize influence on the contours of various campaigns, such as Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. “walking for president” and winning the New Hampshire GOP primary in 1964, or Edward M. Kennedy casting a long shadow over Democratic primaries for years before succumbing to Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Paul Tsongas, who won seven states before Bill Clinton locked up the 1992 party nod. Still, while the state has produced a bumper crop of presidential contenders, they have struggled to win the ultimate prize, often being too easily cast of out of touch New Englanders who struggle to connect with heartland voters.
The role of influencer seems to be one the state’s most prominent politicians will play in 2016. Romney has stepped blithely into the role of Republican elder and powerbroker. Warren commands much of the grassroots energy on the Democrats’ left wing, more so, some say, than Hillary Clinton. Scott Brown has cast flirtatious overtures in Iowa, where the nation’s first caucuses are held, but opted to run this year for Senate in New Hampshire.
And Patrick, who delivered one of the most strident speeches at the Democratic National Convention two years ago, will enjoy lofty perches on every running-mate shortlist right up until the precise moment he does not. The governor has continued to cultivate his national profile, making frequent appearances on national news shows. Last month, he became perhaps the most prominent Democrat to voice such clear misgivings about Clinton’s potential run, calling the air of “inevitability” around her “off-putting to the average voter.”
It’s just the type of doubt-stoking one might expect to hear from an underdog candidate looking to chip away at a frontrunner’s lead. But Patrick, whose relations with the Clintons were complicated by his endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008, has closed the door firmly on 2016.
“The question is what is to come?” Plouffe said. “You’ve got Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick — each of them, it’s not like they’re retiring their ambitions.”
Some local veterans of the campaign trail are not ready to relinquish hope that 2016 will be devoid of a Bay State politician. Kaufman, a longtime Republican operative who has advised Romney and worked in George H.W. Bush’s White House, made the case — with tongue only slightly in cheek — that 2016 could become a face-off between Romney and Kerry.
“If Mrs. Clinton doesn’t run, I think Kerry would think about it. . . . You could make a case in an outside possibility you could end up with Mitt running,” Kaufman said.
“Theoretically,” he added, somewhat wistfully. “You could make a case for both those guys.”
Indeed, unlikely as that pairing would be, the cause endures.