Why Does Massachusetts Produce So Many Presidential Candidates?

Political scientist Jeff Berry interrogates himself to find the answer, and it’s not eating lobster and baked beans
Portraits of seven men and one woman. A Tufts political scientist takes on the question of why so many presidential candidates have come from Massachusetts in the last 200 years.
Bay State politicians, top row from left, Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy; bottom row, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and Elizabeth Warren. Photo collage: Momo Shinzawa
December 4, 2019

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With the recent arrival of former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick into the 2020 presidential race, we at Tufts Now have been consumed by the burning question: why do so many presidential candidates seem to hail from the Bay State? 

We turned to Jeff Berry, the John Richard Skuse Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, who comments frequently on electoral politics for the media.

Berry, co-author of The Outrage Industry with Tufts sociology professor Sarah Sobieraj, thought the high number of candidates from Massachusetts was mostly just a coincidence, but was willing to delve into the issue—as long as he got to both ask the questions and answer them. It seemed like a good idea to us, too.

It seems like every presidential cycle, politicians from Massachusetts put themselves forward.

Jeffrey BerryIt certainly appears that way. This time around no fewer than four Massachusetts politicians—Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick, William Weld, and Seth Moulton—entered the fray. The newest entrant into the race, Michael Bloomberg, cut his political teeth in New York but was raised here in Medford. And don’t forget Bill de Blasio, who graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin. Plenty of prominent Bay State politicians have run in the past, including Ted Kennedy, Paul Tsongas, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., to name a few.

The state’s record for winning presidential party nominations is pretty impressive, no?

It is. Relatively recent party nominees include Mitt Romney, John Kerry, and Mike Dukakis. None of them won, but we’ve had our share of presidents from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy. The nation has only had 45 presidents. Do the math.

What explains Massachusetts’ prominence in presidential nominations and elections?

My own opinion is that it has to do with the unique Massachusetts diet: lobster with sides of baked beans and cranberries, washed down with a Sam Adams. Eat that for a year and you’ll be ready to run for president as well.

We’re not buying that. Politics is pretty intense here; are we just more into it than other states?

Politics is intense around these parts, that’s true. But politics is intense in a lot of places. I used to live in Maryland, and politics is blood sport there. But birthplace of presidents, it’s not. This time around all Maryland has given us is John Delaney. Is he still in the race?

OK, smarty pants. What explains Massachusetts then?

There’s probably some advantage for Massachusetts politicians that derives from the state’s distinct characteristics. Massachusetts today is a relatively wealthy and highly educated state. This provides an abundance of donors, fundraisers, strategists, and activists. The state’s unique collection of top-rated research universities also provides an array of experts and policy advisors for candidates. These schools challenge Massachusetts politicians to “raise their game” as prospective presidential candidates frequently interact with the faculty of these schools as they move forward in their careers.

That seems to make sense.

Well, maybe.

You’re now criticizing your own explanation. You’re really annoying.

So here’s the teaching moment. Social scientists look for patterns in data, that’s what we do. Presidential elections come only every four years, and so much has changed over the course of American history that it’s hard to compare elections over long periods of time. There was no such thing as a political party when John Adams ran, and a majority of delegates were not selected in presidential primaries until after the “this nomination was rigged” riots at the 1968 Democratic convention.

While Massachusetts politicians may have some modest advantages, I think the larger story about nominations is that our political parties don’t control the nomination process. Anyone can run, and many from all over the country hear the call to greatness every four years. Long shots with little initial party support can win a presidential nomination. Think of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. So why not run? I was thinking of running myself, but I love teaching at Tufts too much to leave.