What Pathways to Victory Look Like in 3rd District Race
Even if turnout in Tuesday’s primary is low -- a distinct possibility, given that the election comes the day after Labor Day, but by no means a certainty -- there will still be tens of thousands of votes cast across the 3rd Congressional District’s 37 towns and cities.
Because of those numbers, candidates do not need to win in every single area to secure the Democratic nomination Tuesday. Several pathways to victory exist, experts say, with a number of variables in contention.
UMass Lowell political science professor John Cluverius identified two central themes that may dictate the winner: candidates who came into the race with a larger footprint relying on that natural advantage, and everyone else ensuring an even level of competitiveness across the district.
Here’s how those paths look.
KEY STRATEGY 1: If a candidate has an existing base, rely on it
Most of the field vying to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas came into the election with little name recognition. Of the 10 Democrats on the ballot, seven have never held elected office of any kind, and several moved into the area shortly before running.
State Sen. Barbara L’Italien and state Rep. Juana Matias, though, already represent 3rd District communities in the Massachusetts Legislature, meaning thousands of people have at least once before cast votes in their favor -- an important boost to their current efforts. And to a lesser extent, Lori Trahan has an existing footprint in the district, too, as a result of growing up in Lowell and living in Westford.
For candidates who have them, those bases are a crucial foundation for victory. L’Italien losing Andover or Matias losing Lawrence would eliminate a pre-existing advantage and would therefore require them to make up significant votes elsewhere in the 3rd District.
“I think if you see L’Italien down in both Lawrence and Andover, you have to ask serious questions about her competitiveness in the race on election night,” Cluverius said. “At the same time, I think that if you see L’Italien first in both those areas really racking up votes, then that’s a signal that she’s been able to turn out her base, and then the question is how the rest of the district sorts out.”
Another wrinkle to the matter is that L’Italien and Matias share a large portion of their constituency: both represent Lawrence, with L’Italien also covering Andover, Dracut and Tewksbury. As a result, one’s gains directly damage the other’s efforts.
“If there’s a large Latino turnout in Lawrence, I think Juana Matias has a very good chance of winning,” Cluverius said. “At the same time, I think that that also naturally hurts L’Italien, who has represented Lawrence for a long time and whose voters are familiar with her and are experienced in voting for her.”
KEY STRATEGY 2: Finish at or near the top everywhere
Unlike presidential elections, congressional races are decided by the raw popular vote across the entire district. Communities do not designate their entire vote total to the candidate who receives the highest percentage,
In Cluverius’ view, candidates such as Dan Koh and Rufus Gifford who do not share the same natural constituency as L’Italien and Matias will likely need to compete everywhere. A particularly low finish in one of the district’s 37 towns and communities might create an insurmountable gap despite victories elsewhere.
“The obvious numeric path to victory is ‘win the most votes,’ but to do that, you have to not lose substantially in any part of the district,” Cluverius said. “There are a lot of potential candidates who can shave off pieces of the electorate that are big enough to make a difference in the final outcome of the election.”
An example: if Candidate A wins Lowell, Fitchburg and Haverhill by a margin of 500 votes each, but finishes fourth in Lawrence 2,000 votes behind the winner, Candidate B, then Candidate A would find him or herself in a losing position.
Lowell will be the most important single community in the race because it is the most populous. In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, for example, about 4,600 more votes -- almost 50 percent more -- were cast in Lowell than in Haverhill, which had the second-highest turnout.
But candidates do not need to win Lowell outright so much as keep the margins tight enough since, once again, the final vote tally is all that matters.
There is precedent, too, for a pathway to victory not including Lowell: when Tsongas won the 2007 special Democratic primary, she received 2,500 fewer votes in the Mill City than Eileen Donoghue. However, Tsongas had enough success across the rest of the then-5th Congressional District to secure the nomination regardless.
It will be interesting to see how candidates perform beyond the most populous regions of the district. Koh and Gifford are the only candidates with official campaign offices in Fitchburg -- or, for that matter, anywhere in the greater Fitchburg area -- but there are altogether fewer votes up for grabs in the western communities than in the Haverhill-Lawrence-Andover corridor.
KEY STRATEGY FOR ALL: Get out the vote
Uncertainty remains high in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in large part because of the volatility in this field: in the most recent poll conducted in mid-August, the leader, Koh, had only 19 percent support and a 6-point lead, while almost 30 percent of voters remained undecided, keeping several more candidates within striking distance.
Several experts have said in recent weeks that the race will likely come down to converting early support into hard votes rather than a specific geographic strategy or policy push. In the final hours, candidates are certain to scramble every ounce of ground game they can to broadcast their central campaign messages.
“Dolly Parton gave some really famous advice that ‘you should know who you are and do more of it,’” Cluverius said. “In politics, when you’re faced with an uncertain election, that’s the best thing you can do. In many ways, trying to control something that has so much uncertainty only results in adding more uncertainty about what you’re doing.”
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.