On a main street in a heavily black and Latino neighborhood south of Boston, the windows of Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s campaign office were plastered with signs for President Barack Obama. Outside, a Baptist minister giving an invocation addressed the U.S. Senate candidate as “Sister Elizabeth.”
For Warren, who’s running to unseat Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the office opening in Roxbury last month is part of a plan to avoid the fate that befell the last Democrat to seek the office. In 2010, blacks and Latinos stayed home and helped Brown win the seat held by Ted Kennedy for almost 47 years. This year, Warren has marched in ethnic parades, run editorials in a black-owned newspaper and held a forum sponsored by the NAACP.
“Where do you see her opponent anywhere talking about anything that matters to any of us? Nowhere,” Andrea Cabral, the first black Suffolk County sheriff, told the crowd of about 100. “Not voting is not an option.”
Brown’s upset in 2010 over Attorney General Martha Coakley was helped by a “disproportionate drop” in turnout in areas with large percentages of minorities and the poor, groups that traditionally favor Democrats, according to election returns compiled by Stephen Ansolabehere at Harvard University and Charles Stewart III at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“With minority voters fully engaged, the race is much more competitive,” Stewart, who teaches political science at MIT in Cambridge, said in an interview. “The engagement of minority voters is what makes this a competitive race, rather than a fairly safe cakewalk for an incumbent.”
The last time the post was up for grabs, after Kennedy died in office in 2009, Brown and Coakley had less than five months to win their party primaries and campaign. The Massachusetts Democratic Party had only five workers in three offices, while the Republicans had no offices.
This year, the Democrats have almost 70 field employees in 45 offices. The effort draws from what Governor Deval Patrick’s re-election team built two years ago and national organizers mobilizing for Obama, who crushed Republican John McCain 61 percent to 36 percent statewide in 2008. Polls show Obama beating Mitt Romney this year, while Warren and Brown have traded leads for months.
Brown’s team isn’t writing off the minority vote. The campaign will open its newest office in a Latino enclave of Jamaica Plain, said Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican Party. Brown attended a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial breakfast in Boston and played at a charity basketball game with the Reverend Talbert Swan of Springfield’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
All 11 of the party’s campaign offices are new this year. Buckley declined to specify a staffing level, saying only that it was appropriate to mount a “considerably more robust grassroots effort than we ever have before.” Brown is the only Republican in the congressional delegation from Massachusetts, where less than 12 percent of the electorate is registered with the party.
Brown is pushing a message intended to resonate with all residents, said Alleigh Marre, a spokeswoman.
“The issue on the minds of voters, regardless of their background, is how best to fix our broken economy,” she said.
As Warren addressed the crowd in Roxbury, Brown held a meet-and-greet three miles (5 kilometers) down the road at an Irish pub, where its whiter clientele more closely reflected the racial breakdown of the suburban and rural communities where he enjoys the most support. In the 2010 special election, Brown won higher shares of the electorate in every Massachusetts city and town than McCain did in 2008, according to Stewart. In the whitest areas, Brown won by the widest margins.
“You have to show your face around here,” said Horace Blue, 37, a black state corrections worker who voted for Brown two years ago and was attending the Warren rally in Roxbury. “My vote is not for granted.”
Historical voting trends suggest that the demographic changes Massachusetts has undergone in recent years should favor Warren. While the state’s population increased by about 3 percent from 2000 to 2010, the Latino population surged 47 percent, according to Phillip Granberry, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Some of the state’s biggest cities, such as Boston, Springfield and Lawrence, are now “majority-minority,” with non-Latino whites making up less than 50 percent of the population.
The trick for Warren’s campaign -- as it is for Democrats nationally -- is getting those voters to show up on Election Day. While minorities lean Democratic, they are among the least likely to cast ballots, exit polls and studies show.
Minority turnout is “absolutely critical,” Warren told reporters in Roxbury after addressing the crowd.
“This is not my race; this is our race,” she said. “I got in this because I understand the urgency of the moment and the people in this community and this city and the people in this commonwealth need a fighter on their side.”
Warren was back in Roxbury today, at the Twelfth Baptist Church, where a group of black clergy endorsed her.
Coakley, who was criticized for ignoring blacks and Latinos, received 845,000 fewer votes than Obama did two years prior, according to MIT’s Stewart.
Warren will win Boston, said David Paleologos, who runs Suffolk University’s polling center in the capital. The question is by how much, and the answer is likely to determine whether she unseats Brown, he said. Democrats need to run up big margins in urban areas and hold their own in suburban and rural areas, and Republicans the opposite, he said.
Having a presence in high-density Democratic strongholds is a cost-effective way to bolster community members’ personal connection to a candidate and boost turnout, Paleologos said.
“Of all the ingredients that make up the voter electorate, communities of color are the sugar for the Democrats because it sweetens the final product.”