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Will Donald Trump’s taunts about Elizabeth Warren’s heritage backfire?

In November 2017, President Trump mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren while hosting members of the Native American code talkers at the White House.
In November 2017, President Trump mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren while hosting members of the Native American code talkers at the White House.(Oliver Contreras/Getty Images/Pool/File)

Over the past six months, President Trump has tweeted about Senator Elizabeth Warren and her Native American ancestry more often than he’s mentioned any other presidential candidate.

But could it backfire and actually help Warren?

A number of Democratic strategists say that Trump’s racist taunts mocking Warren could have the ironic outcome of helping defuse any doubts the lingering controversy has sowed with primary voters.

“It cuts both ways. It helps him with his audience, but in a weird way it almost empowers her on the Democratic side,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic consultant based in Columbia, S.C. Among other things, Trump’s attacks take voters’ attention away from thinking that Warren hasn’t been completely honest, shifting their assessment to “OK, this is the president making this a political issue because he’s afraid of her,” Seawright said.

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And, as Warren seeks to break from the ever-increasing pack of presidential candidates, there is no greater unifying force in the Democratic electorate than the party’s disdain for the president.

Polls and other research show that “when Trump weighs in on a racial topic, it really polarizes people — more so than the topic itself would just by itself,” said Celinda Lake, a top Democratic pollster and president of Lake Research Partners.

“So the irony here is, I think, when Trump weighs in, he actually has the potential to be increasing support for Elizabeth Warren because he is really polarizing people, and that includes polarizing people who are progressive on racial issues.”

Interviews with Democratic voters in New Hampshire, Iowa, and California suggest Warren’s Native American ancestry claims are not dominating her presidential rollout.

“Frankly, it has not been that big of a deal for me and my friends,” said Rick Larkin, 66, a retired prison worker who was attending a meeting of the Lee County Democrats in rural southeastern Iowa last weekend. “This is a thing totally created by Trump, and the media picks up everything he says. It’s kind of ridiculous.”

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Warren has fielded more than 100 questions — from people picked by lottery system — at campaign events since she launched her exploratory committee on Dec. 31, and she has been asked about the Native American controversy two times, according to her campaign. No one asked her about it during her seven-state tour kicking off her formal presidential bid, which wrapped up in California this week.

Some have managed to escape the barrage of headlines about it altogether. “I never heard of that at all,” Bob Anspach, a 62-year-old retired railroad conductor from Montrose, Iowa. “Should I defend her or is it a problem?”

Some voters said they felt it was a manufactured crisis, and characterized it as a controversy stoked by Trump and Republicans to hurt Warren.

“It’s so dumb. I think they just do that to distract from what her important message is out there,” said April Wong of Dover, N.H., waiting in line for a photo with Warren after an event there.

“She should never talk about it again because it has nothing to do with anything,” said Mike Compton, who cheered for Warren at a rally at the University of Iowa the day after she launched her campaign.

“I think it’s just a way to rag on her,” Lenny Isenberg, a contributor to CityWatch LA, said on his way in to see Warren speak on Monday in a packed theater in Glendale, Calif.

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Warren has resisted taking Trump’s bait since getting into the 2020 mix. Most of the time, she avoids mentioning him on the stump. The most notable exception to this, when she suggested Trump might be in prison by Election Day, was to explain to Iowa voters why she is mostly ignoring the president’s constant barrage of “racist” and “hateful” comments.

Republicans are skeptical that Trump’s attacks help Warren. “Trump returning to this line [of] attack baits Warren into defending a claim that is problematic and even fraudulent. Every time she tries to explain it, she is on the defensive and distracted from her main message,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, who served as Mitt Romney’s spokesman during the 2012 presidential campaign.

An extensive Globe investigation found clear evidence that identifying as Native American did not help Warren get hired in any of her academic positions.

But Warren’s decision to release results of a DNA test last fall to prove she has an indigenous ancestor sparked anger among some tribal leaders and liberal activists. One Cherokee Nation leader said it was “inappropriate and wrong” for the senator to suggest even vaguely that she has any claim to tribal citizenship based on DNA.

Ahead of her formal presidential announcement, she apologized to the chief of the Cherokee Nation for “harm” she has caused to the understanding of tribal sovereignty, and the tribe’s leaders and other prominent Native Americans — though not all — indicate they’ve forgiven her.

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“She was wrong to do so, and she has apologized. . . . Many of us are pulling for her, (she is smart and knows how to get things done!!),” Native author Elizabeth Cook-Lynn wrote in an op-ed in Native Sun News Today, a weekly newspaper in South Dakota that describes itself as “the most connected Native American newspaper in all of Indian Country.”

Still, some voters said the controversy is coloring how they view Warren.

During Warren’s swing through Eastern Iowa in the days after her launch, a handful of voters brought up the latest Native American news unprompted as a lingering concern they had about the senator.

For many, the fear that the issue hurts her ability to beat Trump weighs more heavily than the substance of her past claims.

“I think the Native American thing is a problem,” said Jerry Crawford, a longtime Democratic operative in Iowa who’s worked on several presidential campaigns. “People laugh about it, and it’s not good when people are laughing, generally speaking.”

At the county Democrats meeting in Donnellson, Iowa, 74 year-old Diane Kearns said Warren signed her book at a private reception in Des Moines a few years ago.

“I thought she was so warm and personable,” said Kearns. “But this whole Native American thing is starting to look like baggage, and I don’t want baggage, particularly after how hard we worked for Hillary and how that turned out.”

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Symone Sanders, who served as Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 press secretary and helped his campaign with outreach to black voters, said the narrative that Warren lied about her heritage threatens to “permeate” the minds of voters, especially those of color, who aren’t following Warren’s campaign closely.

“The campaign needs to swiftly and broadly address it once and for all,” she advised, suggesting a long-form interview that’s widely accessible to voters, such as the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club,” which recently hosted Senator Kamala Harris, another Democrat running for the White House.


Liz Goodwin and Jess Bidgood of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.