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What's Wrong With The Warren Campaign

Elizabeth Warren continues to raise huge sums of money, a lot of it from outside Massachusetts. But when the money gets here, it supports a plodding, low-wattage, organizational campaign that can’t figure out how to present the candidate, seems unable to communicate, ducks the news media, and produces generic TV spots.

A preference cascade occurs when you think that you’re the only one who believes something only to discover that lots of people share your view. That’s what’s happening to women and the Warren campaign. In my (small) sample of well-educated Democratic and independent women, they are realizing they’re not alone in being turned off by the Warren campaign. Demographically she’s one of them, but politically she’s losing them. They say they won’t vote for Sen. Scott Brown, but Warren and her hectoring, know-it-all style leaves them deeply disappointed. What happened to that warrior against Wall Street, the woman who was so full of promise before she started to run?

Democrat Elizabeth Warren speaks to reporters after a tour of the Lexington Fire Department Monday. (AP)

Elizabeth Warren speaks to reporters after a tour of the Lexington Fire Department Monday. (AP)

Close but no cigar. Recent partisan polls show that Brown is up from 1 to 5 points. The Huffington Post, which charts all publicly available polls, shows Brown ahead by less than 4 points. But with a GOP convention so Neanderthalish that Brown hid out, and with President Obama on his way to a 20-point win in the state, Warren should be smoking Brown.

It’s no longer early. She may be a rookie but she’s been a candidate for nearly a year. There are fewer than 60 days before the general election. Millions of dollars in ads are about to take control of our TV sets. She and her handlers have got to fix her act and find a way to take on Brown that is credible and sustainable. Right now, all she does in her ads is complain about national problems, as if she’s running for president. Her ads aren’t grounded in Massachusetts, which is a problem because she’s not well-known here.

Yeah, it’s just like high school. In politics how you dress and act defines you socially. You hear words like “preachy” or “lawyer-like” to describe how she comes across on TV. For a long while it seemed as if she wore the same red jacket pretty much 24 hours a day. She always seems annoyed, impatient that people don’t know how right she is. She’s got to stop the finger wagging; it adds to her strict schoolmarm appearance and bossy manner. At last week’s Democratic convention, when the delegates kept applauding, she shushed them with “Enough, enough!” as if the delegates were her pupils.

Lose the granny glasses; they’re 40 years late and add about 10 years to her age on TV. Soften the hair; the Page Boy haircut makes her seem joylessly practical. Coaching can deepen her voice, which grates on some, and make her seem less strident. With all the money she’s raised, she can afford the best coaches.

Even Clinton got coaching. In a 1992 debate between Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush, when a young woman asked a question, Clinton left his stool and walked over to her. Standing right in front of her, he talked to her like she was the only one in the room. The move had been rehearsed; the campaign’s debate coach suggested what he called “the stroll.” Even Clinton, the master of connecting, got a tip from a professional.

Her vocabulary is coarse in an apparent attempt to avoid sounding like a Harvard professor. Small business owners are “busting their tails,” she says in a new ad. At the convention, she tried to convey toughness, with words like “rigged,” “hammered,” “wrecked” and “corrosive.” Later she asked, “Anyone here have a problem with that?” Not at all clear to me that toughness is what she needs. A little modesty perhaps?

Her family is missing. While Brown’s adult daughters and his wife are part of his campaign, Warren’s family is nowhere to be seen. When you’re trying to beat a popular incumbent and nobody knows you, you bring everything you’ve got.

TV spots are the campaign. The bulk of voters don’t go to rallies or follow the campaign in the news. To them TV spots are the campaign. I agree with my GOP sparring partner, Todd Domke, that Brown’s TV spots are much better than hers. His are unique to him; hers look like they were stamped out in a D.C. media factory. Brown’s are more organic, they’re about real people not statistics. Hers are boilerplate stuff that could be made for any Democrat running for Senate anywhere in America. Even if she’s great on the stump, it doesn’t follow that she’s should do all the talking on TV.

Brown’s no moderate. As Barney Frank pointed out, Brown benefits from appearing to be an island of moderation in a sea of right-wing lunacy. Some people in Massachusetts like to think that moderate Republicans are nearly extinct but lucky for us we have one! Brown’s only a moderate when compared to GOP nuts like Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin. Brown quickly condemned Akin and called for him to quit the race, beating Warren to the punch by several hours. But, if he goes back to the Senate, Brown will vote for and with Republican leaders for six long years.

Tribal warfare. She and her campaign were unable to shut off questions this spring about her Cherokee heritage and it cost her a month’s worth of news coverage. Native Americans tried to meet with her in Boston but she declined. At last week’s Democratic convention, they again tried to meet with her; she again refused. Like the Indiana strikers who dogged Mitt Romney in his race against Ted Kennedy, this ain’t over; it’s coming back this fall in debates and TV spots.

It’s not about getting out the vote, it’s about getting voters to like her. Piggybacking on Gov. Deval Patrick’s field organization might add a point or two to her total. Yes, that could be enough to win, but voters are coming to the polls anyway to vote for president. Organizing for Election Day is superfluous if voters don’t like the candidate.

Obama may not be able to save her. Talking to political people, I find nearly all believe Brown will win. Massachusetts voters like to create balance by voting for a candidate of one party for executive office and the other party for the legislative office. Happens all the time.

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