Massachusetts, we are told by the purveyors of conventional wisdom, is solid Clinton Country. We're talking big-time Hillary to the bone. That convention, and the built-in advantage that comes with it, makes it an uphill battle for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton's chief opponent, to mount any kind of challenge ahead of the state's March 1 Democratic presidential primary.
Thousands of Sanders's supporters have felt "the Bern" and rallied in Massachusetts over the course of the campaign, but that hasn't translated into institutional support for the socialist Democratic Vermonter.
Until this week, Sanders had generated minimal support from organizations and elected officials here. Only three labor unions have officially backed Sanders: Ironworkers Local 7 in Boston, the Brockton Postal Workers' Union and several chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
On Thursday, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, the vanguard of the progressive wing of the Massachusetts Legislature, became one of the first elected officials to back Sanders's candidacy.
Eldridge hopes his endorsement will energize the state's progressives.
"I don't think it'll have significant impact, but I think it's a strong signal to progressive voters that they should consider supporting Bernie Sanders," Eldridge told WGBH News.
The key issue in Massachusetts, as well as the rest of the nation, says Eldridge, is wealth inequality. Sanders, according to the Acton Democrat, is totally focused on this.
"I just think back to 2008 when I was one of the few legislators to endorse Barack Obama. Almost all my colleagues in the State House were supporting Hillary Clinton,” Eldridge said, relating that in Massachusetts, the Obama campaign was a “bit of an insurgency”.
Eldridge isn’t claiming electoral equivalency for Sanders and Obama. But he does suggest that Sanders’s underdog status could help him in the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries.
Sanders drew big at a rally in October at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. The appearance drew almost 30,000 people, according to the Sanders campaign. The challenge for the Sanders camp is to capitalize on that raw enthusiasm and channel it into an effective grassroots campaign.
Former Gov. Deval Patrick began his local political career as an insurgent, as did Attorney General Maura Healey.
"There've been a lot of pockets of self-organized activity throughout the state,” Sanders's Massachusetts state director Paul Feeney told WGBH News. “We know there has been an incredible amount of volunteer enthusiasm.”
The Sanders plan in the Commonwealth is to get enough boots on the ground to support ad hoc groups that have popped out around the state. The campaign, however, won't say how many volunteers they're working with, or how many paid staffers are on hand.
Sanders has started to staff up. The campaign brought on state director Paul Feeney, a union organizer, to head the effort, with field director Andrew DeStefano and communications manager Joe Caiazzo, a veteran of previous Democratic campaigns, joining more recently. Feeney told WGBH News in December he hopes to hire five or six organizers soon to staff field offices around Massachusetts.
According to Feeney, the campaign has a database containing "tens of thousands" of Massachusetts residents who've identified themselves as Sanders volunteers.
Though the race seems to be Clinton's to lose, the distant-third candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, is still giving it a go. O'Malley (alongside top Bay State supporter, Boston City Councilor and nonrelative Matt O'Malley) was in Boston in December for a $250-and-up fundraiser at the Kinsale Irish Pub & Restaurant downtown.
The most recent polling of the state's primary may be out of date. Still, it showed Clinton with a sizable lead over Sanders. A Suffolk University poll for The Boston Globe in November showed Clinton with a 25-point lead over Sanders, and an earlier Emerson College poll from October placed the former secretary of state 34 points over the Vermont senator.
Without any public polls for almost two months, Clinton's lead may have changed over time, which the Sanders campaign is counting on.
Few politicos in Massachusetts were surprised last month when Clinton's presidential campaign announced its extensive Bay State leadership team. Among the Democratic movers and shakers on the list of Clinton-backers is the state's entire congressional delegation, save one (more on that later). The Clinton campaign locked up the support of most of the state's Democratic establishment early on, leaving little room for Sanders and O'Malley.
"This is a state that has been with the Clintons for a very long time. They aren't newcomers to Massachusetts politics. They've been campaigning here for decades. They've had support here that's very deep over a very long period of time," Stonehill College professor (and MassPoliticsProf blogger) Peter Ubertaccio said.
If you take Clinton's support in the Legislature as a barometer of her statewide support, you can see how formidable a slog Sanders could have. More than a month ahead of the primary, Clinton has locked up support from 23 of the Senate's 34 Democratic senators (over two-thirds) and captured 63 of the 125 Democratic members of the House (just over half).
"I think people know her and they trust her. She's been here many, many times, not just because she went to school here. But I think she speaks to the progressive values of the people of Massachusetts, the primary voters of Massachusetts," former State Treasurer and former Democratic National Committee chairman Steve Grossman, a Clinton supporter, said.
The remaining primary wild card appears to be the endorsement of state's most popular and significant Democrat, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Warren is the only member of the state's congressional delegation not already on Team Clinton. The senior senator's left-wing populist message is similar to Sanders's, but the pragmatic Warren hasn't thrown her support to any Democrat just yet.
Grossman said Warren's hesitance to endorse any of the candidates is because she has been focused on winning U.S. Senate seats in other states.
"I don't think she's ready,” Grossman said of Warren. “She respects Bernie Sanders enormously for his up-front progressive liberal values, which isn't to say that she doesn't respect Hillary. I think she's just got two outstanding candidates running and she prefers to let the voters speak."
The closest Warren has come to showing any support for the like-minded Sanders came Tuesday after the candidate gave a speech critical of Wall Street and reforms suggested by Clinton at the financial industry's home lair in Manhattan. Warren tweeted that she's glad Sanders "is out there fighting to hold big banks accountable, make our economy safer, & stop the GOP from rigging the system." About an hour and a half later, Warren covered her tracks with another tweet, saying that she's glad all the Democratic candidates in the race "are fighting for Wall St reform."
Ubertaccio said the rank-and-file Democrats in Massachusetts may have aligned behind Clinton early because they just don't see Sanders as a viable general election winner, regardless of whether he's more in sync than Clinton with the politics of the left.
"While it's true that some members of the Democratic activist base are much more closely aligned with either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, the larger institutional party has been backing the Clintons for many years," he said.
Since the Clintons have been in national politics, they have enjoyed considerable success in Massachusetts. Clinton beat then-Sen. Obama in the state primary in 2008, capturing 56 percent of the vote to Obama's 40. In 1996, President Bill Clinton enjoyed a wide margin of victory over Republican Sen. Bob Dole in reelection campaign. The Clintons even registered a comparatively strong performance out of the gate when the then-Arkansas governor finished third in the 1992 primary (just behind popular California Gov. Jerry Brown) that was dominated by hometown favorite, the late Sen. Paul Tsongas.