Friday, November 12, 2010

Dorchester Swing Voters Find Way to Surprise

We chose to do a report on the November election in Boston by going to Florian Hall in Dorchester. The main reason was that Ward 16, Precinct 12 had the makings of a swing vote.

In the last final election for governor, in 2006, the precinct gave Deval Patrick and Tim Murray more than 48% of the vote, with a tally of 397. That was in a four-way race, with the Republican team, Kerry Healey and Reed Hillman, getting almost 41% (336 votes). The remaining 11% went mostly to Christy Mihos. But, in January of 2010, when the special election was held to fill the seat left vacant by the death of US Senator Ted Kennedy, the precinct was carried by Scott Brown.

Given the drift of public opinion surveys around the country, it seemed that a precinct carried by Patrick four years ago could tilt in a different direction this time around. Even though Patrick was clearly favored in most of Dorchester, the mix of voters at Florian Hall was different even from that even in most other predominantly white precincts—with more firefighters and police, and with many elderly, especially from the nearby Keystone Apartments.

Though one voter in this year’s mix expressed sympathy for the Tea Party, the results had Patrick on top, if with a smaller margin over the rest of the field. The governor received almost 44% of the vote, and his tally was 369—28 votes less than four years ago. Incidentally, almost 44% was exactly the precinct's share of the vote in January for Martha Coakley, when Scott Brown received 55% in what was much more a two-way race.

As it turned out, the biggest difference from four years ago was the drop in support for the Republican ticket. Charlie Baker and Richard Tisei got a little more than 33% of the vote. As the managing editor of the Dorchester Reporter, Bill Forry, noted, the reason was the level of support for independent candidate Tim Cahill, at more than 22%—well above his showing statewide.

If the showing for Patrick in the precinct was less than triumphal, there’s a case for saying he did better than other Democrats around the country, especially if he’s judged on votes by the elderly. According to Nonprofit VOTE, there was a dramatic shift in the tilt among elderly voters, compared with November of 2008. Two years ago, Democrats had the edge with these voters—by one percent. This year, the advantage was to the Republicans, by 21 percent.

One explanation for the shift among elderly voters—aside from general discontent over the economy—could be the portrayal of national health care reform as coming at the expense of Medicare. If Democrats and AARP tried to make reform seem less threatening to the elderly, there was certainly a different spin from Republicans in campaign advertising (even back in January, when Brown was on his way to victory).

There’s still the caveat that comparing this year’s vote to that of 2006, let alone 2008, is tricky. In the presidential election year of 2012, the common assumption is that the turnout will include many more young voters, which should help Democrats. Less clear is whether the elderly vote of 2012 will be more like the national tilt in 2008 or the national tilt this month, not to mention the presumably greater tilt in favor of a Republican at Florian Hall in January of 2010.