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Politics / POLITICAL ANALYSIS

Massachusetts Misery: Presidential Nominees Have Nasty Losing Streak

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts gestures during a sound check at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

photo of Jim O'Sullivan
November 13, 2012

There’s been a short Greek and now a lean Mormon, and a guy whose ancestral tree was knotty enough to become a metaphor for his public image.

For whatever reason, politicians from Massachusetts tend to run for president, tend to do well in the primaries, and then tend to get broomed unceremoniously into an elite historical dustbin.

Mitt Romney, who charmed the Massachusetts electorate enough to pose the late Edward Kennedy’s only respectable opposition in a 47-year Senate career and again eight years later to win the commonwealth’s governorship, got his clock pretty well cleaned by President Obama last week. Sen. John Kerry, who shared with Romney a privileged upbringing and a proclivity for granting opponents wide-open shots on policy adjustments, lost narrowly to President George W. Bush. And former Gov. Michael Dukakis went down handily to President George H.W. Bush after being lampooned for donning a helmet to ride in a tank, appearing comically martial for a Brookline progressive.

 

Since John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, 19 men have been nominated for president, hailing from 12 states. Only Texas has produced as many presidential nominees as Massachusetts during that stretch, and those three — Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush — all won. In the years since 1984, only one candidate from outside Massachusetts has gained the Democratic Party’s nod and lost the presidency: Al Gore, who won the popular vote.

(PICTURES: Boston's Presidential Candidates)

Which poses a two-fold question: Allowing for the vagaries of individual campaigns, why do Massachusetts pols keep obtaining presidential nominations and then losing?

First, securing a nomination is no easy feat, and the Bay State undeniably churns out notable political talent. Its colorful political history means that electoral sport is culturally significant there in ways it is not elsewhere. That history also draws national interest, so that political stars in Massachusetts draw outsized attention on a scale that those in other states do not (try googling “Elizabeth Warren 2016”).

And it features an unmatched concentration of higher education institutions that exert a centripetal force. Kerry attended high school in Massachusetts before going on to Yale and returned to run for office after fighting in Vietnam; and Romney came to the state to draw law and business graduate degrees from Harvard. Presidents Bush 43 and Obama earned business and law degrees, respectively, there. Gore also graduated from Harvard, and Dukakis earned his law degree there after serving in Korea.

“It’s like watching a movie, sitting in Harvard Square having a sandwich and you’d see noted, famous people walking by, people who would be presidents of countries,” said Raymond Flynn, the former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. “Where do you get an opportunity like that, to be introduced to that sophisticated elite kind of crowd anywhere else in the world? You wouldn’t see that in Wyoming or Nebraska someplace, you’d see it here in Boston. They’re people that are well-connected. These people then become the political influence.”

And trying to play the game in Massachusetts counts as being “tempered in the fire,” said Daniel Haley, a health care executive who worked in Romney’s administration and on Republican gubernatorial and Senate campaigns. “You run statewide in Massachusetts, it’s a brutally harsh political environment.”

For Democrats, the Bay State tinge can function as an advantage during party primary’s, because the state’s left-leaning electorate allows the types of positions and votes that would appeal to national primary voters.

That hothouse also forges esteemed operatives, historically among Democrats — but the combination of their work for Romney and Sen. Scott Brown in 2010 has also drawn attention to Massachusetts Republican strategists. Those operatives then work to elect candidates from their home state, which is where the stream from Beacon Hill to the White House gets curdled.

For Romney, the state’s political peccadilloes have proved troublesome for decades. When running against Kennedy in 1994, he had to reject the Reagan-Bush era, Republican apostasy that dogged him during this year’s campaign both among conservatives who revere Reagan and less ideological voters sensitive to flip-flop charges. To win as a Republican in Massachusetts, Romney had to run as a moderate. To amass any accomplishments, he had to govern as a moderate.

To win in a national primary, however, Romney was forced to oversell his conservatism, lining up to the right of much of the field on issues such as immigration, cozying up to outspoken media personality Donald Trump, joining the field in rejecting a budget deal with a 10:1 ratio of spending cuts to revenues as insufficiently conservative. He was, he attested, “severely conservative.”

That contortion required that Romney wrench himself back toward the middle for the general election, which he gamely attempted to do. And, by one measure, Romney succeeded, winning among independent voters by 5 percentage points. But the unseemly impression left of Romney as politically opportunistic also bruised his candidacy.

“Running statewide in Massachusetts, the positioning imperatives — they don’t translate to a national race,” Haley said. “Mitt, obviously, was burdened all the way through for the last six years by two statewide races in Massachusetts where he took specific, emphatic positions that did not play with the national primary electorate.”

Had Romney incubated politically in another, less doctrinaire state — his native state of Michigan, for instance — he would not have carried into the GOP primaries the “original sin” of representing the state that brought America gay marriage and universal health care.

Furthermore, the Bay State itself just isn’t that saleable nationally. Harvard doesn’t play well in the Heartland. Harvard doesn’t even play that well around Harvard, where Warren spent much of her Senate campaign trying to shed her professorial image in favor of a more down-with-the-folks persona she used to defeat Brown.

“There’s just a notion among some voters that they’re too liberal,” Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida, said of Massachusetts politicians. “I think there are a lot of attitudes that there are too liberal for the rest of the country. I think that’s the case in the South.”

“Massachusetts just doesn’t seem like it’s in sync with the rest of the country, in terms of its population, income, ideology, its whole composition,” MacManus added. “Chicago’s a lot easier to connect with than Boston.”

The Massachusetts stigma, then, is a chronic condition that turns politically terminal only at the onset of the general election. And Romney, the first Massachusetts Republican nominated since Calvin Coolidge won the White House in 1924, is just its latest victim. 

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