Two of America’s fiercest liberal redoubts are expected to vote for Donald Trump in next week’s Republican primaries. Polls in Massachusetts show Trump ahead by 20 percentage points, and his lead in Vermont seems nearly as big.
If those numbers have you wondering why such darkly blue states aren’t pulling for self-styled moderate and mainstream candidates like John Kasich or Marco Rubio, here’s why: Republican primaries draw a teeny minority of voters from a limited fringe of the political spectrum. It doesn’t really matter whether the state as a whole is liberal or conservatives; all is decided by a small slice of primary voters. And while Republican primary voters in Massachusetts and Vermont do sometimes reach for more moderate candidates, often they hew closer to the national mood.
What is more, Trump gives New England Republicans a good reason to follow the crowd. He’s not hawking evangelical purity or high conservative ideology — two commodities that haven’t sold well in this part of the country. His surest support comes from embattled, white, working-class voters, who are as common here as anywhere.
Aren’t Massachusetts and Vermont extremely liberal?
Yes, they are. But only if you’re talking about the state as a whole, and we’re not.
Republican primaries involve a very small subset of very unrepresentative voters.
Take Massachusetts: In 2012, more than 3 million Massachusetts residents voted in the Presidential election. The state’s Republican primary drew barely a tenth of that turnout, with just 370,000 votes.
Those 370,000 voters are hardly reflective of the Bay State at large. For one, they’re virtually all white; 98 percent of Republican primary voters in 2012 were white, compared with 86 percent of voters in the presidential election.
Also — not surprisingly — Republican primary voters are much more conservative than the average Massachusetts voter. In 2012, half of them said they were either “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative,” and nearly as many said they supported the tea party. By contrast, at the general election in November, only about 1 in 5 voters called themselves conservative.
Put these together and there’s a clear reason why Republican primary results don’t always match the state’s liberal reputation: Liberals don’t vote.
The same pattern holds for Vermont as well as New York, where there were nearly 7 million voters at the 2012 general election and only 190,000 in the Republican primary, a ratio of 35 to 1.
Don’t Massachusetts Republicans sometimes opt for moderates?
In elections past, Massachusetts and Vermont Republicans have occasionally broken in a more moderate direction.
The 2000 contest between George W. Bush and John McCain provides a good example. That year, virtually all of New England backed the more independent-minded McCain, giving him an unusual regional stronghold.
Earlier, in 1980, Massachusetts was one of a very few states to resist the Reagan revolution, handing more primary votes to both George H. W. Bush and the determinedly centrist John Anderson.
At other times, however, liberal states have followed the national trend. In 1988, Massachusetts and Vermont voted with most everyone else for the elder Bush. Eight years later, they did the same for Bob Dole.
Why aren’t Massachusetts Republicans breaking for a moderate this time around?
Even if Massachusetts and Vermont Republicans don’t always break for moderates, they do sometimes. So why not this time? Why isn’t 2016 shaping up like 2000 or 1980, when moderates found a rare path to victory in liberal New England?
The answer may have something to do with the unique political coalition behind Donald Trump.
One reason New England Republicans chose McCain in 2000 is because Bush was emphasizing his deep religious convictions and his down-home Texas persona, neither a major asset in the Northeast.
Trump is a different breed of politician. His charismatic celebrity-tough-guy image and staunch anti-immigrant message have helped him build a new kind of political appeal, particularly among working-class whites.
And working-class whites are a big part of the Republican base in this part of the country. The independent MassINC polling group estimates that more than half of likely Republican primary voters in Massachusetts earn under $100,000, while about 40 percent lack a college degree.
Among these voters, Trump is virtually untouchable, with a lead of some 30 percentage points. That’s more than enough to ensure a blowout victory over his nearest-but-not-very-near moderate and mainstream rivals, even in famously liberal Massachusetts.
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