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Markey's murky path forward

Democratic nominee struggling to turnout the base

BY: Paul McMorrow


Ed Markey easily outdistanced Steve Lynch to take the Democratic Senate nomination Tuesday night. He won in all the right places: Markey took the city of Boston, part of which Lynch represents in Congress, and he piled up big margins in the Berkshires, along the North Shore, and in the key suburbs to the west of Boston. These are the sorts of results that seem like they should put Markey well on his way to filling John Kerry’s Senate seat. But a closer look at Tuesday’s primary results reveals glaring weaknesses underpinning Markey’s seemingly strong primary showing.

Markey topped Lynch by 14 points on Tuesday. But the returns from Tuesday appear to confirm the overwhelming narrative that hung over the Senate primary campaign: that most voters tuned out a terribly uninteresting political contest. Statewide turnout in the Democratic contest Tuesday was 7.6 percent lower than it was for the 2009 Senate special election primary held to fill Ted Kennedy’s former seat. Forty-four thousand more voters showed up on a bleak December day in 2009 to cast votes for Kennedy’s would-be successors, than showed up on a warm April day to vote in the Markey-Lynch contest.

The turnout numbers partly reflect the fact that the Markey-Lynch primary took place against the backdrop of the Boston Marathon bombings and was never as tightly fought as the 2009 primary among Martha Coakley, Michael Capuano, Alan Khazei, and Steve Pagliuca. But they’re also an indication that Markey, a long-serving congressman who went out of his way to clear the field of competitors months ago, has struggled to excite the Democratic base he laid claim to when he and the party’s leadership began elbowing potential candidates out of the race in December. Putting an exclamation mark on that point is a post-primary poll released on Friday by Public Policy Polling showing Markey up by only four points on Republican nominee Gabriel Gomez.

Town-by-town primary turnout numbers show Markey failing, sometimes spectacularly, to turn out the constituencies he will need the most when he faces Gomez in June.

Markey ran most strongly on Tuesday in towns where turnout was poorest compared to the 2009 Democratic Senate primary. He struggled to turn out voters in liberal strongholds, and he lost in the cities and towns where turnout increased. CommonWealth compiled maps showing Markey’s performance across Massachusetts, and town-by-town turnout rates compared to the 2009 primary; they are inverse images of each other. (Click here for an interactive map of the Senate primary results, and here for an interactive map of turnout. Here is a PDF spreadheet for the town-by-town turnout.)

 
 Senate primary results

 
 Senate primary turnout

Markey did best in towns where apathy ruled the day and turnout was low. This does not appear to be a winning formula for a candidate with a reputation for failing to excite voters’ passions. For instance, Markey won 88 percent of the vote in Cambridge, where turnout dropped by 12 percent compared to the 2009 Senate primary. He won 85 percent of the vote in Newton, where turnout fell by 19 percent. He took 83 percent of Weston, where turnout slumped by 29 percent. In Wayland, where Markey captured 85 percent of the vote, turnout was off by 30 percent.

CommonWealth has detailed the importance of votes in and around the state’s blue collar Gateway Cities in the state’s past two Senate contests. Scott Brown topped Martha Coakley by running strongly in traditionally Democratic-leaning Gateways like Worcester and Lowell; Elizabeth Warren swept Brown away by focusing heavily on turning out the vote in and around the Gateways. Markey’s primary victory comes with warning signs in these strategically important cities: Markey lost Lowell and Fall River to Lynch, while turnout in Worcester, New Bedford, and Fall River was off the pace set in the winter of 2009 by 14, 17, and 18 points, respectively.

Markey ran a low-key primary campaign against Lynch and is already stepping up the pace against Gomez. The Democratic establishment is rallying to Markey and beginning to paint Gomez as another Scott Brown wannabe. Still, the low turnout for Markey in traditionally liberal strongholds during the primary is troubling. Suddenly, a candidate who hasn’t faced a real fight in decades has a lot of work ahead of him.
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