A Tale Of Two Primaries In Massachusetts

Two groups of Massachusetts voters will head to the polls Tuesday to choose the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor. But the voters who turn out for these pivotal contests look very different than the electorate likely to turn out for the Nov. 4 general election.

Profiles of electorates in recent party primaries

Voters turning out for the primaries will be older than average. Based on data from previous elections, just over half of the primary electorate will be over 60, compared to about 29 percent of the state’s total registered voter population.

Beyond age, it is useful to think of the likely voters for the Republican and Democratic primaries as two distinct electorates, with their own demographic and ideological profiles. An analysis of Massachusetts’ registered voters provided by Sage Systems provides snapshots of these two very different pools of voters.

The Republicans

Traditional political wisdom drives candidates to take more partisan positions in their primary campaigns and more moderate positions in the general election. In the Massachusetts GOP primary, this may not be the best advice.

In Massachusetts, unenrolled voters can choose to participate in a party’s primary without changing their party registration. The practical impact of this is that unenrolled voters play an outsized role in contests which, in many other states, are only open to party members. That rule, combined with the fact that registered Republicans comprise a very small percentage of all Massachusetts voters, means that, over the last three party primaries, the majority of voters in the state’s Republican primary were unenrolled. Put another way, the state’s Republican voters carry less than half the weight in choosing their own party’s candidates.

If the unenrolled voters choosing to participate in the Republican primary were as conservative and partisan as the Republicans who vote in primaries, the cross-party nature of the electorate would matter less. But the evidence suggests, instead, that many of the unenrolled voters who draw Republican ballots are not partisan at all. Almost half (46 percent) of Republican primary voters have also voted in a Democratic primary in the past.

The new WBUR poll further underscores the moderate nature of the Republican primary electorate. Just 42 percent of likely voters in the Republican primary say finding the most conservative candidate is "very important" — far fewer than place importance on finding an effective manager for state government (89 percent).

This helps to explain why, despite the loud voices of some party insiders, recent statewide Republican nominees tend to be more moderate than the state party’s platform would suggest. It may also offer a clue as to why Tea Party-backed candidate Mark Fisher has failed to show much movement in the polls, despite working to appeal to more conservative voters.

In other states, party primaries can have the effect of leaving two candidates at the most ideologically extreme ends of their respective parties, as each struggles to win the hardcore partisans that turn out for their primaries. With Massachusetts Republicans, this is hardly the case. Republicans have every incentive to position closer to the middle, not only for the general but to appeal to unenrolled voters in their own primary. Despite protests from more conservative voices in the state party, the ideology of Republican nominees is unlikely to change as long as participation patterns remain as they are now.

The gender breakdown of GOP primary voters is also noteworthy. Unlike the general electorate, where women outnumber men, a slight majority in the Republican primary are men. In a competitive primary, a Republican candidate may feel pressure to appeal to these male voters, at the risk of alienating the women who make up the majority of the electorate in the general election. This year, Charlie Baker’s comfortable lead in the polls means he can instead get a head start at closing the yawning gap among women in the general, a group among whom he trails badly now, and which he lost to Deval Patrick by 24 points in 2010.

The Democrats

Treasurer Steve Grossman may have won the Democratic party's endorsement at the state convention in June, but the demographics of the likely voters in the Democratic primary play to Attorney General Martha Coakley’s strength with female voters.

In recent primaries in non-presidential years, an average of 56 percent of Democratic primary voters have been women. Recent polls show Coakley holding a commanding lead among women voters. The new WBUR poll shows her with a 27-point lead over Grossman, who has struggled to win over women in meaningful numbers. He started July with 17 percent of the women’s vote, and ended August at 18 percent. Boston Globe polls throughout the summer have consistently found a larger number of women who remain undecided in the primary than say they support Grossman. The new WBUR poll found 27 percent of women remaining undecided, compared to the 18 percent who said they’re with Grossman in the primary.

Grossman enjoys somewhat stronger support among men. But given the demographics of the Democratic primary electorate, this will probably not be enough to overcome his weak standing among the female voters who are likely to dominate the primary.


The pools of voters who will decide the two parties' primaries are distinct from one another, but one thing they have in common this year is that they differ from each party's activist core. The flood of unenrolled voters into the GOP primary gives candidates an incentive to tack to the middle instead of playing exclusively to the base. And the female tilt of the Democratic primary electorate actually plays against the strengths of the party's endorsed candidate this year.

Steve Koczela is the lead writer for Poll Vault and president of The MassINC Polling Group. Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine.


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