The Trump effect happened in Massachusetts, too
The same working-class voters who upended expectations in the Midwest and carried Donald Trump into the White House also turned out in Massachusetts. And while their turnout didn’t bring Trump any closer to victory in the solidly liberal state, it gave the first hint of a possible long-term realignment in local politics.
A Globe analysis of the state’s election results showed a reddening of the state’s western counties, including a suite of rural towns that made the jump from Democrat to Republican on Tuesday. At the same time, the more diverse tract between Boston and Worcester moved in the other direction, handing their votes to Hillary Clinton in numbers that President Obama never enjoyed.
For a Republican candidate, Trump did unusually well in Massachusetts communities with significant numbers of working-class whites, but did not win votes among more highly educated voters. The results serve as a reminder that Massachusetts — while one of the most liberal states in the country — is not immune to the political forces that reshaped the electoral map Tuesday.
“The question that emerges is if this election was a one-off or represents a fundamental realignment of the two political parties,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University. “If it is a realignment, we can expect to see Western Mass. move toward the Republican Party, but since other areas are moving toward the Democratic Party, there might not be a lot of net gain for the GOP.”
This underlying shift is hard to detect in the overall statewide vote, which favored Clinton over Trump, 61 percent to 34 percent. But while Trump’s final tally is very much in line with Mitt Romney’s presidential statewide total of 38 percent in 2012 and John McCain’s 36 percent in 2008, a closer look at Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns shows Trump attracted a different kind of Republican voter — poorer and less educated whites.
Across the state, Romney and McCain performed like virtual twins; in town after town, Romney’s totals in his 2012 presidential run were within 2-3 points of McCain’s totals. Even Scott Brown, who emphasized a populist message for his first Senate run in 2010, appealed to this same contingent of voters who backed Romney and McCain.
Not so this time around: Trump’s results varied much more widely from his predecessors, Tuesday’s results showed. In some places he did much better, sometimes much worse, but overall there was a surge of volatility.
In some Western Massachusetts towns, such as Savoy and Erving, Trump outperformed Romney by more than 15 percentage points. In the towns of Russell and Chester, the shift was enough to turn Obama-supporting locales into Trump-supporting ones.
The opposite was true across the wealthy Boston suburbs; in such places as Weston, Wellesley, and Sudbury, Trump ended the night 15 points below Romney’s totals in 2012.
Why these big swings? The data suggest that was not due to turnout. Election Day totals show Trump did not bring out more people to the polls than other GOP nominees, not even in towns where he performed unexpectedly well.
Instead, these shifts in political geography can mostly be credited to the changing preferences of working class white voters — a mirror of the national trend.
“The same dynamics of the election between Clinton and Trump that you saw nationally played out here in Massachusetts,” said Tim Vercellotti, the director of the Western New England University Polling Institute. “There are pockets, especially in Western Massachusetts, were voters are feeling really disaffected by the economy, but there just aren’t enough of them to make a real dent politically.”
Cities and towns with a large population of working- class whites broke strongly in Trump’s direction, according to a tabulation of election results and demographic data from the American Communities Survey by the US Census. Conversely, those packed with college graduates pushed in the other direction, abandoning their onetime support for Republicans and filling in ballots for Clinton.
This one variable — the size of the non-college-educated, non-Hispanic white population — explains 70 percent of the difference between Romney’s results and Trump’s results in Massachusetts.
Local political analysts say this could be the first stage of a possible geographic realignment, where the once reliably blue western part of the state begins veering red — a reflection of the working-class white communities there.
“What Donald Trump did was help show some potential for political realignment in the state by exposing that certain demographics exist in traditional Democratic towns that Republicans may be able to target,” said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group. “But it is important to keep in mind that the Trump path is the way to lose Massachusetts by 27 points.”
Massachusetts has one of the best educated and wealthiest populations in the country, which sets a stark limit to white working-class communities as a voting bloc.
Even if Republicans built on Trump’s strength with non-college-educated whites, that demographic might simply be too small to anchor a winning coalition.
Indeed, one reason Trump couldn’t compete statewide is that while he certainly drew new support in rural areas, the liberal opposition around Greater Boston became more secure, with cities and towns from Newton to Framingham moving decisively to the left, election results show.
For Republicans, even if the shift in voting patterns never gathers enough strength to swing the state, its impact on Massachusetts’ rural areas could make a big splash in local politics and at the State House.
“If there could be any impact it might be in State House races that can take advantage of these emerging Republican areas, but there simply isn’t the population out there to make a big impact,” Berry said. “This is not the next Shays’ Rebellion.”