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Why Massachusetts Voters Turned Their Backs On Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks with the media after voting on Tuesday, March 3, 2020 in Cambridge, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks with the media after voting on Tuesday, March 3, 2020 in Cambridge, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Massachusetts voters still love Elizabeth Warren. They just love winning more.

The most telling statistic to come out of Super Tuesday’s voluminous exit polls was the number of people, here and nationwide, who made their decisions late — within the last week of this long slog of a primary race, after Joe Biden’s stunningly large victory in the South Carolina primary. It’s impossible to understate how much that single vote reshaped the race, upending conventional wisdom, knocking out three contenders, anointing Biden as the moderate consensus candidate. This race has always been, foremost, a contest about electability, and the best way to prove your electability is to win an election.

Warren, who hadn’t won a primary to date, was another casualty of the Biden surge.

Well before she had officially placed third in her home state, it was clear that she knew how many voters were thinking strategically — using the days after South Carolina vote to reassess their options and choose the person most likely to vanquish Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. In a speech in Detroit early on Tuesday night, she urged her wavering supporters to follow their hearts, not their heads. “Cast a vote that will make you proud,” she said, her voice hoarse before a passionate crowd.

This race has always been, foremost, a contest about electability, and the best way to prove your electability is to win an election.

It’s unclear who saw the speech. It was carried by CSPAN, but not by CNN or even MSNBC, where Warren’s progressive fans might have been watching. But it likely wouldn’t have made a difference — even in Massachusetts, where the head often prevails.

Warren’s campaign has always been a curious mix of heart and head. She is driven, palpably and charmingly, by personal passion: Her progressive economic policy ideas are the result of her lived experience and her life’s work. And those passions drive her posture as a fighter — the one, of all of the Democratic primary candidates, who seemed most likely to eviscerate Donald Trump in a head-to-head debate. She proved her skills most recently in Las Vegas, when she almost singlehandedly exposed Mike Bloomberg as an entitled billionaire whose bags of money hadn’t prepared him for the crucible of a presidential race.

But Warren has also been an intellectual’s choice, the candidate of plans — a cool bit of branding that could, on a national scale, work to her detriment. Her campaign slipped in November, when she backed herself into a corner and had to reveal an unsatisfying plan for funding Medicare for All. More recently, in that Las Vegas debate, she criticized Amy Klobuchar for a health care plan that could fit on a Post-it. But simplicity isn’t a bad thing in electoral politics, where often, you’re selling big ideas more than the details within.

Warren’s constant appeal to voters’ heads — a kind of Tracy Flick quality of over-preparedness — might be part of the reason some voters nationwide haven’t warmed to her. It’s impossible to say how much gender plays a role in that gut response: Some haters cite her habit of sounding like she was lecturing, though Barack Obama, a fellow law professor, had similar tics on the stump. But Warren has clearly calculated that leaning into gender could help her, too; that’s why she makes such a point of underscoring pronouns like “she” and “her” in her stump speech.

... it seems likely that voters in her home state relied less on gut feelings than on cool calculations.

Either way, in the end, it seems likely that voters in her home state relied less on gut feelings than on cool calculations. In Massachusetts, cradle of higher education and birthplace of presidential also-rans, voters have seen plenty of homegrown candidates — people who check the ideological boxes and look great on paper — fail in the ultimate national test. Perhaps, by now, people have learned. The truly passionate progressives were always going to go with Bernie Sanders. The voters who saw Sanders as a nonstarter — and Warren as either an attractive middle ground or a candidate they truly wanted in the White House — nevertheless made an intellectual calculation.

They saw that she wouldn’t be able to win most voters’ hearts with her voluminous, specific, exuberantly stated ideas. They recognized what was happening nationwide: a sudden, collective realization that that opposite of Donald Trump might not be a fast-talking, passionate, brilliant woman, but a kindhearted, non-threatening, un-ideological, comfortable, familiar figure.

It might not be love as much as serious like. But it was enough, in Massachusetts, for Biden to win.

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Joanna Weiss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joanna Weiss is the editor of Experience Magazine, published by Northeastern University.

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