At the risk of stating what used to be the obvious, Massachusetts is not a friendly state for Republican presidential candidates.
Democrats have won every contest since Ronald Reagan carried Massachusetts on the way to a 49-state wipeout of Walter Mondale in 1984. The last six presidential contests here have gone for Democrats by an average of 26 points. Even former Gov. Mitt Romney couldn’t change this, losing by 23 points to President Obama in 2012.
That’s why it caught my attention when Donald Trump’s Massachusetts and New Hampshire campaign co-chairs suggested to WBUR that Trump -- should he be the GOP nominee -- has a shot in Massachusetts. True, both are Trump loyalists. But this is not the first time I have heard this argument, just the first time from anyone close to the campaign.
Geoff Diehl, a GOP state representative, cited Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the 2010 special election for U.S. Senate. Diehl reminded us that a large swath of blue collar workers and union members voted for him, even the ones holding Martha Coakley signs at union events. Brown received 49 percent of union workers' votes, according to a post-election poll conducted by the AFL-CIO. On this one issue, there is some parallel between Brown and Trump. Indeed, Trump’s support among the white working class is well documented.
But zoom out a bit, and the vast differences between the two contests on almost every other dynamic are plain to see.
First, when Brown won, the political and partisan landscapes were about as pro-Republican as they could be, and he still barely won. Indeed, his election was the first win in what turned into a banner year for the GOP. Brown was aided by a Senate hanging in the balance, bitter divisions over the Affordable Care Act, and a Massachusetts Democratic establishment that was largely asleep at the switch. He was also running against Coakley, who was a very popular attorney general, but not a good candidate or campaigner. And his 2010 success turned out not to forecast much of anything, and he went on to lose his reelection bid in 2012 to Elizabeth Warren. Significantly, this 2012 contest took place in another presidential year, meaning it is more indicative of what Trump will face than Brown's 2010 run against Coakley.
Presidential cycles turn out larger and more diverse electorates than is the case in lower turnout special elections. The electorate in off years (and especially special elections) tends to be older, whiter and more conservative. A total of 2.3 million voters turned out in January 2010 when Brown won, compared to over 3 million in the last two presidential contests. These additional voters are the younger, more diverse voters from urban areas who tend to pull the level for Democrats in Massachusetts and beyond. They will likely be out in force this November, meaning even if Trump could win the Brown coalition (which he probably can’t), he would still start out well behind his Democratic rival.
As it stands now, Trump is on track to be on the receiving end of a serious drubbing by black and Latino voters. Black voters have been strongly Democrat for a while, so losing them will be nothing new for Trump. Latino voters are a different story. They went for Obama by big margins, but were at least partially up for grabs as recently as 2004, when exit polls showed George W. Bush drawing 44 percent of the Latino vote nationally.
A GOP post-mortem following the 2012 elections cited the need to change this dynamic. It read, in part:
If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.
If anything, the situation is only worse now for the GOP. From the first moments of the Trump campaign, strident anti-immigration messages have been a cornerstone of his speeches. The impact of this shows up in his polling, where his favorables among Latino voters are currently so far underwater as to be resting on the bottom of the ocean:
Unless he can find ways to improve his numbers among minority voters, just repeating Brown’s success among working class voters will not be enough in the general election. The assessment offered by Diehl misses another major key to Brown’s victory: He kept his losing margin among women to just 3 points, far closer than Republicans often come in Massachusetts. Trump, on the other hand, is currently viewed unfavorably by 73 percent of U.S. women, which raises the possibility of a thrashing of historic proportions among women, unless he can turn things around.
Another possible path to victory in Massachusetts is repeating what the Republican Gov. Charlie Baker did in 2014. He also trailed among women (though not by as much), but made up the margin by running up a 19-point margin among men. But Baker had other things going for him, not just strength among male voters. He also avoided getting blown out in cities, as Republicans typically have in Massachusetts. While he still lost the cities and the state’s minority communities, the margins were far smaller, and enabled him to squeak through to a narrow victory. Here too, it’s hard to see how Trump could follow Baker’s path to victory, given his weakness among minority voters.
Both the Baker coalition and the Brown coalition appear well out of reach for Trump. Even without the math of coalitions, demographics and geography, Trump's weakness shows up in likability. People actually liked Scott Brown and Charlie Baker, and were tepid (at best) toward their common opponent. If Trump makes it through to the general election, he will likely start out as the least popular candidate ever nominated by either party, according to GOP pollster Adrian Gray. To recapture the magic of the Brown or Baker victories, he will need to change this dynamic.
It takes everything to go right for a Republican to win statewide in Massachusetts today, not just passing similarity to a past winner. Poll numbers can change, for sure. Nobody looking at Deval Patrick’s 38 percent favorables in early 2010 would have anticipated his cruise to victory. But unless things change by a lot, there is no reason to see Scott Brown's win as indicative of how things would go for Donald Trump.