Analyst sees diversity as new factor in Hub vote

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / November 2, 2009

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Boston’s mayoral election tomorrow has attracted little national attention, even if it is the toughest election fight Mayor Thomas M. Menino has faced in 16 years. On the surface, it seems like a Boston rerun: an up-and-comer with an Irish surname against an entrenched incumbent who captured more than double the votes of his closest challenger in the preliminary election.

But the chairman of MIT’s top-ranked political science department, who has taken a detour from his research on national issues to examine the Boston race, says Boston’s changing demographics have become a major factor in local politics. That fact is evident in how the two candidates spent their time yesterday - both visited predominantly black churches.

“In the nation’s eye, Boston is a very white city,’’ said MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III. “But it’s not. It’s a majority minority city.’’

Stewart is best known for his analysis of presidential elections, and he recently helped write a brief on behalf of the Voting Rights Act cited during oral arguments in the US Supreme Court.

But this fall, with few notable elections across the country, the renowned political scientist has followed the Boston mayoral race with the gusto of a college student tracking his fantasy football team. Stewart has crunched and recrunched numbers, pitting precinct votes against income levels, race, ethnicity, and political ideology.

“I can’t help myself,’’ said Stewart, a Cambridge resident whose fourth-floor office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a commanding view of the city he is studying. “There’s data out there, and it’s the only thing going. If you’re a little crafty, you can tease out things that are not obvious.’’

Political scientists identify what they call pivotal voters, a core demographic that often decides elections. In the old Boston, the city that sent James Michael Curley and Raymond L. Flynn repeatedly to the mayor’s office, the pivotal voters were older, white, and ethnic, a group Stewart called traditional big-city Democrats.

But in 2009, the key demographic has changed. Minority residents and younger whites who are relatively new to the city are now the pivotal voters, Stewart said. They are people less attached to Boston and more committed to specific issues, lifestyles, and racial identities.

“It’s clear that the racial composition is changing and that candidates are trying to figure out how to respond to race,’’ Stewart said.

For fun, the head of the political science department ran a regression analysis using racial statistics and charted data with clusters of circles that to a layperson looked more like splatter paintings than graphs offering insight into the mayoral election.

In September’s preliminary election, Menino fared better than his challenger, Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty Jr., in neighborhoods dominated by liberal and minority voters, according to Stewart’s analysis. Flaherty held his own, however, in more conservative, white enclaves.

“So the question is, how does Flaherty respond?’’ Stewart asked. “In the olden days, a candidate in that position might try to really inflame racial feelings in the city and go for the base that is angry and anxious.’’

But Flaherty did the opposite in the sprint to the general election. He asked his leading opponent in the preliminary, Sam Yoon, a Korean-American whose politics more closely match those of the incumbent mayor, to be his running mate.

“The fact that that is the response - rather than to try to press even further into the older, white ethnic voters - tells you that Boston has really changed, like much of the nation,’’ Stewart said.