Inside Scoop: Can Elizabeth Warren Really Win?
It was a grim, sleety day in Chicopee, a gritty postindustrial town in western Massachusetts, where paint flakes off worn-out bridges and boarded-up factories. At a community relations luncheon, kind security guards were opening back doors and holding out umbrellas for the few willing to brave the freezing slush. This was not a campaign stop, we reporters were told decisively by Alice Buckner, the business and community liaison at the nonpartisan, federally funded Westover Job Corps Center. If Elizabeth Warren showed up, she would be visiting with students, not campaigning.
Around us, upbeat young Jobs Corps enrollees—ages 16 to 24, brown and black and white, skinny and fat, tattooed and pierced and dyed—were setting up the room and the banquet table. Among our handouts were heartbreaking student essays about choosing jobs over drugs; gastric bypass surgery over helplessness; and overcoming bullying by practicing the new skills of energy, enthusiasm and hard work.
Chicopee’s mayor, Michael Bissonnette, took the podium to tell the students that he had grown up in the projects, and he knew their biggest problem—themselves. They had to look themselves in the mirror each day and say, “I can do it.” Then he introduced his “good friend” Elizabeth Warren, who was running for US Senate and who had something to say about all this.
Cue the movie music. The shining candidate stepped forth, tall and thin, with her no-fuss bob and warm blue eyes. Her kind voice and earnest enthusiasm lit up the room. She told her humble story as if it simultaneously meant nothing and everything. She came from hard-working middle-class parents. Her father had a heart attack that landed him in a lower-paying job; the resulting medical bills meant they lost the family car. She married at 19—maybe not the best decision, she said, smiling as she met students’ eyes—and was a mother by 22. After teaching special ed, which she loved, she took a big leap and decided to go to law school, at which point she discovered that her future depended on potty-training. She could only afford childcare—and therefore, could only go to law school—at the lower rate offered for children who were “reliably toilet trained.” It took three bags of M&Ms, she said, but by the day her daughter turned 2, the girl was potty-trained and enrolled in daycare. On that same day, Warren started law school.
The tattooed girl with crossed arms relaxed and leaned forward. The young women sitting at Warren’s table nodded enthusiastically. This was inspiration they understood.
And that is what will win or lose the election for Warren or incumbent Republican Scott Brown. Not their sharply different political philosophies; the people who would be swayed by those have already chosen sides. Most of the electorate is not really paying attention yet. And when they do, they are not deciding the way you and I do. Ideology and policy are not how these independents select a candidate. They’re not watching "The Rachel Maddow Show" or "The O’Reilly Factor"; they’re not reading The Nation or National Review. They’re getting dinner on the table, racing from work to pick up kids after school and following the Sox, Bruins and Pats. They pick candidates the way they pick friends: which one is honest, straightforward and sincere? Which one understands their lives?
Warren’s lightly sketched story went on for a few more minutes. When she graduated from law school nine months pregnant with her second child, she couldn’t get a job, so she opened up a law office in her living room. Although she later became a “fancy pants” Harvard professor, she was still a teacher at heart, and so happy to be here. She was running for Senate, she said, so that she could see that all of them, the people in that room and the rest of the American middle class, get a fair shake. So that she could keep an eye on the banks and credit card companies that try to trip folks up with “tricks and traps” and rigged mortgages. So she could bring jobs to people who were ready to work hard.
Given the dreary wintry mix, the hall was only about one-third full. There were maybe ten Job Corps students, some serving and some seated. Another ten or fifteen adults were there to learn about the program. Before Warren spoke, the man at my table—Jason Reed of the Chicopee Boys & Girls Club, white, portly, nearly bald, in a pressed shirt and tie, a registered Democrat who had voted for Brown two years earlier—spoke of Warren cautiously, saying he had no impression of her yet. Afterward, he almost glowed with admiration. “I’m impressed,” he told me. “She has a comforting quality. She puts family first—that’s important to me. I’ll definitely make time to do my research.”
One young woman who’d been at Warren’s table, the one who’d had the gastric bypass, enthusiastically told me that she would definitely vote for Warren. Outside, as I left, the very friendly African-American chief of security, who said he’d served thirty years in the Marines, was effusive about how likable she was. “She seems like someone you’d want for a neighbor, like you could trust her to take care of your house if you went on vacation.” He hadn’t voted in the last election because he was disgusted with politicians; this time he would.
Elizabeth Warren had hit her targets: a swing voter, a first-time voter and a sometime voter. But they were drawn to Warren on a cold afternoon in Chicopee for reasons quite different from those that have thrilled the left.
* * *
Progressives have been in love with Warren since she first tried ensuring that bankruptcy law didn’t hurt consumers—or maybe even further back, when she was writing financial self-help guides and appearing on Dr. Phil to advise families on their household budgets. Or maybe they first met her on "The Daily Show" or in Michael Moore’s documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. Or maybe they followed her scholarly and public-policy work on the middle class and debt, like her 2001 book The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt. They started going crazy for her when, as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), she crisply grilled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. And once she proposed a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she became a populist folk hero for progressives eager to rein in Wall Street. Even before the White House declined to nominate her to chair the bureau, assuming that Republicans would shoot her down, the Warren for Senate drumbeat had begun. She declared her candidacy on September 14. Although there’s still one candidate running against her in the primary—six others have withdrawn—Warren is being treated as the presumptive nominee.
A few days after Warren announced her candidacy, her campaign released a YouTube clip in which she perfectly articulates the progressive creed:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…. You built a factory, and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
The clip went viral, helping Warren raise almost $9 million as of the end of last year, roughly two-thirds from out-of-state donors. It also helped fuel the backlash against her from right-wingers, who revile her almost as much as they do Barack Obama.
If Warren were running in any number of progressive archipelagos—Cambridge, Ann Arbor, Austin, Madison, Berkeley—she would be queen. But she’s running in Massachusetts, which isn’t as true blue as you might imagine. Yes, registered Democrats (37 percent) outnumber Republicans (11 percent) more than three to one. But that leaves a large majority of independents. According to polls, the lead seesaws weekly between Warren and Brown, and among independents, Brown leads Warren by margins that range from 12 to 29 percentage points. Because he’s the incumbent, people are more likely to know who he is, while many voters haven’t heard of her yet.
Warren is doing her best to close that gap. In person, she strikes exactly the right human notes. Following her around, I heard the same comments over and over again: She’s so warm and personable. Talking to her is just like talking to a trustworthy neighbor. She’s a mom, like me, who works hard to take care of her family. She’s just like in her commercials, very kind. She really listened. She cares about us.
Of course, Elizabeth Warren can’t shake every hand in the commonwealth. And even if voters come to like her, will they like her more than the very likable—and very savvy—Scott Brown?
* * *
Like Warren, Brown comes to politics from the law—in his case, real estate law. Unlike Warren, he’s a veteran candidate. He served twelve years in the Massachusetts legislature and State Senate before he beat the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Martha Coakley, to take over Ted Kennedy’s open seat in the 2010 special election—and, in doing so, ended the Democrats’ supermajority in the US Senate.
Brown wields a powerful personal story that he uses to great political effect. He came from the most broken of broken families. His memoir, beautifully written and deeply moving, shows the worst kind of childhood under alcoholism: a drunken mother who had a series of impulsive marriages to abusive men; seventeen different homes in eighteen years; hunger, loneliness, violent stepfathers and sexual violation by others. But Brown was charming, athletic and threw himself into basketball as if it could save him—which it did, sending him to Tufts, a top-tier private university. He attached himself to mentors who fed him, believed in him, pushed him to work his hardest and gave him second chances when he screwed up. He saw that those who didn’t make the right choices in bad circumstances fell into poverty, misery and jail. He emerged with a real political philosophy: reward the hard workers and let the rest suffer their just deserts. And he has used the same skills that enabled his escape from those hard circumstances—warmth, good looks, street smarts, a ferocious work ethic and a fierce determination to disprove those who dismiss him—to succeed politically. He has never lost an election.
Massachusetts independents loved Ted Kennedy, who brought home the bacon, whose constituent services were unparalleled, who came from the same revered family as Jack and Bobby and who fought for the commonwealth’s regular folks—factory and office workers, fishermen, firemen. But these same independents also elected Republican governors for sixteen straight years, from William Weld in 1991 to Mitt Romney, who left office in 2007.
When Kennedy died, voters had a choice between Coakley, a woman in a state that had never elected a female senator, a progressive Democrat who had spent her adult life winning all the right offices, and Brown, a self-proclaimed independent who drove around the state in his barn jacket and pickup truck, emphasizing his manly ordinariness. They picked Brown.
Coakley lost for many reasons. Brown tarred her as part of the Boston Democratic machine, insular and uninterested in the rest of the state. One of her backers stressed to me that Coakley’s funders poured money into the primary, assuming that, as had long been the case, the Democratic primary was the election. One Falmouth Democratic activist confessed to me that after the primary, some of his fellow Democrats were so certain the race was over that they went on vacation without even taking out absentee ballots. The more common story line is that Coakley just didn’t campaign hard enough. As Diane Parvin of the Barnstable Democratic Town Committee put it, “I worked harder for Martha Coakley than Martha Coakley worked for Martha Coakley.” When Coakley was asked whether her passivity was giving Brown an advantage, she notoriously answered, “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park, in the cold, shaking hands?” Sports radio and morning shock-jocks, among others, never let her live that down.
Elizabeth Warren is not about to make the same mistake. Various insiders say she is always enthusiastic about whatever is on the schedule, whether that’s putting on a hard hat and touring a construction site or talking to fans at Fenway when the beloved ballpark was turned into an open-air hockey rink. At one point, Warren told me that she worried that running for office was what she’d seen on TV: a candidate circled by reporters shouting questions, cold and alienating. Instead, she said, it was like teaching: she got to look in people’s eyes, listen to their stories, hold their arms, touch their hands. She said she loved it. More important, she looks like she loves it.
Her campaign is targeting two key groups that Coakley lost. First, it is repeatedly taking her to the economically distressed, postindustrial areas that vote blue when they vote—but that Coakley failed to turn out in large enough numbers. Second, it is regularly hitting the swing districts that voted for Obama in 2008, for Brown in January 2010 and for Democratic Governor Deval Patrick just ten months later.
As she meets those swing and sometime voters, Warren offers her politics through her personal narrative. In one way, as I heard from a number of people, her story and Brown’s aren’t that far apart. They both came from childhoods of at least moderate financial hardship (although Warren’s wasn’t marked by the hunger and dysfunction that Brown’s was); they pulled themselves into a new class stratum through hard work, ferocious focus, personal charm and luck. But there are important differences in the conclusions they’ve drawn from their lives—differences that make the Massachusetts Senate race a genuine battle between opposing worldviews.
Brown tells his story to show that success comes from hard work, fiscal restraint and letting people decide what to do with their own money. Warren, by contrast, uses hers to show that individual success comes from social investment in everyone and from rules that protect ordinary folks from the rapacious few. She has said repeatedly that when she researched bankruptcy in the 1980s, she expected to find that most people in bankruptcy were cheaters, people who’d actively run up debt and then used the law to escape their responsibilities. Instead, she found her childhood disaster over and over again, but at a time when families have fewer options. When illness struck her father, her mother was able to find a job to pick up the slack; her family tightened its belt and got through it. Today, she says, working families no longer have any fallback; if they’re barely meeting expenses with all adults in the workforce, any interruption in income quickly becomes a disaster. As she dug into bankruptcy law, she found that the banks and credit card companies were rewriting rules that would send those families tumbling still further downward. She looked wider and found that the public structures that enabled her rise and the rise of the middle class more generally—public universities, college loans, public infrastructure, public research—were being eliminated. She finds all that outrageous.
Warren emerged from her particular background believing that people will work hard to do the right thing, as long as they know what the right thing is—and as long as the game isn’t rigged against them. She started her public career by telling people what that right thing is. Now she’s running to fix the rules so they can do it.
* * *
As in most of the country, Massachusetts’ reliably Democratic voters come from the top and the bottom—highly educated, affluent professionals and the working poor or near poor. The Boston-Cambridge area and surrounding suburbs; the Berkshires; and Provincetown, the artist/LGBT colony at the tip of Cape Cod—all these areas at the edges of the state are deep, deep blue. Warren’s campaign knows it’s already excited much of this progressive base. They’re focusing now on motivating Democrats in economically depressed industrial towns like Holyoke and Lowell, where convenience stores, tattoo parlors, pawn shops and liquor stores are overshadowed by empty mills and boarded-up factories, Massachusetts’ iteration of Detroit.
That’s why she was speaking at Taunton’s Off Broadway Diner, packed with people who had come out to meet her—some on an hour’s notice—at the invitation of hometown boy and Democratic state senator, Marc Pacheco.
It’s Warren’s first campaign, as she noted to her advantage. “I didn’t even run for student council,” she quipped. “But I knew I would do anything I could to be a voice for America’s working families…. I ask you to be a part of this. We’re in this together.”
In person, Warren has “it,” that political charisma that can change the temperature in a room. She’s smart in a way that makes you feel smarter; her simple stories are sharpened with clear messages about complex topics and then tweaked to suit the audience in front of her. At the Taunton diner, as at almost every stop where I observed her, Warren greeted and connected with everyone in every booth and at every counter stool. “We’re so proud of you for running,” one woman said.
These middle-aged and retired folks reminded me of my mother; they are the civic volunteers who keep a town running, raise money for the library and serve on zoning boards. Winning elections depends on exciting them; they will—or won’t—pour themselves into getting out the vote. And everywhere I went, they went crazy for Warren. Kathy Rogers, a retired teacher, told me she was glad to hear that Warren “has a brother who runs construction cranes. My kid brother and her kid brother are the same. She gets what goes on at the street level.”
“I liked her,” said one cheerful retired firefighter, Dean Pina, after shaking her hand. He and his twin brother, David, a retired cop, told me that because cuts in public safety budgets were putting their town at risk, they were considering volunteering for a campaign for the first time. David agreed, nodding enthusiastically, “She seems honest. She’s for the little guy.”
Wherever Warren went to meet local Democrats, the rooms were jammed with such enthusiasts. At a campaign stop in Worcester, Margot Barnet of the local Democratic Party couldn’t stop talking about her passion for Warren. “She’s a great candidate. She’s personable. She explains things that are complicated in language that people can get it. She’s the real thing.” Another Worcester Democrat told me, “She’s bringing out people who want to volunteer for her and have never registered as Democrats before. She’s going to revive the Massachusetts Democratic Party.”
Indeed, the campaign has more volunteers than it can handle, endorsements from every corner and more demands for public appearances than is usually seen this early in a campaign. No one wants to repeat the mistake of taking a Democratic win for granted.
* * *
Nor should they. Scott Brown’s aim is to repeat his high turnout in the broad red swath that runs down the state’s middle, along the northern border with New Hampshire, around the southern border with Rhode Island and up the Cape’s elbow. Here in the exurbs built around office parks, you find folks who make and sell the things that run our everyday lives, from technology to concrete. You’ll find old-style New England Republicans in the mold of Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe; middle and upper management in the state’s manufacturing and high-tech corridors; older white union guys and other Reagan Democrats; and third-generation Irish-Americans who grew up with pictures of the pope and JFK on the wall but who sometimes stray from those childhood faiths. According to longtime Massachusetts political observer and journalist Robert David Sullivan, the red part of the state can be suspicious—even resentful—of the People’s Republic of Cambridge, with its intellectual snottiness and reformer zeal, and of Boston’s corrupt and oft-indicted Democratic machine. Some independents might identify more reliably as Republicans if that word weren’t so tarnished, in their minds, by Southern evangelical crazies. Others say they want to add “balance” to the state’s delegation, to offset the power of the Democratic machine. And Brown is taking full advantage of the incumbent’s toolbox to cannily reinforce the message that can win him the purple voters: that he’s an independent thinker.
On January 19 Brown came to Worcester’s plushly restored Mechanics Hall to announce his candidacy for re-election to the Senate—exactly two years after he celebrated his upset victory. Worcester is a rising power center in the state, a blue dot in the central Massachusetts red belt. Around it the county’s unemployment rate is 7.1 percent; housing costs half what it does just an hour away in Boston and Cambridge. Clark University, Holy Cross, Assumption College, Worcester State and Worcester Polytechnic crowd around, spawning real businesses that do real things, unlike Cambridge’s idea aeries.
That evening Mechanics Hall was decorated with starry red, white and blue light projections on the walls, signs announcing that Brown was running for “the People’s Seat” (i.e., not the “Ted Kennedy” seat). Risers behind him were filled with featured guests. Aside from one black child with a white adult and an Asian man, everyone in the hall was white—a shocking sight in a city that’s 36 percent nonwhite. Hundreds of people milled around, far fewer than the overflow crowd of several thousand that had attended Brown’s rally in 2010. The men were perfectly shaved and shorn in suits or barn jackets, or they were scraggly older union white guys in work boots. The women, outnumbered by about three to one, wore pearl earrings and had Coach bags and perfectly combed hair.
These true conservatives know why they support Brown. They believe that any resentment toward the 1 percent is class warfare and whining, an attack on normal families. Chip Jones, a well-groomed middle-aged man with a wide-brimmed hat, who looked well-off and said he was the son of a chicken farmer, told me he supported Brown “because he is a conservative candidate who represents the people that elected him. He acted independently, which makes him a man of his word and a man of honor. And Elizabeth Warren is a communist.”
I got an earful about the apocalyptic dangers of the deficit and currency devaluation from Jed, a union carpenter, who had come straight from a job site in his work boots, work shirt and gray ponytail. In his broad Massachusetts accent, Jed told me, “I don’t think we need another pinhead from Harvard. She’s very intelligent. But sometimes the smarter people are, the less common sense they have.”
In a mirror of Warren’s strategy, Scott Brown’s plan is to excite his base, appeal to independents and keep the state’s women voters from leaning too heavily toward Warren. (Toward that end, his wife and daughters are never far from his side.) Everything about this event was aimed at independents. I did not see the word “Republican” on a single sign or piece of campaign literature. A dozen times in Brown’s speech, he called himself “bipartisan” and “independent,” either by using those words or related phrases like “reaching across the aisle” and “building bridges.” He used the word “Republican” only once, but he did disparage the Democratic establishment as if he were still running against Martha Coakley: “For years, everyone knew what the deal was in this state: you get chosen by the machine, you go along to get along, please the right people, and the rest is easy…. It is not the establishment’s seat. It is not the Democrats’ seat. It’s still the people’s seat. It’s your seat.” These lines brought an approving roar.
Brown aimed at the two points that many perceive as Warren’s weaknesses. First, in a tone of faintly exaggerated respect, he said, “My likely opponent, Professor Warren, is a hard-working, talented and accomplished academic.” The audience let out a gratified and denigrating “oooh.” Second, Brown painted Warren as a partisan ideologue, a self-proclaimed “rock thrower” who, in her words, wants to leave “blood and teeth” on the floor. He immediately contrasted that with his desire to focus on solutions instead of ideology, noting that he has one of the most bipartisan voting records in Congress.
That is true—even if, in this Congress, that’s a very low bar. According to Congressional Quarterly, Brown was second only to Maine’s Susan Collins in voting against his party in 2011. He deviated from the Republicans far more this year than during his first year in office—surely intentionally, with an eye toward re-election. On the stump, he touts the fact that Obama praised and signed a bill he sponsored with Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that bans insider trading by members of Congress. Publicly he will disagree with Rick Santorum or other Republican leaders on culture war issues that don’t play well in Massachusetts, like women in combat or gay rights, for which he gets a lot of attention in-state. He will also buck his party on incremental matters, like the February payroll tax cut extension or bills that will pass without his support. But on the core financial issues, he votes with the party. Brown has a keen instinct for exactly how Republican one can be as the junior senator from Massachusetts.
* * *
Just off all the major arteries, the white-collar exurb of Melrose is an easy commute to all of northeastern Massachusetts. Its unemployment is below 7 percent; if you bought a house at the right time, your median income of $82,000 means your family can live comfortably on a quiet street with a yard. Melrose teeters between the deep-blue ring around Boston and Cambridge and the deep-red horse country of the North Shore. Some of its residents live in the Mayberry area, where honest work is rewarded. Some live in the Potterville section, where the banks are screwing everyone. Melrose is as purple as Massachusetts gets.
On a bitter night in January, a friend and I sat at the bar at Turner’s Seafood in Melrose, right on Main Street. While the Patriots game played on television, I talked with two middle-aged men—a gay couple, I soon realized—one almost unstoppably voluble, the other a model of New England reticence. Both had voted for Obama, for Brown and for Deval Patrick: D, R, D, right in a row. They voted for the person, not the party, and did not see any conflict between these votes. So what were their thoughts on Warren and Brown?
The first, whom I’ll call Paul, out of respect for his privacy, effusively told me how much he liked them both—because they were so very much alike. Both had pulled themselves up from hard-luck childhoods, and, more important, “They are not afraid to fight for what they believe. They want the truth. They want what’s right for the state.” He had hated Bush and so voted for Obama; he disliked Coakley and judged her insincere, so he voted for Brown. He loved Warren’s feistiness as a strong woman. He loved that Brown refused to identify too closely with a party and hoped Warren would reject the Democrats as well. He admired both Brown’s and Warren’s stands on “fairness,” which I figured out meant gay rights.
Like the two candidates he admired, Paul didn’t have life handed to him on a platter. He was only the second in his family to graduate from college. He was proud that even after he lost his job in 1994 (with a wife at home, a 3-year-old and another baby on the way), he’d never taken a dime in unemployment. He had started a business and raised his kids by himself after his wife died. Now his son was graduating from business school at an obscenely high cost that Paul believed was somehow the government’s fault. His warmth toward Warren puzzled me, especially after he went on a riff about how the Democratic Party bought votes by doling out public assistance that made people dependent on government. As far as I could tell, the man should have been a straight-up Log Cabin Republican.
Paul’s husband, Bob (also not his real name), who came from a deeply Republican family, hated Warren’s commercials, which introduce her through her personal story: the middle-class family, the heart attack, the young marriage. Earlier, at Boston’s Martin Luther King breakfast, a retired teacher and small-church minister told me she’d been unimpressed by those commercials as well, because if Warren was trying to say she had had a hard childhood, well, it couldn’t compare to real disadvantage. But Bob took exception for the opposite reason: he resented Warren for suggesting that her climb from hardship—not her ideas—meant she deserved his vote. He found that offensively condescending. He would definitely vote for Brown.
For both, Warren’s status as a Harvard law professor was a distinct negative. In Mayberry, you earn your keep not by thinking but by doing. And when things get hard, you just work harder.
Across Main Street at the Stearns & Hill’s Bistro, Michael and Jackie were swing voters who leaned toward the other side. Jackie, a realtor and a registered Democrat, thought she had voted for Reagan once, but couldn’t remember for sure. She was pretty sure she’d voted for Obama, and even though she was unhappy with him, she probably would do so again, considering the crazies in the Republican primary. She remembered that she’d voted for Brown; she hadn’t wanted to vote for “Martha” but couldn’t really remember why. Michael, an Irish immigrant (now an American citizen) who worked in construction and was registered as an independent, explained, “Scott Brown stepped in at the right place, at the right time; he did his little truck drive around the countryside. He did it right. He listened.” But then he disappeared. “He forgot about us,” Jackie said. Michael added, “He fell in line. He went with the Republican way of thinking.”
But the two were concerned that they had heard that Warren was connected with Occupy Wall Street—wasn’t she? What, exactly, did she stand for? They had seen the commercials but didn’t know her positions.
Their political vagueness disappeared once they started talking about housing, their daily bread and butter. Jackie was appalled by how badly the banks were dealing with foreclosures. No one in the banks answered phones; no one explained policies or practices. They were getting away with, almost literally, murder—a point she illustrated by telling the story of a client who was selling her house because she had had an accident at work, broke her spine, went right back to work and as a result was now almost entirely disabled. The banks wouldn’t modify her loan. It was unnecessarily cruel. Jackie was deeply disappointed in Obama, who had not come through on his promise to help with loan modifications.
Michael was incensed at the banks’ greed. “You paid twenty years of mortgage payments on that house,” he explained. “The banks earned what they needed off that twenty years of mortgage payments. Now you’re in trouble; you refinanced the house…that bank turns around and says you haven’t made your payments for ninety days—ninety days!—and they’re going to foreclose on your butt. They have twenty years of mortgage payments. That house is paid for. The bank has generated considerable profits. But for them, it’s no longer financially viable, because they’re not getting enough…. Is that right? That’s not right.”
These two lived smack in the middle of Potterville, but they didn’t yet know they should be voting for Warren. Will they by November?
* * *
Warren’s campaign has developed some weaknesses. On television, she’s starting to look a little stiff and overly focused on her messaging—no longer as loose and lively as she was before she had to campaign. Through the chilly medium of the screen, her earnest enthusiasm can feel a little condescending. When she calls herself a “fancy-pants professor,” the faux-humility can be off-putting instead of endearing. And even inside the Boston/Cambridge bubble, I’ve heard worries about whether Warren is just too far left to elect. Will campaigning calcify how she comes across, as she strains to stay precisely on message? Brown has whatever Reagan had—that genial feeling of always talking with you. Will Brown’s savvy strategy of positioning himself as the voice of independence and reason succeed? Or will the passion of the local Democratic activists carry Warren to victory?
We all know that anything can happen in a race that still has seven more months to run, especially as the news media begin to focus on a candidate’s every breath. We know that anything can happen in world events, changing voters’ concerns and moods. Scott Brown has more money, but Warren is raising more money. The right despises her as much as the left adores her, which may add to Brown’s coffers later in the game.
Right now, as Warren and Brown meet voters, they are telling their stories as political parables, loaded with ideas about opportunity versus just deserts, social investment versus making your own way, fairness versus the free market. The ordinary Massachusetts voter—the kind who doesn’t tune in until the last minute—will have to choose between two story lines. They will talk about it this way: he’s a small-town Wrentham boy who solves problems based on facts, while she’s a leftist ideologue from Harvard. Or they will talk about it this way: he’s a lightweight with a pretty face and a truck; she’s a real person who will fight off the banks and others trying to ruin the middle class. They will assess which one is more likable and sincere. They will (or won’t) be pulled to the polls by more politically motivated neighbors. In such haphazard ways, Massachusetts independents will decide one of the most closely watched and possibly most expensive races of the 2012 campaign, outside the presidency. And right now, I wouldn’t risk a bet on either Elizabeth Warren or Scott Brown.
E.J. Graff, a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, is a journalist and the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon Press).