BOSTON — Elizabeth Warren has long struggled to capture independent voters in her home state of Massachusetts.
This dynamic betrays a fear among Democrats who are already thinking ahead to a high-stakes general election matchup with President Donald Trump. Some worry Warren’s low approval numbers among Massachusetts independents — particularly men — foreshadow a potential lack of appeal to independent voters she would need in crucial states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin should she become the Democratic nominee. Those states were all sources of a painful Electoral College loss in 2016.
“The fact that Warren underperformed Hillary Clinton in 228 of Massachusetts’s 351 towns, and did so in a blue wave year, speaks to her weakness with working-class white voters on the ballot,” said Cook Political Report editor Dave Wasserman, who analyzed the two-party vote share in each Massachusetts town in the 2018 midterms, when Warren was reelected. “Many parts of Massachusetts are culturally more similar to Wisconsin or Michigan than they are to Cambridge or Boston or Amherst. And that has to be a serious concern for next November, should it get to that.”
It’s not a perfect comparison; Wisconsin and Michigan are different from Massachusetts. But Warren’s home-state standing gives us a glimpse into how she might perform elsewhere. Warren won reelection by a decisive 60 percent in 2018. But not only did she underperform Clinton’s 2016 vote share by 3 points in the two-party vote share, she also underperformed relative to Barack Obama in 2012 during her first Senate campaign.
In her 2018 reelection, Warren actually performed better than Clinton among rural voters in western Massachusetts, and worse in the Boston suburbs and parts of Cape Cod. Data shows wealthy voters favored Clinton over Warren; FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich crunched the numbers and found Warren underperformed Clinton in the 12 wealthiest towns in Massachusetts (perhaps not a huge surprise, given her decades-long fight against big banks and corporations).
Numerous people told me Warren didn’t have to campaign terribly hard in 2018; her win was all but assured, as her opponent was a little-known pro-Trump Republican. She didn’t run television ads in the state and gave a chunk of her fundraising money to down-ballot candidates.
“In 2018, Elizabeth raised and donated $11 million to help elect Democrats up and down the ballot across the country, as she won by a 24-point margin without spending any money on television ads,” said Warren 2020 spokesperson Gabrielle Farrell. “She ran to proudly fight for the people of Massachusetts, and now she’s running for president because our country needs big structural change, and she has a plan to make our government work for everyone, not just a thin slice at the top.”
Given that Warren is a progressive senator representing the liberal state of Massachusetts, the fact that she’s on Morning Consult’s list of the 10 most unpopular senators has raised eyebrows. If Warren’s such a great candidate, some wonder, why isn’t she doing better in her home state? And does it raise legitimate electability questions if she winds up winning the nomination?
The answer to Warren’s home state question is complicated, much like her political identity in Massachusetts. It’s wrapped up in her national fame before she became a politician and how she defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown in 2012. And it’s connected to the same gender politics she’s facing as a presidential candidate.
“For everybody who thinks that Massachusetts is a blue state to the left of Pluto, when it comes to electing women, it’s not,” said veteran Massachusetts political analyst Mary Anne Marsh. “What has been inescapable for a long time and should be said out loud is Massachusetts is a predominantly white, Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic state.”
Warren’s place in Massachusetts politics and what her constituents think of her is key to understanding her 2020 presidential campaign — and whether it will be successful.
“Either people love her or people hate her”
Voters in Massachusetts seem to be of two minds about Warren: “Either people love her or people hate her,” Rob from Brookline, Massachusetts, told me at the Boston sports bar Tony C’s, just outside Fenway Park (he asked to be identified by his first name only).
Rob and his friend Jared Manville are Warren fans; Manville thinks she’d “absolutely make mincemeat” out of Trump in November 2020. But he also told me he understands why some people don’t look at Warren’s Senate tenure in such glowing terms.
“The people that are anti-her [think] this is a stepping stone to get to the big seat,” he said.
Independent voter David Grahling, 71, doesn’t plan to vote for Warren in the 2020 primary. “I think she’s a little too radical. Her agenda is a little over the top,” Grahling said as he sat on the Boston Common. Grahling told me he thought Warren has done a good job as senator, but he’s not a fan of her national agenda as a presidential candidate — including her plan to wipe away student debt for the vast majority of Americans, which he calls “insane.”
Earlier in her Senate tenure, Warren’s approval ratings were riding high in the mid-50s. But partway through 2018, as whispers about a presidential run began to mount, her favorability rating started to dip closer to 50 percent, and her unfavorables began to climb. While Warren’s Senate colleague Ed Markey has had similar favorability ratings, his unfavorables have remained much lower.
Warren’s Massachusetts approval numbers are lower with independent men. These are the voters in Massachusetts like Grahling who are more politically aligned with the state’s moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and see Warren as too far left. They’ve been a weak spot for Warren since she first ran in 2012. Exit polls showed Brown did better with independent voters (particularly men), while enthusiasm among women and the Democratic base helped propel Warren to a win.
Pollsters told me Warren’s dip in approval may have had to do with Massachusetts voters being afraid she was about to launch a campaign for president — a fear that was soon confirmed. A fall 2018 Suffolk University poll showed 58 percent of likely Massachusetts voters didn’t want her to run.
“I think that what might have been represented back then was, ‘Oh, another one,’” said Lois Pines, a former Massachusetts state senator and a former fundraiser for Warren. “Everybody who gets elected in Massachusetts ... wants to become president.”
Elizabeth Warren’s unusual path into Massachusetts politics, explained
Understanding Warren as a political creature means understanding the 2012 Senate race where she beat Republican Scott Brown against the odds.
“She comes to the Massachusetts environment as a kingslayer,” said Mark DiSalvo, a member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, describing her 2012 win.
Warren’s rise in Massachusetts politics in 2011 and 2012 was meteoric.
The then-Harvard Law School professor had made a name for herself nationally through her work creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. A frequent guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Warren developed a national following. She gave a voice to the frustration of millions of Americans about how reckless bets by America’s biggest banks and Wall Street hedge funds had led to millions having their life savings wiped out. But Warren was reluctant to get into politics. She had no political experience before deciding to run for Senate.
“She was telling us in 2009 in the classroom that she had never wanted to be part of politics,” said Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, a former student of Warren’s at Harvard. “Her first instinct was to decline when she was asked by people in government to start getting involved.”
Massachusetts Democrats were stunned by Brown’s special election victory winning the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat in 2010. Brown cultivated an affable, bipartisan image, but he wasn’t willing to buck conservative party leaders in the US Senate. His record on health care and reproductive rights encouraged Warren to get into the race.
Warren entered a crowded Democratic primary field in September 2011 with five other candidates including City Year co-founder Alan Khazei and Newton Mayor Setti Warren (no relation to her). Marjorie Arons-Barron, a former political journalist and consultant in Massachusetts, noted the power of Warren’s name recognition. “People got to know her very quickly,” she said.
It was obvious the other Democrats couldn’t match the excitement and money pouring in for Warren.
“There really wasn’t anyone like her,” said Joyce Linehan, a key player in Massachusetts Democratic politics who now works as the chief of policy for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
Some complained that national Democrats like then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were favoring Warren from the start. At one point, Khazei challenged Warren to join him in rejecting campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists and PACs. Warren’s Senate campaign declined to do so. Warren has replicated Khazei’s challenge in her presidential campaign today, even upping the ante by refusing to do high-dollar fundraisers.
People who attended early house parties with Warren still talk about them in hushed tones, calling them “magical.” Warren spoke to many of the same themes that are in her presidential campaign speeches today, including corporate responsibility and addressing income inequality on a national scale.
“I want to live in the kind of America that has Elizabeth Warren in the United States Senate, because her vision of America is one that uplifts all of us,” Linehan wrote in Commonwealth Magazine after hosting one of the first Warren house parties in her living room. After seeing Warren speak, Linehan volunteered to knock on doors for her “until my hands bleed.”
Warren easily cleared the primary field. When it came time for the general election, Brown and Massachusetts Republicans worked hard to paint her as a socialist and a communist.
At first, it appeared to be working, with Brown out-polling Warren by double digits. But Warren came from behind in the last stretch and beat Brown by 7 points. National issues had defined her from the beginning of the campaign, but they had also helped her win the Senate seat.
“Elizabeth Warren was elected because she had a national platform,” said DiSalvo.
The gender gap in Warren’s support
The fact that Warren lags with a certain type of male voter isn’t exactly a surprise: Massachusetts politics was an old boys’ club for decades.
The state elected its first woman to the US House, Edith Nourse Rogers, in 1925 and would send Republican Margaret Heckler to Congress in 1967 and Democrat Louise Day Hicks in 1971. But it would be nearly 40 years before Massachusetts would send another woman to Congress in 2008, when Rep. Niki Tsongas was elected. Warren was the first, and still its only, woman senator. While there are more women in the federal delegation, the state has yet to elect a woman to the governorship.
There’s an eerie comparison to draw between former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley’s failed 2010 Senate campaign and Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. Coakley had a reputation for being “cold” and prone to gaffes about Boston’s beloved sports teams, while Brown presented himself as an authentic New England everyman. When it was Warren’s turn to run, people wanted to know if she could come off as authentic: Boston-based writer Jen Deaderick remembered asking Warren her chief concern at an early house party: “Do you know who’s on the Red Sox?”
Warren had to win over the state’s political elite, but she also had to convince people in working-class Boston suburbs and Massachusetts towns. Some of Boston’s heavily Irish Catholic population were initially skeptical about a Harvard Law School professor representing them in Washington — and a woman at that.
When exit polls of the 2012 Senate race were released, it became apparent Warren had won over more women than men, including independent women. One of Brown’s biggest problems was Massachusetts women, a group with whom he ran nearly 18 points behind Warren. It was a big coup for Democrats.
“Basically, she won back the women voters that Scott Brown had won in 2010,” pollster Steve Koczela, the president of the MassINC Polling Group, told me. “Brown basically closed the gap to zero among women voters in 2010.”
It’s a trend reflected today; a November 2018 UMass Amherst poll found that while Warren polled the same as former Vice President Joe Biden among female registered voters in Massachusetts, she trailed him a full 16 points among male registered voters in the state.
“There is a gender gap certainly, and winning over independent men will be a challenge,” said Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos.
Massachusetts has a complicated political identity
Despite Massachusetts’s liberal reputation as the home of heavyweights like former Sens. John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, it’s also home to a lot of moderate voters — like the ones who elected (and reelected) Gov. Baker.
“Obviously, there are a lot of Democrats in this state, but a lot of Democrats who aren’t necessarily super liberal,” said David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College.
The laundry list of complaints about Warren from moderate or right-leaning voters has always been some combination of her being too progressive, too nationally focused, and too ambitious. Some Massachusetts voters have long been convinced she’s using the Senate seat as a stepping stone to higher office.
“I would suggest I think there’s a higher likelihood of people doubting whether she could win a general election in Massachusetts than there is in the country,” DiSalvo said.
The Massachusetts economy has prospered along with the national economy in recent years. The state recently legalized marijuana (which it will tax), and a brand new Encore casino just opened in Everett. In Boston, at least, it feels like things are booming. And people give the credit largely to state politicians like Baker and the Massachusetts state legislature, not Warren.
“I wouldn’t say we are where we are because of Warren,” said Jared Manville, the Boston resident I spoke with.
Warren has tried to address concerns that she’s a national senator
Warren was a viral sensation before her political career even began. She stood in front of a packed living room in Andover, Massachusetts, talking about an entirely different vision for America before she ever jumped in the Senate race.
“You built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea, God bless. Keep a big hunk of it,” Warren said. “But part of that underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Warren’s ideas left a deep impression. When President Barack Obama more clumsily offered up a similar mantra, it became a meme at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Republicans including presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney busily tried to rebut the idea.
As a senator, Warren became known for many more viral moments, like her grilling of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf and her refusal to stop reading a letter by Coretta Scott King about then-Sen. Jeff Sessions during his nomination to be Trump’s attorney general. That prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s famous admonition: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Warren turned the phrase into a rallying cry. Some Warren fans have gotten “nevertheless, she persisted” tattoos. But this national success comes at a cost back home.
“She’s not prioritized a Massachusetts-based political persona,” said Hopkins, the Boston College political science professor. “She’s had her sights on national issues.”
Still, that perception may not be totally fair. Warren has balanced those viral moments in the Senate with policy work blending state and national issues: sky-high housing and rental costs, an opioid crisis, and crumbling infrastructure like Boston’s long-neglected subway. She regularly hosts roundtable calls with mayors from all over Massachusetts to get an idea of what issues they’re facing in their communities, and these roundtables often yield policy ideas.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said Warren has been an important federal partner for his city. Lawrence is working-class and immigrant-heavy; it and neighboring towns were part of the largest gas pipeline explosion in the state’s history in 2018. Warren’s imposing national profile was a huge asset when dealing with Columbia Gas, Rivera said.
“Having a senator of her gravitas to be able to be that influential — even if it’s just her bully pulpit — to bring the hammer down on Columbia Gas,” Rivera said. “When they got a letter from Sen. Warren, they got on it. They didn’t want to be in [her] crosshairs.”
In many ways, Warren’s presidential campaign is reminiscent of that first 2011 listening tour. She is talking about her same core issues — eradicating student loan debt, holding Wall Street accountable, and bringing back good-paying middle-class jobs — with the same intensity on display in that packed Andover living room.
“You see the Elizabeth Warren she’s always been,” Marsh said.
The question is, which Warren is that? She might be the one who will make “mincemeat” of Trump, or the one who voters complain is just a little too radical.
“I’ve learned not to doubt her,” Linehan told me. “She’s running the campaign she wants to run.”
Correction: An earlier edition of this story stated Rep. Niki Tsongas was the first woman Massachusetts elected to the US House. It was Edith Nourse Rogers, who was elected in 1925.