Why a Blue State Like Massachusetts Can Have Competitive Elections

A look at the latest Pew demographic data.

Charlie Baker / Photo via Associated Press

Charlie Baker / Photo via Associated Press

We all know that Massachusetts is a heavily Democratic state, right? And yet, we find that statewide races can be highly competitive—especially in those instances when the state’s Republican Party comes up with a decent candidate. So, what gives?

There are lots of answers to this question, many of which make a lot of sense. But some of it, frankly, comes down to simple demographics—and the new Pew Research report on political typology offers some clues about this.

The report, which Pew has been doing periodically since 1987, finds that Americans are increasingly polarized ideologically, as most of us already suspected. Nevertheless, it describes eight distinct types of voters, some of whom adhere quite rigidly to wholesale agendas of the left or right, but the majority taking more of a mixed-bag approach.

The data makes it pretty clear that, on a national level, Republicans heavily rely on two groups—”Steadfast Conservatives” and “Business Conservatives”—who make up 22 percent of all adults, but who are very politically engaged and vote overwhelmingly Republican. They express identical intention of voting 88 percent GOP and 6 percent Democratic in the upcoming 2014 congressional elections.

And it is equally clear, to me at least, that those two GOP anchor groups derive very much from demographics. (I have long and detailed theories about this, which I won’t get into here.) In almost all of the demographic categories listed, those two conservative groups are the top two (or bottom two) on one end of the scale, among the eight typologies.

A few of those strong Republican demographics are clearly missing in Massachusetts. Most obviously, the Bay State is well below the national average for (white) Evangelical Protestants. Massachusetts is also below the national average for military veterans, which is another strong indicator for those two super-conservative typologies.

But others are only slightly off. The GOP-friendly types are heavily male, and Massachusetts has slightly more women than men, but only slightly off the national average. Likewise, the conservatives are the most U.S.-born, and Massachusetts is a little below average in that category; conservatives are the most married, and Massachusetts is slightly below the national average; and conservatives are most likely to live in a home they own, and Massachusetts is, once again, slightly below the national average.

The two conservative types are also the most likely of the eight groups to be aged 50 and over, rather than 18-49 (Pew did not include those below voting age). Massachusetts is slightly above the national respect in that category.

But in one very big demographic area, Massachusetts is very much on the conservatives’ side of the national average: whiteness.

The Steadfast and Business Conservatives are, respectively, 87 percent and 85 percent non-Hispanic white, according to Pew. The national figure is 63 percent, which is slightly higher for those age 18+, fitting in with the Pew overall average of about 66 percent. Massachusetts is 76 percent non-Hispanic white, way over the national average.

Massachusetts might not seem like it’s teeming with Tea Partiers, but its demographics suggest a fertile field for conservatives—especially Pew’s Business Conservative typology, which is not significantly underrepresented in the Northeast. And those conservatives can carry the day in the state, especially in election cycles that leave the more diverse typologies uninspired and uninvolved.