Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Primary Impressions from Boston

There are two less than enchanted views of the Democratic presidential primary vote in Boston and across Massachusetts. One is that Barack Obama should have done better, and that his charisma and high-profile endorsements failed to meet expectations for votes. The other view is that Hillary Clinton’s advantage among Massachusetts Democrats was less about her appeal as a public figure than about campaign spending and organization.

There were 116,024 votes cast from Boston in the Democratic primary alone. That’s more than twice the number cast in a primary contest 8 years ago between Bill Bradley and a heavily favored vice president, Al Gore. The number of Boston votes in all parties yesterday was also about 70% of the total vote for president in November of 2000. Both comparisons are unfair, though they place the turnout roughly half-way between a typical Mass. presidential primary and a tightly contested final vote for President.

Obama’s win in Boston (with almost 53% of the vote) was as expected as Clinton’s win in Massachusetts. It was hardly surprising that Clinton carried South Boston, West Roxbury, Brighton, and (by a small margin) Dorchester’s Ward 16 (Neponset, Cedar Grove), along with the Savin Hill area (Ward 13, Precinct 10). She also carried the main precinct in Chinatown (Ward 3, Precinct 8) with more than 60% of the vote. Citywide, Clinton got a little over 44% of the vote.

Obama, as expected, had a decisive edge in Boston’s African-American community, in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. He carried the Back Bay, the Fenway, Jamaica Plain, and Mission Hill. He won some precincts in the South End, Roslindale (between Fallon Field and the Arnold Arboretum, and the Washington-Beech public housing and former High Point Village developments) and Hyde Park (mostly between the Neponset River and Hyde Park Avenue, north of Cleary Square; along with Sunnyside and Stony Brook areas, and neighboring Georgetowne). But Clinton won in other sections of Ward 18—Fairmount, Readville, and Clarendon Hills.

State Rep. Michael Moran said he was somewhat surprised by the breadth of support for Clinton in Charlestown. “She won the ‘Townie’ vote,” said Moran. “But the ‘Toonie’ vote went her way, too.” And Moran attributes Clinton’s win in East Boston to a combination of the older base of Italian-Americans and the newer base of Latinos, many of them recent immigrants. Clinton has enjoyed a solid advantage from Latinos in other states, especially California, but the advantage was less apparent from returns in Jamaica Plain, where all but a few precincts (such as Jamaica Hills’ Ward 19, Precinct 2) were carried by Obama.

To be sure, one factor in the Boston vote was the organizational help from Clinton supporters such as Mayor Thomas Menino and House Speaker Sal DiMasi. If it isn't necessarily fair to see Obama's win in Boston as a sign of weakness for Menino, the same goes for how Clinton's statewide victory reflects on prominent Obama supporters. Obama's margin of victory in Boston was much smaller than Deval Patrick's in 2006, but no one could say Kerry Healey's appeal to voters across the board in Boston was anything near the appeal of Hillary Clinton among the city's Democrats.

The total number of Republican votes from Boston in the presidential primary was less than the total for 2000. That could mean a drop in support for the party, though it also be the response to John McCain’s clear nationwide advantage over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. But in the figures from Boston, the race was tighter than it was for the Democrats: McCain with 46%, Romney with 44%, then Ron Paul finishing 3rd with a little more than 4%. McCain did noticeably better in the Back Bay than in South Boston. That might be explained by a difference in reaction to Romney’s more persistent call for tougher control of immigration. The immigration issue might also explain McCain’s strong showing in Chinatown’s Ward 3, Precinct 8, where Republicans gave him 75% of the vote.

To invoke another unfair comparison, McCain got a bigger local share of the primary vote in 2000. That year, there were no other Republican candidates with anything like Romney's connection to Massachusetts, but there was George W. Bush. In the Boston total for 2000, McCain got 66.4% of the vote, while Bush got 27.7%. In South Boston the margin was even more lopsided, with McCain getting 72.1% of the vote and Bush, 24.1%. In the 2008 Republican primary vote from South Boston, Romney outpolled McCain by a count of 901 to 874. The difference between McCain results in the two Massachusetts primaries is partly about geography, but also about the relative discomfort with some of McCain's positions--a discomfort that could be rechanneled in November.