On a recent trip into rural Massachusetts, I spotted multiple Donald Trump signs. The conservative mogul has held three rallies in the Bay State and drawn thousands of spectators each time. And in primary polls of the state, Trump leads by an even bigger margin—an average of 25 percentage points!—than he does in the rest of the country. Against all odds, Massachusetts loves Donald Trump.
This flies in the face of the popular view of Massachusetts as a liberal bastion, even for Republicans. For decades, Massachusetts Republicans have built a reputation as moderate, socially liberal, pro-business consensus-seekers. But while this may accurately describe members of the Massachusetts Republican establishment (such as Governor Charlie Baker), it’s an outdated way of looking at the Republican electorate in the state.
Since 2010, Republican candidates for president, senator, or governor have averaged 44.1% of the vote in Massachusetts—a more vocal minority than you might assume. More than one breed of Republican is needed to build a coalition of this size. Broadly speaking, the Massachusetts GOP today relies on three types of voters: fiscally conservative business elites, socially conservative blue-collar workers, and rural, anti-government culture warriors. These last two groups are Trump’s sweet spot.
The state’s financial elite—and like-minded, pro-business voters—were historically loyal Republicans. From 1920 through 1956, their predictability in presidential elections made Massachusetts an average of 2.1 points more Republican than the nation as a whole. But the election of one of their own in 1960, coupled with the rise of social conservatism from Barry Goldwater through George W. Bush, compelled many of these moderates to reconsider their affiliation.
Today, educated, upper-class Bay Staters are better considered independents and often split their tickets. Most are socially liberal and usually vote for Democrats in presidential elections as social issues have dominated the national stage. But they do occasionally vote for Republicans in state elections, where social issues less often drown on economic ones. These voters were largely responsible for Baker’s election in 2014.
As a coarse, bomb-throwing populist, Trump holds little appeal to these voters. But he benefits from the fact that the wealthy are now a smaller part of the state’s Republican base than ever before. The public faces of the Massachusetts Republican Party, from Baker to former Governor Mitt Romney to members of the state legislature, may remain pulled from this pool of elites, but they are increasingly feeling the heat from conservative activists.
Similarly, as the state GOP has bled establishment voters, its electorate has been distilled to a more hardline crowd. Bay Staters who identify as Republicans today are more likely to be working-class or rural voters who see the world as leaving them behind.
White, blue-collar workers in Boston and the Gateway Cities, along with their middle-class counterparts in the suburbs, have voted Democratic for generations thanks to their economic liberalism and association with organized labor. But this demographic, many of whom belong to the Catholic Church, can also be conservative on issues like abortion, gay rights, and immigration. While many remain loyal Democratic voters, others have defected to support Republicans as the Democratic Party begins to look less like them and more like the rising American electorate of minorities, millennials, progressives, and more. These voters explain the occasional collapse of Democrats in lower-income urban areas they have traditionally won, such as Worcester and Lowell—not coincidentally, the hosts of Trump's two biggest rallies in the state.
These voters' counterparts in rural areas constitute Massachusetts’s chapter of the Tea Party. They are both socially and economically conservative, preferring that government not interfere with their bucolic existence. But they are also culturally conservative, favoring gun rights, venerating the military, and disdaining urban elites of both parties. (These are the voters Scott Brown targeted with his famous pickup truck.) They disapprove of how quickly and in what direction the country is moving and long for a simpler America closer to the Jeffersonian ideal. This demographic is represented by wide swaths of historically Republican towns on the South Shore and in Central Massachusetts, including Tyngsborough, the site of Trump's third Massachusetts rally.
When these two demographics vote in Republican primaries, they back the candidates who speak to their anti-establishment values. Despite his background as a business elite, Trump has assumed that mantle in this election. He has earned a faithful following by railing against immigration, Obamacare, Common Core, lobbyists, and other symbols of elite control of government. His antagonistic style—calling political opponents “losers” and “idiots”—resonates with the anger these voters feel at an allegedly rotten political system. The informal language of his speeches (a study found that Trump speaks at an average of a fourth-grade level) also conforms to these relatively uneducated voting blocs. And his slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is also their most fervent wish.
Trump’s success is the canary in the coal mine for moderate Republicans in Massachusetts. While they can still win general elections with the help of independents, primary elections are decided by partisans, even in an open-primary system like Massachusetts has. And as moderates have shied away from identifying with the GOP, the party has become ideologically purer. The purer it gets, the better Trump will do.
Massachusetts has had a dearth of competitive Republican primaries since the national emergence of the anti-establishment right in 2009–2010, so the two camps have yet to meet on the battlefield. With a March 1 primary date in 2016, it remains uncertain whether the Republican field will still be competitive by the time Massachusetts votes. In the past, candidates like Trump who peaked too early have often faded in favor of the inevitable nominee by the time ballots are cast—so the Massachusetts primary may again be anti-climactic.
But Trump is a sign that old assumptions about the Massachusetts electorate no longer hold in 2016. The Republican base in the state has much more in common with the rest of the country than Massachusetts’s blue veneer lets on. Put another way, “I’m a Republican from Massachusetts” no longer necessarily means “I’m a Massachusetts Republican.”