The Trouble with Boston

December 04, 2012

It’s tempting to wonder if there’s something about Boston. Of the last fourteen men to be nominated for president by a major party, three have come from Massachusetts: Michael Dukakis in 1988, John Kerry in 2004, and Mitt Romney in 2012. That means more than 20% of the nominees in the last quarter century have come from one state – a place with 2% of the U.S. population. And each of them lost.

Is it simply a coincidence that the Bay State has given us ten times as many presidential finalists as is statistically expected, or that all of were defeated? The initial success and ultimate failure of each man is, of course, mostly about the individual candidate and his times. But I think there is some reason to believe that both outcomes can be tied, to an extent, back to Massachusetts.  

First, for whatever combination of historical reasons, Boston is a highly political place. Politicians there imagine themselves on the national stage. When a Senate seat opens up, almost every member of the House, and many local officials, considers themselves serious contenders. The heritage of men like Adams, Hancock, Sumner, Curley, Coolidge, and O’Neill make Massachusetts politicians believe there is a pipeline for their kind to national fame. And since running for president requires an enormous amount of self-confidence – the ability to believe that your fellow citizens might choose you to be the most powerful person in the world – sharing that heritage probably increases the likelihood that success in Boston triggers thoughts of moving to higher office. Seeing people like you, or from your town, achieve something gives you a greater sense that you can do it as well.

So part of the success in grabbing presidential nominations may be that more people from Massachusetts run. But there is also the specific, relatively recent example of John F. Kennedy. His charisma, success, and early death have left a longing that may still echo with many voters. It may now be fading for lots of Americans, but for a long time the allure was very much present – sweeping more than a few of JFK’s relatives into office. And even without making a conscious connection to him, I suspect that for many voters across the country, particularly Democrats, Boston feels like a place that has a right to produce presidents.

If that’s true, then why have they all lost? As noted above, I’m sure it’s mostly for individual reasons. But a little bit of it may be that Massachusetts is, politically, fairly different from the rest of America. What it takes to succeed there is not necessarily a formula for national acceptance at this point in history. Most obviously, it is more liberal than most of America, and so those three nominees (Dukakis, Kerry, and Romney) spent most of their political careers to the left of what’s ideal for national elections. For the two Democrats, that meant being vulnerable to being tagged as “too liberal.” For Romney, his necessity to change many positions to get the Republican nomination left him open to charges of flip-flopping, and perhaps increased the degree to which he was attacked and damaged in the primary process. 

Massachusetts is also famously well-educated. It has a greater percentage of college graduates than any state in the country. That difference, along with its highly political media and intense political culture, means that running for office has a slightly different feel there than it does in the swing states that decide presidential contests – places like Florida and Ohio.  So it may not be a coincidence that all three losing presidential candidates from Massachusetts were thought to have failed to “connect” with swing voters.

I used to live in Boston. While it wasn’t a good fit for me*, it is clearly a place of enormous accomplishment, rich history, and impressive people. But I’m not sure I would recommend the national parties look there for their next nominee.

*Too much arguing over who dug out the parking space after a blizzard.

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John Adams
John Quincy Adams
John Hancock
Charles Sumner
James Michael Curley
Calvin Coolidge
Tip O'Neill
John F. Kennedy
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