Twenty-two years old, gay, half-Jewish, Ivy Leaguer, and challenging an incumbent mayor in this quintessential post-industrial New England mill town, Alex Morse was by no means an obvious candidate. Right up until he won the preliminary election in September of 2011 by a single vote, comments like “He’s great, but he has no chance in hell” could be heard in some circles. (We enjoyed his contribution to our 2011 participatory budgeting event, accompanied by campaign worker, Juan Gonzalez.)
Morse turned his striking but narrow victory in the preliminary election into a decisive victory in the general election. He received national media attention, and he found himself at the White House holiday party with Barack and Michelle a month later.
But the national coverage was not very in-depth, referencing his age, his optimism, and a few basic facts about the city. And it was short lived.
The central question remained unanswered: How did he do it?
Given his progressive and non-traditional profile, and the fact that Morse speaks fluent Spanish, a hypothesis emerged that he had been able to do what no other candidate in the region–or perhaps even in the country–has: mobilize the city’s substantial Latino population, and close the voter participation gap.
This analysis is modeled after our Springfield analyses, which have revealed severe and chronic disparities caused by a variety of factors. We hoped our Holyoke analysis would tell a very different story. We even allowed ourselves to imagine that if we could document Morse’s uniquely effective strategy for mobilizing underrepresented groups and eliminating voter participation disparities, we could provide inspiration and practical guidance for movements struggling with the same problem all over the country.
Voting is up, but still unequal. Our analysis revealed that almost twice as many people voted in high minority wards (1, 2) in Holyoke as compared to high minority wards in Springfield. But more people voted in low minority wards too (3, 7) as compared to Springfield, so the level of disparity is about the same in the two cities. Our longitudinal analysis (2007, 2009, and 2011) revealed that participation rates in all Holyoke wards has steadily increased. Holyoke’s 2007 rates were as low as Springfield’s 2011 rates. But again, disparities have remained constant in Holyoke since 2007.
Who won the Latino vote? A breakdown by candidate in each ward and precinct is revealing. While Morse won more high minority precincts, Pluta’s large margin of victory in the precinct where she lives (2A) gave her a narrow margin of victory (39 votes) according to overall votes in high minority wards. Particularly given that even high minority wards contain White voters, and that the race and ethnicity of individual voters is not known, it is impossible to say that either candidate won the Latino vote.
Instead, the deciding factor seems to be that in high turnout, low minority precincts, Morse did particularly well, and his opponent was particularly weak.
National trends. Voter participation disparities are hardly unique to Holyoke. Latinos are notoriously underrepresented at the polls nationally. The neighboring city of Springfield, about which SI has published several voter participation analyses, is a particularly vivid example. Even when the Latino community is largely Puerto Rican and therefore citizenship is not a factor, even when there is no new legislation to restrict voter access, and even when the candidate is a well known Puerto Rican himself (City Council President José Tosado), voter participation is two-to-three times higher in low minority wards as compared to high minority wards.
Conventional campaign strategies. The Morse and Pluta campaigns both used voter lists to identify frequent voters, decided how many of those voters needed to pledge their support to ensure victory, and focused their energies on reaching that target number. Both candidates made sure to spend time in every ward, though Morse’s Spanish was good enough to make meaningful connections during visits to the lower wards. But both candidates knew that winning depended on getting to the target number of commitments from frequent voters who tended to live in high turnout, low minority wards.
The irony of a progressive narrative. Because Morse was an outsider, his politics are progressive, and he speaks fluent Spanish, it was easy to imagine that he could have made history in Holyoke by rousing the sleeping giant that is Holyoke’s Latino population. While the data does not really support this narrative, it may have been nonetheless inspiring–ironically–to White, affluent, progressive voters in Holyoke’s high turnout upper wards, and thus paved the way to victory. Ward 7 in particular is considered to be a young, White, relatively affluent, and progressive bloc–“professors who got priced out of Northampton,” according to one resident. There appears to be no analogous section of Springfield.
Casinos. This election was much more of a referendum on casinos than the wide-ranging political rhetoric suggested. Morse distinguished himself as one of the only public figures in the region to take a clear stand against casinos. Morse considered a casino antithetical to his vision for reviving downtown, creating a sustainable local economy, and improving quality of life (see his recent essay in CommonWealth Magazine). To illustrate his position, Morse often used the example of how the Holyoke Mall emptied out the downtown. This position also resonated powerfully in the upper wards, contributing to a coherent progressive narrative.
“Paper City” to “Digital City.” Morse himself personified next-generation urban revitalization. Morse heralded the arrival of the Green High Performance Computing Center, talking about Holyoke’s future as “a Digital City.” He was also ubiquitous on Facebook, using it effectively to galvanize his following.
Voting is habitual, and so is not voting. There are several reasons to believe that Morse’s approach to inclusion is exactly the right one, and that it will take several election cycles to reverse historical trends. An inspiring narrative may be just the beginning.
FURTHER RESEARCH AND ANALYSIS
According to a recent and lengthy NY Times blog post, a city council campaign in San Antonio, Texas disregarded the conventional wisdom that, in order to win, campaigns must ignore infrequent voters (typically in communities of color) and allocate resources almost exclusively to frequent voters (typically in White communities). And yet their candidate won. This election would be a good subject for a future voter participation analysis using the same methodology.
The Republican’s Greg Saulmon assembled a good comparison of Holyoke’s 2011 preliminary and general election results by precinct. Combined with the demographic data in this analysis, it may be possible to show that, between the preliminary and general elections, Morse created his lead with new support largely from high minority wards. More research specifically regarding post- preliminary election strategy shifts could be revealing.
METHODOLOGY, CAVEATS, AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This analysis is a close adaptation of the methodology used to analyze four elections in Springfield, MA. To assess voter participation disparities, we overlaid demographic data from the 2010 census according on voting ward boundaries (ward map). GIS maps were used to assign individual census blocks to each of Holyoke’s seven wards. This overlay is a labor intensive project requiring GIS skills. We are pleased to be able to make the Excel files available here in order to facilitate and encourage further analysis (Block-by-block match-up here; Ward summary here).
One limitation is that although we have precinct-level voter participation rates (there are 2 precincts per ward in Holyoke), demographic data (“% minority”) is only ward-level. Demographics can vary significantly between precincts within a single ward. Another limitation is that 2010 is the only year for which we have demographic and voting age data, even though the actual numbers are almost certainly in flux during the period analyzed (2007-2011).
We sought the perspectives of a range of Holyoke stakeholders in order to more fully understand the data. If time allowed, there are many more people we would have liked to consult. Here is the list of people who generously contributed their time and insight:
Rebecca Lisi, Holyoke At-Large City Councilor
Betty Medina Lichtenstein, Executive Director, Enlace de Familias
Alex Morse, Holyoke Mayor
Elaine Pluta, former Holyoke Mayor
Nelson Roman, Pluta campaign manager and owner of Phoenix Dance Studio
Greg Saulmon, Assistant Online Editor, The Republican
Theresa Vincent, Holyoke Mayoral Aide
We are also grateful to the Amherst College Center for Community Engagement for their support.