One year ago this fall, Alex Morse upended all kinds of preconceived notions about electability when he won the Holyoke mayor's race.
"Old Holyoke makes way for New Holyoke as Alex Morse, 22, elected mayor by defeating incumbent Elaine Pluta, 67," read the election-night headline on MassLive.com, reinforcing what had become the shorthand take on the race: Morse, fresh out of college and in his first-ever bid for elected office, representing a new vision for the city; Pluta, a veteran of city policies, representing (in what was not necessarily a completely fair view of her politics) an older brand of governance that was becoming obsolete. Morse won the race by a respectable 53 to 47 percent.
That Morse would find political success wasn't really such a shocker; he's a smart and ambitious man who ran a positive campaign focused on inclusiveness and the city's great potential. But that Morse would succeed in Holyoke, where the political scene might diplomatically be described as "traditional"—well, that was another matter.
As a new report from the Springfield Institute put it: "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."
So how did Morse pull off his victory? That's the focus of the Springfield Institute report, which looks closely at one particular factor: Holyoke's Latino population, which is large in number—48.4 percent of the city's total population, according to the 2010 Census—but still underrepresented in city government.
"Given his progressive and non-traditional profile, and the fact that Morse speaks fluent Spanish, a hypothesis emerged that Morse was able to do what no other candidate in the region—or perhaps even in the country—has been able to do," the report's authors wrote. "Maybe Morse had mobilized the city's substantial Latino population such that voter participation was proportionate to the city's demographics."
Voter engagement is an important focus of the work of the non-profit Springfield Institute. "We've been studying voter participation, and particularly disparities in voter participation in Springfield, for several years now," Aron Goldman, SI's executive director, said. "Our most recent one had the most grim results in terms of equality."
That report looked at the November, 2011 election in Springfield, which included a contest between incumbent Mayor Domenic Sarno and Jose Tosado, then president of the City Council. While on paper Tosado looked to be a strong challenger—he was regularly a top vote-getter in Council races and was the first-ever Latino mayoral candidate in a city whose population is 38.8 percent Latino—he was beaten by Sarno by a rather bruising 78 to 22 percent of the vote. (Goldman, it should be noted, was a volunteer consultant for Tosado's campaign.)
Voter turnout, citywide, in Springfield's 2011 election was an embarrassingly low 22 percent. And it varied significantly from neighborhood to neighborhood: in wards with high minority populations, voter turnout was at its lowest—as low as 11 percent in Ward 3. In contrast, in Ward 7—which has the lowest minority population in the city—34 percent of registered voters turned out at the polls. While the SI report offered several theories to explain these disparities, one thing was clear: even with a Latino mayoral candidate on the ballot, Latino voters were, for the most part, not engaged in the 2011 election.
But what about up the highway in Holyoke, Goldman and his colleagues wondered. "Several of us had this vague impression maybe something very different happened in Holyoke," he said. "There was a lot of excitement and momentum about Alex's victory ... that suggests that maybe he'd done something different, maybe he had actually inspired that silent majority in Holyoke and done what so many campaigns, political and otherwise, have been trying to do for a long time all across the country"—engage Latino voters.
"We were eager to get beneath the hype and see if the numbers really supported that—the feeling that something critical had changed in Holyoke," said Goldman, who wrote the report, "Did Alex Morse Make History in Holyoke? An Analysis of Voter Participation Disparities,"with Daniel Alter and Pete Skurman, two Amherst College students who came to the project through the college's Center for Community Engagement. The researchers analyzed voting and demographic data and also interviewed both Morse and Pluta, as well as some of their supporters.
The findings, they knew, could have implications beyond Holyoke. "We sort of let ourselves imagine that maybe this is an opportunity to capture and document a strategy for mobilizing this underrepresented group," Goldman said. "If we could do this and put it out there, this would be unusually valuable to all sorts of political campaigns [and] movements across the country."
The SI researchers might have hoped to find clear evidence that Morse secured the mayor's office by capturing the Latino vote. But what they found was more complicated.
As expected, with his message of inclusion and his fluency in Spanish, Morse did, indeed, carry more of Holyoke's individual wards with high minority populations than Pluta did. But when votes in the city's high-minority wards were combined, Pluta, it was revealed, actually had a slight edge, which the report attributes to the large number of votes she won in her home precinct, 2A. "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," they wrote.
So what accounted for Morse's victory? Like many successful candidates before him, Morse was able to win over voters in the city's largely white upper wards, where voter turnout is reliably higher. "[T]he deciding factor seems to be that in high-turnout, low-minority precincts, Morse did particularly well, and his opponent was particularly weak," the authors wrote.
The report suggests several factors that likely contributed to Morse's victory, including his strong anti-casino position, which appealed to many voters in the upper wards particularly, and his focus on rebuilding the city's economy in large part through high-tech development—a pitch that, presumably, sounded more persuasive coming out of the mouth of a 22-year-old than that of a 67-year-old.
Then there was what the authors referred to as the "irony of a progressive narrative." Morse's progressive stances, his fluency in Spanish and his position outside the city's traditional power structure, they wrote, made it "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," the report noted. "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."
The researchers also found that, just as having a Latino candidate in the Springfield election did not do much to increase Latino voter turnout in that city, Morse's efforts to engage Latino voters in Holyoke apparently didn't have a large effect on their numbers at the polls, either.
While voter turnout, overall, was higher in Holyoke than in Springfield—38 percent, compared to Springfield's 22—there were race- and ethnicity-based disparities in both cities, according to the report. "We found that voter participation in high-minority wards [in Holyoke] is actually significantly higher than it is in Springfield, but we also found that voter participation in low-minority wards in also higher than in Springfield. And it has been for several election cycles," Goldman said.
"Voting has been a more popular activity across the board in Holyoke, and it's been like that for several years, which means, in fact, the disparities in voter participation in low-minority wards and high-minority wards [in the two cities] is about the same," he continued. "So the inequality is the same in Springfield and Holyoke. That was surprising and disappointing."
Still, based on the qualitative information he and his colleagues gathered through interviews with Holyoke residents, Goldman does believe that Morse's focus on connecting with Latino residents had an effect, even if it was not seen immediately in the election results. "We got a lot of really compelling testimony from other people saying how it wasn't just that Alex knew a few words of Spanish, or knew school Spanish," he said. Rather, Morse's command of the language, and the time his campaign spent in high-minority wards, signaled to people a commitment that felt genuine.
In turn, the candidate appeared to receive the kind of commitment not many had received before him. "There were lots of Morse signs in places where you never used to see any political signs, in the Flats and such," Goldman said.
"Alex may not have made history in that election, but something qualitatively different seems to have been going on," he added.
And that leaves Goldman and his co-authors optimistic about the future. Voting habits are slow to change, and the kind of groundwork done by Morse's campaign could very well help bring about that change, he said.
"It makes a lot of sense that Alex could have started something the fruits of which we haven't seen yet and won't see for several election cycles," Goldman said. "The initial ingredients are there for the eventual emergence of the community. But it takes time, and it's not up to any one individual to make that change."