AT THE DEMOCRATIC State Convention in Worcester this weekend, attention will be on the horse race: who makes the ballot? Who benefits from Boston mayor Tom Menino’s delegate support? Which of the hundreds of so-called ex officio delegates — mostly former politicians — actually show up in Wormtown, and whom do they back? Who gets the support of labor? But a much larger question will be hanging over the event: at the end of the convention on Saturday, will the Democrats be any closer to taking the governor’s office for the first time in 12 years than they were before?
For a fresh answer to this question, we looked to an unusual place: the politics undergraduate thesis of Princeton senior Sarah Kahan. A Lexington native, Kahan spent her last year in college crunching census data for her 127-page study (256 pages if you include the data tables and interview transcripts), "The Independent-Minded Voter: The Significance of a New Political Ethos in Statewide Elections in Massachusetts." (While she comes across as a sharp, albeit shy, political whiz kid, Kahan says she’s not planning to become the next James Carville. After a stint in the Surgeon General’s office next year, she plans to attend medical school to train as a pediatric surgeon.)
Kahan’s project centers on a phenomenon of which most observers of state politics are well aware: 51 percent of Bay State voters are registered as independents or "unenrolled," and they decide statewide elections. But Kahan took this common knowledge one step further: she tabulated census data and analyzed state voting patterns from 1976 to 2000 to determine just who these voters are and what they want (see "Just Who Are These People Holding All the Cards?", right). Not surprisingly, Kahan found that the most concentrated chunk of unenrolled voters live in the 89 towns nestled between Routes 128 and 495, where 52 percent of voters are unenrolled. She also found that 40 percent of those employed in this area are what she calls "suburban managerial professionals" — engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and Internet-technology professionals. Interestingly, Kahan further showed that the percentage of unenrolled voters increases in direct proportion to the number of those employed as managerial professionals in a given community. Her findings accord to some degree with Democratic pollster Mark Penn’s determination that "Office Park Dads" hold the key to victory in national elections this year.
Kahan argues further that while these voters tend to be socially liberal (pro-choice and supportive of gay rights, for example) — as evidenced by former governor William Weld’s victory over Democrat John Silber in 1990 and by Al Gore’s winning the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election — they’re not locked into preconceived voting patterns. Kahan notes two important shifts among these voters just within the past decade — from the Republican Weld to Democratic senator John Kerry (who beat Weld in the 1996 Senate race) and back to a Republican governor, Paul Cellucci. Kahan, pointing to exit-polling data, contends that these voters place a high premium on candidates’ so-called managerial values. Which means that when it comes to statewide elections, these managerial types look for candidates who convey a strong sense of "rationality, efficiency, organization, and progress." Translated, that means they’re interested in how candidates approach government — mainly in terms of whether would-be elected officials are prepared to reduce patronage and build the economy.
As her test case, Kahan analyzed the 1998 governor’s race that pitted Scott Harshbarger, the Democratic attorney general, against Cellucci, the Republican who had assumed the governorship in 1997 when Weld resigned early from his term in office. It’s long been known that Cellucci won the election among independents, taking their votes 61 to 37 percent. Kahan argues that the deciding issue for unenrolled voters was the economy: Cellucci won 69 percent of the independent voters for whom this was the most important issue to Harshbarger’s 31 percent. "Those independent-minded individuals are concerned most with their own personal and their family’s success and well-being, which are tied to the well-being of the state’s economy," writes Kahan, using exit-polling data to confirm what’s long been held as conventional wisdom. "They are concerned with the state’s fiscal responsibility, which the state must employ in order to avoid knee-jerk increases in state taxes."
In this instance, Kahan’s finding runs contrary to the conventional wisdom — illustrated in a 1998 Boston Globe column by Robert Turner cited by Kahan — that these voters are "libertarian liberals." Regardless of independents’ social liberalism, the lesson, says Kahan, is that fiscal concerns trump social issues.
If her findings are accurate, then Democrats seem to have their work cut out for them, given that they’ll be facing Mitt Romney, the "savior" of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and founder of the multi-million-dollar Bain Capital, a finance-and-consulting company.