Massachusetts may be the most liberal state in the entire country, a reliably blue redoubt whose Legislature has been ruled by Democrats since the 1950s and where the occasional moderate governor is the sole concession to Republicans.
And yet, Donald Trump found surprisingly friendly terrain in the Bay State, garnering 49 percent of the Republican vote and besting all rivals by double-digits. It was his best performance in any of the 30 state nominating contests held in February and March.
Now, winning among Massachusetts Republicans can be like getting a “world’s best dad” mug from your kids; Sure it’s nice, but your supporters are too few and not at all representative of public opinion. Yet that critique may be too easy, given that Trump got more votes — and a larger share of total primary votes — than hometown former governor Mitt Romney could claim in 2008.
When you look carefully at where Trump did best, and which groups provided the most support, two things stand out: his success among less-educated residents and the importance of race — or what political scientists call “racial resentment.”
Who propelled Trump in Massachusetts?
Trump’s support doesn’t always come from the people and places you might expect.
As an example, there’s no clear link with household income. Trump did well in relatively wealthy places like Lynnfield and North Reading, and just as well in several of the state’s poorer communities, like Warren and Webster.
But education levels, they mattered a lot. Better-educated communities showed much less interest in Trump, with more bachelor’s degrees translating pretty directly into fewer votes. Here’s the picture of all 351 towns in Massachusetts.
Does racism play a role?
Racism is a tough charge to prove, not least because it’s impossible to know what’s happening in people’s heads. Are they acting on racist impulses? Unconscious bias? Reasonable and just beliefs that happen to have unanticipated racial impacts?
What we can say about the Trump phenomenon in Massachusetts is that race was a factor. Even at the most basic level, there’s a direct link between the number of non-Hispanic white men in a given community, and Trump’s share of the vote.
Add class to the mix and the connection looks even stronger. All across the state, Trump’s surest support came from towns with a small but substantial white working class — places like Bridgewater and Saugus, where whites earning less than $65,000 made up 20 to 40 percent of the population.
When this cohort is bigger than 40 percent, the effect disappears. That suggests a kind of Trump sweet-spot, where his support depends on the existence of a white working class that is big enough to matter but small enough to be outnumbered.
This may help explain why Trump did so much better in Massachusetts than in nearby Vermont and New Hampshire. Those states are less diverse overall, meaning fewer communities where white working class voters would be a minority.
More generally, the idea that Trump does particularly well with whites who feel embattled has gained purchase among some political scientists. They note the strong correlation between support for Trump and “racial resentment” — not racism per se, but a looser feeling that minority groups have an unfair advantage and get more than they deserve.
A standard panel of questions is used to measure racial resentment — including questions like “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve. Agree/Disagree?”
And by this measure Massachusetts is not a very racist state. In fact, it has one of the lowest levels of racial resentment, according to Harvard Professor Stephen Ansolabehere, who oversees a nationwide survey that includes questions on racial resentment.
But, there is a big gap between Democrats and Republicans. Whereas the majority of Massachusetts democrats have low or middling levels of racial resentment, Republicans are clustered at the highest levels of resentment, judging from information in the 2012 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project.
Again, this doesn’t qualify as proof of racism, just a sign that white Republicans in Massachusetts are quite skeptical about whether they’re getting a fair shake, relative to other races.
Can Trump ride these groups to victory?
Probably not. Massachusetts hasn’t gone red since Ronald Reagan — and Dwight Eisenhower is the only other Republican to have captured the state since the roaring twenties.
More concretely, Trump’s appeal among less-educated voters would seem to cut against his chances, since Massachusetts is the most highly-educated state in the entire country.
And yet, his success with the state’s white working class could be a base on which to build. All told, whites with earnings below $65,000 constitute about half the population of the state. Were Trump able to turn their already-solid support into something deeper, it might make for a competitive race.
As of early May, he trailed Hillary Clinton in Massachusetts by over 20 points.
More from Evan Horowitz: