10 Ways The Universe Conspired To Depress Turnout

A remarkable confluence of events and circumstances may drive down votes in today's preliminary election.

We have no idea how many people will vote in today’s preliminary municipal election, and I am not as pessimistic as some. But I do think there’s been a pretty remarkable confluence of events and circumstances serving to drive down the likelihood of people voting.

1. Summer campaign. Due to Tom Menino’s late-March decision to not run, almost the entire election was held between Memorial Day and Labor Day (and the end and beginning of the school years). It has long been true that Bostonians will not pay attention to politics during the summer—they are busy with their own activities, if not scooting off to the Cape or further. College and graduate students in particular were just returning when the registration deadline for the preliminary hit, so any who got interested were too late to participate.

2. Anonymous candidates. The field of candidates, though solid and qualified, were pretty much unknown to most Bostonians at the start of the year. Blame that anonymity on disinterest in municipal governance, or on the lack of media coverage of local politics in recent years, or on Menino’s tendency to steal all the thunder; whatever the cause, the result was a lack of well-known personalities to generate curiosity and enthusiasm (for or against). As a corollary: the potentially exciting “New Boston” candidates who might have enthused less-likely voters—including Ayanna Pressley, Linda Dorcena Forry, Andrea Cabral, and Sonia Chang-Diaz—all chose not to run.

3. Good candidates. A lot of people I talk to think pretty highly of most of the candidates in the field. That’s great, but it also means that there’s no great concern that a bad person will slip through and become mayor. It’s easy, then, to take a pass on the prelim and wait for the choice to be narrowed to two before making a decision.

4.  Competing stories. There were several very high-profile local stories, each of which generated headlines across multiple news cycles over a good chunk of time: the marathon bombing, the special US Senate election, the Whitey Bulger trial, and Aaron Hernandez. There were also the usual number of smaller distractions. Plus, don’t underestimate the power of a Red Sox pennant run to keep Bostonians’ interest away from everything else.

5. Money shortage. Again, there may be multiple causes—the late start, the low contribution limit, the decision by many to not take sides in the preliminary—but the bottom line is that there has been relatively little money raised by the candidates for such a high-stakes election. Given the expense of Boston’s media market, that has translated into very little TV advertising until the final week or two of the campaign. In addition, outside groups have been discouraged from filling that void with their own expenditures.

6. Election fatigue. I’m skeptical that this much-discussed phenomenon inflicts many actual would-be voters; however, I do think the non-stop cycle of high-profile local campaigns in the past few years has affected donors, fundraisers, staffers, volunteers, and even the media. And that affects the visibility of the campaign.

7. Unprepared media. The most high-visibility news media outlets, dealing with brutal reductions in newsroom staff, have cut way back on coverage of local politics in recent years. As a result, they were not only understaffed for the race they have claimed to be waiting years for, they were also largely unfamiliar with the candidates. That, combined with the demands of those other stories mentioned above, led to an inability to identify, and report on, interesting back-stories about the candidates. The Globe in particular was caught in transition: it was in the midst of the newspaper’s sale, had recently lost editor Marty Baron, had just lost political editor Glen Johnson, and had lost long-time political chronicler Brian Mooney.

8. Lack of polling. There was very little polling done until very late in the race, especially by media outlets—understandably, as the large, unformed field was unlikely to result in very interesting results. The lack of polling, however, helped keep the state of the race nebulous, which continued to make it hard for media and residents to get their teeth into it.

9. Lack of crisis. People around the city have plenty they’d like to see improved, but most don’t see any major, glaring crises demanding urgent action. That has lowered the stakes, and turned the campaign into a bunch of smaller discussions about charter-school caps, community policing, redevelopment reform, and other items that are surely important but don’t drive many ordinary people to action.

10. Lack of optimism. Although there is no sense of crisis, I would argue that there is little belief in change. This is a city that has grown very accustomed to grumbling about how things work—and how resistant the current administration is to changing those ways. The prospect of clearing out the musty offices at City Hall (and 1010 Mass. Ave., Court Street, and elsewhere) and starting fresh could be capturing the public imagination, but so far, I don’t sense it.

David S. Bernstein
David S. Bernstein David S. Bernstein, Contributing Editor, Boston Magazine david@davidsbernstein.com

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