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Can McCain Win Massachusetts?

By Anil Adyanthaya

Can a Republican presidential candidate win Massachusetts? In most years, because of the state's dark blue reputation, the answer clearly would be no. But if the race is between John McCain and Barack Obama, there is an opportunity for a Republican to claim Massachusetts's 12 electoral votes. This opportunity exists because of the respective appeal of McCain and Obama to the true dominant political "party" in Massachusetts - the independents.

While Massachusetts is justifiably described as a Democratic state when compared to the Republicans (approximately 37% of the state's registered voters are Democrats versus 13% who are Republicans), it actually has far more registered voters who do not formally align with any party - about 49% according to the state Elections Division. That Massachusetts had only Republican governors from 1991 until 2006 demonstrates that these unenrolled voters can do much to overcome the Democrats' numerical advantage over Republicans.

But what about the Bay State's recent exclusive preference for Democratic presidential candidates? Since voting for Ronald Reagan in 1984, Massachusetts voters have supported the last five Democratic presidential candidates. Yet paradoxically, this favorable trend, when examined more closely, demonstrates that an Obama victory in Massachusetts is far from guaranteed.

Of the five Democratic candidates who won Massachusetts, three (Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and Al Gore in 2000) could fairly be described as centrist Democrats, while two (Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004) were liberal Democrats. Dukakis and Kerry were, of course, Massachusetts-grown presidential candidates, so it remains uncertain how Massachusetts voters would respond to a liberal candidate from outside the state. The early indications are that Massachusetts voters are not favorably disposed to such a candidacy, as Hillary Clinton, a centrist Democrat in the mold of her husband, carried the state's primary by over 15 points over Obama.

In Massachusetts, unenrolled voters can vote in either party's primary. So it would seem that in a race against a Republican, the independents who voted for Clinton in the primary would simply shift their support to Obama. Unfortunately for Obama, such a scenario is not guaranteed with McCain as the Republican candidate. McCain is simply a more appealing candidate to independents than Obama is.

One of the main selling points of the Obama campaign is his alleged ability to transcend politics and "bring the country together." But his bipartisan efforts thus far have largely been focused on the "easy" issues - for example, peace in Darfur and securing conventional weapons stockpiles. These are noncontroversial topics in the sense that they do not break down along party lines, and it required no great courage or ability for Obama to work with Republicans on them.

The next Democrat who criticizes Obama for working with Republicans on these issues will be the first. Most of the time Obama is a stalwart Democrat. According to Congressional Quarterly, he has voted with his party on approximately 97% of the party-line votes that have taken place during his time in the Senate. This result should be no surprise, of course, given his National Journal ranking as the most liberal U.S. senator.

Now contrast this with McCain, who has been excoriated by other Republicans for his consistent collaboration with Democrats on highly politicized issues such as campaign finance, immigration and judicial nominees. What has led McCain to be so criticized by other Republicans - his genuine independence - is precisely what makes him so appealing to independents and preferable to Obama's facade of bipartisanship.

Another advantage McCain has comes from Obama's long and close relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama's seeming tolerance of Wright's execrable anti-American rantings not only contradicts his campaign's positive message of hope, but also weakens its patriotic underpinnings. A strong patriotic message is an absolute necessity for a White House run.

Any dilution of this message will hurt Obama, but especially so in Massachusetts. Because of Massachusetts's central role in the American Revolution, patriotism is perhaps more a part of this state's history and culture than any other. One of the reasons Massachusetts voted for Reagan in 1984 was the national pride he restored through his inspirational leadership. Massachusetts voters will reject a candidate who does not make them feel proud to be Americans.

While the taint from Reverend Wright would hurt Obama against most opponents, it could prove fatal to a campaign against McCain. McCain's love of country and his extreme sacrifice in her service are both legendary. A contest between McCain's personal story and his indisputable patriotism and the conflicting message of hope and national self-hatred now coming from Obama is no contest at all.

If McCain ultimately selects former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as his running mate, it could further improve his chances in Massachusetts. Romney was a competent and respected governor and his presence on the ticket would remind Massachusetts voters of everything they do not have in their current governor Deval Patrick, whose governorship to this point has been heavy on public relations gaffes and legislative failures and light on any real accomplishment. Even better for McCain, Patrick is a key Obama adviser and Obama's political and rhetorical doppelganger. Like Obama, Patrick was a liberal unknown who used lofty words - on occasion, the exact same words Obama uses today - and the promise of change to talk his way to electoral success.

Patrick's dismal gubernatorial performance likely was another factor in Obama's poor showing in this state, as Bay Staters were justifiably skeptical of a candidate who offered hope and change with little specifics or experience to support his promises. Obama's close connection to Patrick can also explain his disappointing showings in New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Both states are part of the Boston media market and thus very familiar with Patrick's struggles as governor.

So can a Republican presidential candidate win in Massachusetts? The answer seems to be yes, as John McCain appeals more strongly to the state's independent "majority" than his likely Democratic opponent Barack Obama. At the very least, the contest will be tight and Massachusetts voters will get to experience up close a competitive presidential campaign for the first time in 24 years.

Anil Adyanthaya is a lawyer and writer who lives in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts.

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