Anecdotally, the Bay State's modern independent streak is often attributed to the rise of Republican Bill Weld, who is believed to have defeated Democratic challenger John Silber in 1990 on the back of independents, and who was re-elected in 1994 with more than 70 percent of the general vote. It's still up for debate whether it was prudent for voters to chase Dems from the corner office. But the electoral shift away from liberal executive leadership, and away from lefty Mike Dukakis, still continued for well over a decade until Patrick's win four years ago.
Statewide US Senate votes have also demonstrated anti-partisan currents. Though John Kerry has won most of his re-election bids in landslides (save for his 1996 squeeze against Weld), in 2002, with no Republican challenging his seat, more than 200,000 voters cast blank ballots. GOP protest votes may have accounted for some of those snubs, but in 2008, an unknown Libertarian from Springfield named Robert Underwood even managed to win 95,000 votes against Kerry — nearly six times the number of registered Libertarians in Massachusetts.
"Mostly they're really Democrats," says WBZ-TV political correspondent Jon Keller of the state's 2 million–plus voters who are "unenrolled," and who are often credited with determining elections in Massachusetts. "Clearly every now and then they want to smack somebody down, and there goes Martha Coakley flying off the love boat. . . . If you look at our state, where even suburban liberals acts like conservative rednecks in segregating their communities and schools, our independents are often just people who don't like the way things are going in their party."
Even with contrarian gusto charging the public, sovereign candidates are hobbled by Massachusetts election law. Each year the secretary of the commonwealth gathers specific voter data from registrars throughout the state, including name, occupation, date of birth, address, nationality, and veteran status. This information, maintained in a "central registry" that is not public record, is considered crucial for targeting voters, yet is only available to state party committees, which independent candidates are markedly unaffiliated with. (Anti-partisan advocates this year successfully lobbied to get Independent recognized as a political designation — hence the big "I" — but unenrolled pols running for district seats still enjoy no party benefits.)
"There are some things that inherently cripple independent candidates here," says Jim Spencer, president of the Campaign Network, who has consulted several dozen races in Massachusetts and in other states. "You can knock on doors until your knuckles hurt, but without access to those [voter files], it's almost impossible to do all the grassroots stuff that's necessary for an upset. . . . Most important, though, is money. You can have the best stance, and you can understand how to take out another candidate, but without money you can't drive the message home."
There's no reason for immediate partisan alarm. There are currently no third-party or Independent pols in either branch of Massachusetts state legislature, and many such candidates who are currently running here have less than $10,000, or in some cases nothing, in their war chests. As a reminder of Democratic dominance, earlier this year a University of Minnesota study identified the commonwealth as "the state with the most blow-out elections" — with a 73-percent average margin of victory in US House races from 2002 to 2008, the analysis revealed this as the "least competitive state" for congressional contests.