The 11% Fallacy

(Food for thought. – promoted by Rob “EaBo Clipper” Eno)

I frequently see references here to the notion that the Massachusetts Republican Party makes up only 11% of the electorate in the state. Strictly speaking, that’s true, but I think it’s misleading. The true Republican base vote is significantly higher than the registration numbers would indicate because many “unenrolled” voters are, for all practical purposes, Republicans.

In the 2010 statewide elections, the worst-performing Republican nominee (William Campbell for Secretary) won 31% of the vote. I consider myself a fairly well-informed voter, but I knew next to nothing about Mr. Campbell – just that he was the Woburn City Clerk and a Republican. I don’t know how he proposed to exercise the office differently from Secretary Galvin. I suspect very few of the 720,000+ people who voted for Mr. Campbell did so because of any personal characteristics or policy preferences. I suspect the vast majority voted for him because he was the Republican nominee and, in a low information campaign, they’re inclined to vote for the Republican candidate. That, to me, makes them Republicans in all but name.

So if these folks are reliably Republican when it comes to the voting booth, why aren’t they registered as Republicans? I suppose some part of it may be social pressure; if you grew up in a Irish Catholic family where everyone’s a Democrat and idolized JFK, it’s easier to say “I’m independent” but vote for Republicans in private than to publicly identify yourself as a member of the GOP and risk being a black sheep. But I think the more likely explanation is based on a rational cost-benefit analysis.

What are the costs of registering as a Republican in Massachusetts? Well, the biggest one that comes to mind involves primary elections. Registered Republicans can only vote in Republican primaries; “unenrolled” voters can vote in either party’s primary. Contested Republican primaries are rare in Massachusetts. It’s difficult enough to find one Republican candidate for most offices, let alone two or more. On the other hand, they’re pretty common on the Democratic side. Given the overall political tilt of the state, voting in the Democratic primary is often your best chance to influence who will actually win elective office. And there’s nothing to prevent you from voting in a Democratic primary (whether for the “least bad” candidate or the “weakest” one) but then voting for the Republican nominee in the general election.

What are the benefits of registering as a Republican? Unless you’re planning on running for office or you want to become heavily involved in running the party machinery, I don’t know that there are any. You might have greater opportunities to get involved in campaigns as a registered Republican, but even there, I can’t imagine any Republican candidate or town committee would turn away volunteers who are “unenrolled” voters. And for the average voter who isn’t a political junkie, being “invited” to participate in campaigns is more of a burden than a benefit.

With that said, I’m less surprised that the Republican registration figure is “only” 11% than I am that more than 460,000 Massachusetts voters ARE registered as Republicans, when only a handful are truly “active.” In my town, there are almost 900 registered Republicans, but only fifteen ran for the town committee. Rather than asking why I don’t register as a Republican, I’d ask why they do.

About Tappan Wentworth