Have Massachusetts Democrats lost faith in pitching their brand of politics to the rest of the country – or are they just afraid of choosing Senator Elizabeth Warren as their standard bearer?
Around the country, Warren’s presidential prospects are surging. But back in Warren’s home state of Massachusetts, a new poll shows former vice president Joe Biden leading her by 12 points. A little more than 40 percent of the 370 likely Democratic primary voters surveyed in the recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll are undecided, so those results are far from definitive.
With registered Democrats, Warren’s problem isn’t likability. In this survey, she has a 71 percent favorability rating with those voters. It’s electability, said David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, who conducted the poll. “The poll tells us that Democratic voters want Trump defeated in 2020,” said Paleologos. “The intensity to remove Trump supersedes any nuanced policy differences between the Democratic candidates at this point.” For the moment, that benefits Biden. “What we’re seeing in early states and national polling is a reinforcing perception circle: Biden polls best against Trump. Biden builds leads in Democratic primary. Trump engages Biden one-on-one. Biden gets stronger in Democratic primary,” explained Paleologos.
In the meantime, electability concerns undercut Warren’s support at home.
They could be connected to Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 and fears that sexism could once again hobble a female presidential candidate. Or they could be rooted in the deeper knowledge Massachusetts voters have about Warren’s vulnerabilities. Since her first Senate campaign, in 2012, Warren’s claim of Native American heritage generated extensive local coverage. And even those who dismiss its importance as a measure of character or honesty know that Trump will gladly bludgeon her with it. According to this poll, 51 percent of unenrolled (independent) voters and 93 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Warren. Some voters who like her as senator may also feel betrayed by Warren’s presidential quest.
Massachusetts Democrats could also be suffering from post-presidential traumatic stress disorder. John F. Kennedy’s victory was a long time ago. Since then, losing presidential candidates have been mucked up as “Massachusetts liberals.” In 1988, George H.W. Bush did it to Michael Dukakis. In 2004, the strategy was redeployed against John Kerry. George W. Bush loyalists attacked him not just as an elitist, but as a disloyal war protester who undercut fellow Vietnam War veterans. As the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, even Mitt Romney was haunted by what the right labelled his liberal past as governor of Massachusetts.
Paleologos said that, unlike past Massachusetts Democrats, Warren is more national than local. Her campaign is gaining traction with help from a national press that’s falling in love with her plans for everything from breaking up big tech to erasing student debt. A jobs plan she calls “economic patriotism” even won praise from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
Currently, her Massachusetts identity is mostly tied up in her status as a former Harvard law professor. As a presidential candidate, she highlights her Oklahoma roots and the financial difficulties faced by her family when she was growing up there. She talks about her “daddy’s heart attack,” the brothers who went off to join the military, and how her Aunt Bee rescued her when she was raising her children and teaching at a law school in Houston.
Keeping the focus on being an Okie keeps the liabilities that come with being an elitist from Massachusetts at a distance. For now, anyway.
If she loses primaries in Massachusetts and neighboring New Hampshire, it will be viewed as rejections by those who know her best. And if she goes on to win the nomination, Republicans will do what they always do: tie Massachusetts liberals around her neck — whether or not they want to be there.