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Mass. Leans Democratic, but Nearly Half Are Independent

Mass. Leans Democratic, but Nearly Half Are Independent

PRINCETON, NJ -- As Massachusetts prepares for its high-visibility special Senate election on Jan. 19, a new Gallup analysis shows that the state has significantly more residents identifying as political independents (49%) than as Democrats (35%). The percent identifying themselves as Democratic matches the national average, while the percent independent is well above the national norm. Many Massachusetts independents, however, lean toward the Democratic Party.


The politics of Massachusetts are very much in the news, given the Jan. 19 special election to fill the Senate seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy. Massachusetts has not elected a Republican U.S. senator since 1972 and all of the state's current congressional delegation is Democratic. Thus, the political world has been startled by recent polling that suggests the Republican candidate in Tuesday's election, Scott Brown, appears to have a real chance of defeating the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley.

"Gallup analysis shows that throughout 2009, Massachusetts' residents' average approval ratings for Obama were about 10 points higher than the national average: 67% vs. 57%."

Gallup's 2009 tracking data, consisting of 350,000 national interviews overall and 8,580 interviews in Massachusetts, show that, when initially asked with which party they identify, Bay State residents are no more Democratic than the nation as a whole. Instead, more of Massachusetts' residents can be classified as independents (including those who don't answer the party identification question at all and those mentioning some party other than Republican or Democratic), and significantly fewer identify as Republicans. In short, Massachusetts is a state with a small Republican base, but a state with a large base of those who don't have a strong allegiance to either party.

Still, the majority of Massachusetts' independents say they lean toward the Democratic Party when they are asked a follow up question about their political leanings. This yields the type of Democratic skew in party identification that may be more representative of typical perceptions of the political make-up of the state.


Fifty-seven percent of Massachusetts' residents either say they are Democrat or lean Democrat, compared to 48% nationally. The percent of Massachusetts' residents who identify or lean Republican is nearly 10 percentage points below the national average.

The results of the initial party identification question coupled with the results of the follow-up question suggest that Massachusetts residents are somewhat flexible in political orientation. The state's traditional Democratic voting record may not necessarily be "cast in stone."

Obama Job Approval

President Barack Obama made a hastily-scheduled trip to Massachusetts on Sunday to campaign for the Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley. Although Obama did not mention it specifically in his speech, it is clear that one issue of great importance to the Obama administration is the impact of the Massachusetts election on healthcare reform. Given the highly partisan nature of Senate support for the bill, its passage becomes at least somewhat more problematic if the Senate loses a Democrat and gains a Republican. Another bit of subtext in the Massachusetts election, of course, is the fact that some observers will view it as a referendum on the Obama administration more generally.

Gallup analysis shows that, for all of 2009, Massachusetts' residents' average approval ratings for Obama were about 10 points higher than the national average: 67% vs. 57%. This suggests that Obama's appearance on Sunday, and the media coverage that resulted, fell on generally receptive ears.


Bottom Line

The political leanings of all Massachusetts residents provide the broad context for elections in that state. It is important to understand that this political environment is not necessarily rigidly Democrat, but instead one built on an underlying structure with a substantial independent component. This may help explain why four of the five most recent governors of Massachusetts were Republican, at the same time that the Democrats have dominated control of the state legislature and federal offices.

As is usually the case in low turnout elections, the final results in Tuesday's special election may depend as much on the practical matter of getting voters to the polls as it does on the underlying partisanship of the state as a whole.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 353,849 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted in 2009, as part of Gallup Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage points. Results for Massachusetts are based on telephone interviews with 8,580 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted in 2009. For results based on the total sample of Massachusetts adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum sampling error is +-1 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones and cellular phones.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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