Throughout this municipal election season, we have highlighted – here, here, and here – the bifurcated nature of Boston’s electorate. On November 5, Boston selected its first new mayor in more than 20 years. After the field had been narrowed from 12 candidates in September, voters were left with a choice between two well-qualified yet quite similar candidates: Marty Walsh, a state representative and labor union leader from Dorchester and John Connolly, an at-large Boston city councilor from West Roxbury.
Now that the dust has begun to settle following Walsh’s 52-48 victory, we offer some observations, many of which add credence to arguments we have made throughout this election season.
First, the results confirm our notion that Boston has a bifurcated electorate. This divide materialized in two distinct ways in the final election. When it comes to participating in either municipal or federal elections, the southern neighborhoods of the city continue to turn out at higher rates than neighborhoods in the northern part of the city.
After 50 years of moving towards the southern neighborhoods of the city, the electorate is now slowly moving back towards the north. Smaller family sizes now impact traditionally high-voting neighborhoods, such as South Boston and Dorchester, as well as segments of the minority community. Although voters from northern sections of the city showed up in far greater numbers this November than had been the case in quite some time, their aggregate turnout was still considerably lower than southern neighborhoods. In fact, none of the downtown precincts exceeded a 50 percent turnout, and only one precinct – Beacon Hill’s Ward 5, Precinct 5 – could be ranked amongst the top 50 citywide.
Sadly, the electoral map in Boston this November indicated another significant divide: one basically splitting supporters for each candidate along Washington Street and according to education levels and socioeconomic status. None of Walsh’s top 100 precincts in terms of support came from downtown neighborhoods. Similarly, he did not receive more than 50 percent of the vote in any of these downtown precincts. In contrast, only two out of 20 of Connolly’s top precincts in terms of percentage of vote received came from outside the downtown neighborhoods, and those two precincts (Ward 20, Precinct 11 and Ward 20, Precinct 6) were in his home neighborhood of West Roxbury.
West of Washington Street – where there is a higher density of college-educated and upper-middle class people – residents voted in large numbers for Connolly. Meanwhile on the eastern side of Washington Street – where there are fewer college-educated people and higher densities of the lower-middle class – people voted in large numbers for Walsh. This is a very different electoral map than the winning coalitions crafted by Kevin White (four times), Tom Menino (five times), and Ray Flynn in two re-election campaigns. In each of those campaigns between two white candidates, the winning candidate assembled a coalition which included large majorities in the minority community, the then, relatively-speaking, modest group of upper-middle class residents of the downtown neighborhoods, scatterings of Jewish voters and, more often than not, Italians, especially in East Boston and the North End. The 2013 election has brought us a new map, perhaps indicating a new day in Boston politics.
A second observation stems from the horse race narrative of the election perpetuated by media outlets and polling data. As both campaigns surely understood, polling data at the municipal level can be very inaccurate and quite volatile. In all modesty, pollsters did not read our previous analysis showing that upwards of 100,000 Bostonian voters – most of them younger and residing in the city’s northern neighborhoods – only vote every four years.
For instance, the October 10 UMass Lowell poll benchmarked 18-29 year old voters for 37.6 percent of their sample pool. While this demographic surely makes up that percent of the city’s total population, the number of people from that age group who actually vote is substantially lower during municipal elections. Similarly, as we have alluded to in previous articles, the 11.6 percent benchmark for voters over the age of 65 is also exceptionally low. This same poll also benchmarked Allston-Brighton and downtown residents to cast 13.4 percent and 17.2 percent of the citywide vote, respectively. In fact, Allston-Brighton ended up contributing only 6.1 percent of the citywide votes, while the downtown precincts accounted for only 12 percent.
The methodology of the October 31 Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll is also debatable, if not solely for the reason that it draws its sample from multiple geographic categories, one of which is archaically termed “minority.” In an increasingly heterogeneous city, Boston does not have a single race or ethnicity claiming a majority, nor is minority a definable geographic area as this poll suggests. It is also worth noting that each poll conducted in the month of October put both mayoral candidates within the margin of error and thus the results were inconclusive, despite what was reported by media outlets.
A third observation centers on the role that Ward 18 (Hyde Park and parts of Mattapan and Roslindale) played in the outcome of the election. As had been predicted by many observers of Boston politics, Ward 18 was the strategic geographic battleground between Connolly and Walsh. During September’s preliminary election, Connolly edged Walsh in 12 out of the 23 Ward 18 precincts, although this amounted to a difference of only 20 votes in favor of Walsh (8.76 percent to 8.87 percent). When the votes from the final election were tallied, Walsh fared far better in Ward 18 than most anyone had anticipated: Walsh won all 23 precincts along with 60 percent of the vote. Ward 18 will continue to be a critical swing ward in future elections, particularly local and state contests.
Our final anecdotal observations pertain to two neighborhoods we have discussed previously – the South Boston waterfront and Roslindale. The South Boston waterfront (Ward 6, Precinct 1) continues to buck the trends of the rest of South Boston. Consistent with past municipal elections, 6-1 had the lowest turnout among South Boston precincts despite being on par with other parts of the neighborhood during federal elections. Additionally, this is the same precinct where then-state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry racked up her largest number of votes in South Boston in her recent primary election against South Boston’s state Rep. Nick Collins for the state Senate seat long held by Jack Hart. This is also the same precinct where Malden congressman Ed Markey scored the most support out of any South Boston precinct in his primary election for the US Senate against South Boston congressman Steve Lynch. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Ward 6, Precinct 1 was the only South Boston precinct that John Connolly could steal from Walsh’s stranglehold on the neighborhood.
The voting trends for Roslindale are also intriguing. Back in April, Markey beat Lynch in Roslindale by a 58-42 margin, despite Lynch having had represented parts of Roslindale in Congress. The split between Connolly and Walsh was much closer – 51-49 in favor of Connolly – despite Connolly having been born and raised in Roslindale. While some may cite the historic political dissection of the neighborhood (Roslindale does not have a single district city councilor, state representative, state senator, or congressman representing the neighborhood as a whole) as rationale for the consistent divisions in voter support, we have posited that the neighborhood’s changing demographics have driven this bifurcation of the electorate, a trend we see continuing in the future.
Voting precincts along the North End/Waterfront (Ward 3, Precinct 1), Downtown/Chinatown (Ward 3, Precinct 6) and (Ward 3, Precinct 8), in the South End (Ward 3, Precinct 7 and Ward 5, Precinct 1), as well as the emerging neighborhood in the Seaport (Ward 6, Precinct 1) continue to cumulatively turn out many thousands of voters. Although the percentages of those voting in the downtown precincts during municipal elections remain modest, the downtown vote is now significant and an increasing percentage of the electorate. Had this electorate turned out in numbers similar to the 2012 presidential election, it seems likely that Connolly would have beaten Walsh.
Regardless, as the successor to Mayor Thomas Menino, Marty Walsh has very large shoes to fill. Should he be moderately successful at doing so, historical trends point to a successful reelection in 2017. After all, the last incumbent mayor to lose election was the infamous James Michael Curley back in 1949. For now, though, we can only ponder the impact of Boston’s changing electorate and the role that an emerging cast of new leaders will play in a dynamic and rapidly changing political landscape.
Lawrence S. DiCara is an attorney with Nixon Peabody in Boston and a former Boston City Council president. James Sutherland is a Ph.D. student in political science at Northeastern University.