Massachusetts presidential primary elections seen as more relevant than usual this year

Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — City Clerk Wendy Mazza made a bold primary election prediction this week: Voter turnout will be between 75 and 80 percent.

In 2004, when Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was on the primary ballot, the city had a turnout of 28.6 percent. In the 2008 primaries, when Barack Obama faced off against Hillary Clinton and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was on the Republican side, turnout was 53.1 percent.

But Mazza said she expects the coming presidential primary on Tuesday to blow those numbers out of the water.

“Just from the sheer number of people voting absentee, it has been very busy in here,” Mazza said. “You can’t help but read the newspaper and see it on there; people know what is happening.”

For Michelle Serra of Florence, who spoke to the Gazette while holding a Bernie Sanders sign at the intersection of Main and King streets Thursday, Massachusetts is more relevant in this year’s primary season than it has been in the past, particularly in 2008 when she supported Obama.

“The energy is just so different than in other primaries,” she said. “I’m obviously supporting Bernie Sanders and what we see is that Massachusetts is a very important Super Tuesday state. The win in New Hampshire gave him a huge boost and he’s polling strong in Massachusetts.”

Serra said that in the past Massachusetts has been seen as an “establishment state,” and Clinton carried the state by double digits in 2008. Now Serra is hoping for a double-digit win for Sanders.

“I thought it would be a tight race, but now that more people have been exposed to Bernie and more debates have happened, the undecided voters are really coming on board as strong supporters to vote on Super Tuesday,” she said.

As she spoke, a crew for Japanese public television station NHK was also interested in the Massachusetts primary race, and focused its cameras and microphones on Serra and her fellow volunteers. Director Akihito Arai, through the translation of his crew member Kaz Kobayashi, said his station is interested in the support for Sanders.

“The reason we are here is we heard that this town has lots of young Bernie supporters,” he said.

The segment will run in mid-March and will focus on the election cycle’s two outsider candidates, Sanders and billionaire businessman and Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

“We’re looking forward to meeting many people,” Arai said through his translator. “We’d like to know why many people not only in the U.S., but people in the world, are supporting Bernie. On the other hand, lots of people are supporting Trump and we’d like to know why.”

On the Republican side, Trump is polling way ahead of his rivals and most expect him to win the state handily. Jay Fleitman, chairman of the Western Massachusetts Republicans, said he finds a recent poll that puts Trump at 50 percent of the vote “flabbergasting.”

He said he thinks the fact that there are four other candidates in the race — Dr. Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — is the main reason Trump will win.

“I think if we had two candidates rather than five, I think it would be very clear that Trump wouldn’t be winning, frankly, and our race would look similar to the race on the Democratic side, but we have all these other candidates diluting the section of the population who don’t want Trump.”

Fleitman said he supports Kasich, but would back Rubio as well if he is the nominee.

Despite viewing it as an important contest, few Republican campaigns are active in the state, Fleitman said.

Tom Lesser, who has organized local fundraising events for Hillary Clinton, agreed that this year’s Massachusetts contest is more relevant than it has been in the past. Of the 11 states that will vote on Tuesday, Lesser said Clinton is widely projected to win the six Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Of the remaining states, Massachusetts is the largest one up for grabs in terms of delegates.

Both Sanders’ and Clinton’s campaigns realize this, he said.

“In 2008 the Obama campaign pulled out of the state about a week before the primary when they realized they weren’t going to win,” he said. “This time both sides are fighting hard on the ground and will be through Tuesday.”

Whether or not Sanders can manage a win in Massachusetts may determine whether his candidacy remains viable, Lesser said.

“I don’t think we’ve had a consequential primary in a long time and I don’t think we’ve had a primary this close or a primary where it was going to make such a difference,” he said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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