Left out

Its population is stagnating and its vote is predictable. In the years to come, will the rest of the country care about New England?
January 3, 2007 11:26:38 PM

LEGENDS BEFORE THE FALL: John F. Kennedy (left), Michael Dukakis (middle), and John Kerry (right) all hail from New England.

When it comes to national politics, New England just ain’t what it used to be.

Since John F. Kennedy ran and won in 1960, the region has been a hothouse for presidential candidates: Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Ed Muskie, Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman, Mitt Romney, and Chris Dodd (yes, he’s in the running).

But it’s been a long time since it was a national bellwether — “as Maine goes, so goes the nation” seems a quaint anachronism now.

Even New England’s greatest claim to national political prominence, the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, is under siege. The national Democratic Party has already placed the Granite State among a group of rapid-fire early contests for the 2008 election, and the likely placement of New Jersey and Florida right afterward might retire New England’s retail-politics mythos altogether.

Then there’s the stagnation of the region’s population, confirmed by new US Census estimates released last month, which will likely reduce — for the fourth straight time — the number of congressional districts and electoral votes. November’s elections made clear that New England is a solidly blue region whose electoral votes can be penciled in two years ahead of the actual election. As a result, the region is perpetually left out of national ad campaigns, which increasingly serve as the country’s platform for public debate on policy issues.

Today, “New England is always part of the blue base, so it’s never a playground,” says Scott Ferson, a political consultant with Liberty Group in Boston. “New England, and the entire Northeast, is arguably becoming irrelevant.”

The region’s last, best claim to power rests with the clout of its veteran Democrats, who now find themselves in the majority in both houses of Congress. But even that is overblown: the New England delegation is full of freshmen, and its veterans are distracted by thoughts of higher office.

Let’s face facts: politically, New England is becoming America’s dusty, cobweb-bestrewn attic, seldom visited and largely forgotten.

Shrinking, shrinking
When JFK ran in 1960, the six New England states had 40 electoral-college votes. By the time Dukakis ran in ’88, the number was 36. For Kerry in 2004, it was just 34.

At least one more congressional seat will be lost in the next reapportionment after the 2010 Census, according to two studies using the Census estimates released last month.

That change would leave the Bay State with just nine congressional seats and 11 electoral votes. Massachusetts has already fallen behind North Carolina and Georgia; after reapportionment, Washington and Arizona will pass Massachusetts in congressional districts and electoral votes.

Other parts of the country are not only growing in population, but becoming more politically competitive, while New England becomes less so. Arizona was once considered a politically irrelevant state, with a small, reliably Republican population. No longer: it is now in play for both parties and promises a higher electoral prize than in years past. The same is true of the top tier of Southern states — including Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee — which have proven to be winnable for Democrats, and continue to gain population and importance. Western states such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Montana are also newly competitive.

Considering that the number of battleground states is only growing, making it ever easier for both parties to write off New England, the region may be on the verge of becoming the Arizona of the 21st century.

It’s almost hard to believe that Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine all gave their electoral votes to the Republican candidate in five straight elections, between 1972 and 1988. Massachusetts and Rhode Island each went Republican twice during that stretch.

Since then, the only state to go red was New Hampshire, by one percentage point, in 2000. For the past four presidential elections, the six New England states have averaged a 16 percentage-point margin of victory for the Democratic candidate.

The states still have some high-ranking Republican officeholders — but those are mostly holdovers, well-liked moderates from the old days. And in November, voters went a long way toward sweeping them out. They left just one Republican congressman — Connecticut’s Chris Shays — two of six governors, and four of 12 US Senators. Plus, all 12 legislative chambers are now controlled by Democrats, most by huge margins.

Still, that New Hampshire vote in 2000 helped give George W. Bush his margin of victory. So, in the final five weeks of the 2004 campaign, the presidential candidates and outside groups spent $4.6 million in New Hampshire, and $2.1 million in Maine — and a big zero in Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, according to a study by FairVote, an election-reform advocacy group based in Maryland.

Even the New Hampshire and Maine figures were meager, given the nearly quarter-billion dollars spent on television advertising nationally during those five weeks, most of it in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

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