Elizabeth Warren’s campaign malaise continues to mystify. However, as election season enters its post-convention phase, underlying reasons for her inertia have begun to emerge. The bad news for Warren is that they’re not easy to correct.
Warren’s candidacy appears spawned from Washington, D.C. – contrived by higher-ups in her party – and she’s done little over the past year to dispel that perception. She has shallow political roots in Massachusetts, having developed her public persona as a consumer technocrat in D.C. and as a special aide to President Obama. True believers in her party have fawned over her with descriptors like “rock star,” but to others – beyond those who wore funny hats and screamed on the convention floor in Charlotte last week – she’s come across as mediocre.
This is unfortunate for a campaign facing Scott Brown – the ultimate organic grass roots candidate. Brown earned much of his respect among the electorate the hard way, jumping onto the national stage as a consummate underdog.
Brown’s is a tough story to trash, especially among nearly half of the Massachusetts electorate who are Independents. He’s methodically honed his reputation through a relatively bi-partisan voting record and an affable presence throughout the Commonwealth. His most recent example of shrewd decision-making was selecting the week of the Republican National Convention to serve his National Guard duty and ascend to the rank of full colonel – a convenient time to show voters in his home state that he is not bound by a national party agenda. That plays well in Southie.
Warren, in contrast, hasn’t been able to close the perception gap, even though her strategists knew a year ago that this would be her biggest challenge – or did they? If anything, she’s added to it through an awkward, generic strategy where she often tries to fit round-peg national messages into the square-hole of Massachusetts politics.
Most recently, Warren copied the national template of attacking Republicans and accused Brown of being “anti-women.” Given his strong voting record and pro-choice platform, the charge is downright silly. She’d have known that – and might have hesitated when political advisors harangued her to deploy that message based on their national polling and focus groups – if she had thought through the local political terrain. Much of Warren’s anti-Wall Street and protect-the-middle-class rhetoric attacks Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan – but not Brown directly. Brown often draws laughs when he points out that Warren is running against him – not Romney and Ryan. Yet, Warren stubbornly refuses to adapt her message.
The D.C.-centric view of the race was typified recently when Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne – the quintessential inside-the-Beltway pundit – referred to Brown as “Mr. Personality.” Dionne didn’t realize that he wasn’t effectively disparaging Brown as much as he was dissing the Massachusetts electorate – particularly the Independents – who pride themselves on being able to spot a phony. And they don’t see Brown as that.
The first crack in the conventional narrative is that the race is close, “within the margin of error.” A poll by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling revealed in late August that Brown had opened up a five-point lead. Some insiders believe this figure may be even higher. For its part, the Brown campaign, and the senator himself, radiate confidence – an odd posture if polls indicate closeness within the margin of error. It seems more like a campaign that believes it has set the stage for a classic case of vote-splitting – Obama and Brown – as the senator’s latest television ad implies.
The likelihood of Warren seeing the light didn’t seem promising until this week. On primary day, Warren claimed she wasn’t a politician, and that, “the idea that (she) could calibrate something is just kind of beyond (her) reach.” The Boston Globe reported on Tuesday however, that under extreme pressure from Democratic leaders, she may recalibrate – television ads at least – to try to come across as warm and fuzzy while attacking Brown directly. It’s late in the game, but desperate times in the Warren campaign call for desperate measures. And that’s good news for Brown.