Election upsets reveal new city voting trends
White conservative voter influence seen waning
After the polls closed last Tuesday and the results began rolling in, the story of two upstart challengers defeating the city’s two longest-serving city councilors dominated news coverage —as well it should have.
Back in April when Andrea Joy Campbell announced her challenge to the 32-year reign of District 4 Councilor Charles Yancey, many political insiders viewed the bid as a long shot. And when Anissa Essaibi-George announced her second bid for an at-large seat on the council, pundits said the low turnout in a non-mayoral election year would favor incumbents.
So when Campbell and George won decisive victories, with the latter bumping 19-year veteran Stephen Murphy in a five-way race for the four at-large seats, the news media zeroed in on themes including the growing clout of women in local politics and the generational divide between the youthful campaigns of the upstarts and those of the older candidates they defeated.
Another compelling story emerges in the voting patterns that for the last few election cycles have revealed a city in the midst of significant political change. For the third straight electoral cycle, at-large Councilor Ayanna Pressley was the top vote-getter, relying on a base that extends from Hyde Park through Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury.
While candidates of color have traditionally relied on that center city electoral base, the outcome has flipped from a decade ago, when Michael Flaherty repeatedly led in citywide ballots relying on the traditionally Irish American voting base on the periphery of the city in West Roxbury, the Neponset and Savin Hill sections of Dorchester, South Boston and Charlestown.
The center city electoral base of blacks, Latinos, Asians and progressive-leaning whites, which electoral strategists have referred to as the hole in the donut, has grown at the same time the white electoral base on the periphery has declined. Nowhere has the expansion of voters of color been more palpable than in Hyde Park, the neighborhood that once served as Murphy’s electoral base.
“There has been a major influx of folks from the Caribbean, African Americans and Latinos who were priced out of Jamaica Plain,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who has campaigned extensively throughout Boston and Suffolk County. “The demographics have changed dramatically.”
In Ward 18, which corresponds closely to Hyde Park’s boundaries, Pressley won with 34 percent of the vote, garnering 4,021 votes — the highest total of any ward in the city. Flaherty and Murphy came in with 19 percent of the vote, garnering 3,190 and 3,116 respectively.
The vote totals in Hyde Park closely resembled those in Roxbury’s Ward 12 and Dorchester’s Ward 14, wards where Pressley garnered 36 percent of the vote and Murphy came in last with 12 and 13 percent of the vote.
In the wards and precincts that Irish American politicians have traditionally used as an electoral base, including Wards 6 and 7 in South Boston, Flaherty held a commanding lead. He garnered 33 percent of the vote in Ward 6 and 30 percent in 7 for a total of 3,550 votes. Pressley brought up the rear in those wards with just 14 percent in Ward 6 and 12 percent in Ward 7 for a total of 1,549 votes from Southie.
While the voting patterns in South Boston have changed little over the decades — Irish American politicians Murphy and Flaherty still led in votes received there — what has changed is that this neighborhood, along with select conservative voting precincts in Dorchester, represent a smaller share of the total vote. One of the city’s largest wards — Ward 20 in West Roxbury — has broken away from South Boston and the conservative Dorchester precincts. There, it was Michelle Wu who led in polling, with 23 percent. Essaibi-George, Flaherty and Pressley followed. Murphy came in last there, with just 16 percent of the vote.
Tompkins said the shift away from reflexive support for Irish-American politicians in West Roxbury reflects a broader change in Boston.
“Folks who are voting are paying attention,” he said. “It’s not identity politics. People are paying attention to issues and they want to hear from folks who are running for office. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, it’s about education, affordable housing and crime. If you don’t have a position on these issues, you’re going to lose.”
A new face in Dorchester
Former state Democratic Committee Chairman John Walsh, who volunteered on Andrea Campbell’s campaign, echoed Tompkins’ assessment.
“It’s not about name recognition, ethnic identity or your address,” he said. “It’s not that those things are not a factor, but they’re less significant. Grassroots, face-to-face politics is how you win.”
Campbell’s landslide victory, with 60 percent of the vote, mirrored her win in the preliminary. While Yancey had raised little money and by all accounts had not campaigned for the preliminary, his initial loss seemed to jolt him into campaign mode. His campaign volunteers said they had more than 100 volunteers, and Yancey himself knocked on doors in the Dorchester district he has represented for more than three decades.
Yet his campaign eschewed more modern techniques, such as identifying likely supporters in the weeks before the election and using phone calls, door-knocking and rides to turn them out on Election Day. While little more than 7,026 voters cast ballots in the election, Yancey’s campaign seemed to be targeting the entire district with campaign mailings and robo-calls that went out to all 42,000 voters there. Yancey’s campaign reportedly did not obtain the Voter Activation Network list most campaigns use to target likely voters until a few weeks before the election.
“The old guard doesn’t know how to run a campaign,” said Calvin Feliciano, who volunteered with the Yancey campaign.
In contrast, Campbell’s campaign had already reached out to the district’s “super voters” — those who vote in every primary and general election — and Campbell had met many of them. Her campaign manager, Katie Prisco-Buxbaum, said campaign volunteers knocked on more than 22,000 doors in the district. Campbell left hand-written notes for voters who were not home.
Tompkins said Campbell’s campaign victory points to a changed electoral landscape.
“Times have changed,” he said. “You can’t campaign the way you did even three years ago.”
Tompkins said social media may likely play a larger role in contemporary campaigns than older techniques like mass mailings.
“Even seniors are plugged into social media,” he said.
Tompkins, a Campbell supporter, said volunteers did use time-honored tactics, holding 14 standouts for Campbell. (Standouts are when campaign volunteers gather at busy intersections or public transit stations holding signs in support of a candidate). But those actions were then broadcast on social media, increasing their visibility exponentially.
But the most important ingredient in a winning election, Tompkins said, is voter contact.
“If I’m one of those long-time incumbents, I’m going to make sure people know that I understand their issues and that I’m working for them,” he said.
While voting patterns have changed, John Walsh noted that a new pattern of low turnout in local elections could have disturbing implications.
“Turnout is a real challenge for us,” he said. “We have to get to a point where we’re getting more people to the polls. Control of the Senate didn’t go to the Republicans based on popular support for their issues. It turned on who didn’t turn out [to vote].”
Citywide, voter turnout on Nov. 3 was just 13.6 percent. Ward-by-ward, turnout varied from 15 percent in Roxbury’s Ward 12, to 17 percent in Ward 18 in Hyde Park and Ward 6 in South Boston.
“People are more interested what’s happening in 2016,” said Cheryl Crawford, executive director of the voter mobilization organization MassVOTE. “It’s a presidential election. But you can’t change the city if you don’t vote in local elections.”