In case you hadn’t noticed, Massachusetts has a tight Senate race on its hands. According to series of polls, the race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown is in a statistical dead heat.
That’s not what many observers anticipated. When Warren was nominated in June, party insiders and national commentators expected her to run much more strongly against Brown. Why hasn’t she gained traction? In The New Republic, Alex MacGillis puts his finger on the problem:
Since entering the Senate, Brown has proved to be a remarkably agile politician—casting a symbolic vote against extending the Bush tax cuts while protecting the carried-interest loophole for investment managers; voting for financial reform, but not before weakening it at the behest of the banks who’ve given heavily to him. Still, he should be beatable in Massachusetts on the basis of one vote alone: the one he would cast to make Mitch McConnell majority leader of the Senate. And yet polls put his statewide approval rating at around 60.
One of Brown’s great advantages is that he has lived in Massachusetts virtually his entire life, and he never lets you forget it. He can be seen at opening day at Fenway Park; he’ll buy time on the Red Sox network to bid farewell to retiring players. Andrea Nuciforo Jr., a former Democratic state senator from Pittsfield who is running for Congress, recalls seeing Brown in action at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Sturbridge: “He talked about the Patriots, the Red Sox, and the weather.”
Warren is no carpetbagger—the Oklahoma native moved to Cambridge in 1995—but she lacks the same fluency in the state’s cultural preoccupations … [Warren] had launched a campaign based on the Aaron Sorkin–esque notion that, if a candidate laid out the facts and made her argument with conviction, voters would see the light. Reality, of course, is messier.
Now, the Warren campaign thinks it has the opportunity to turn the tables by linking Brown to VP pick Paul Ryan. A video released Monday morning shows Brown praising Ryan’s budget plan. “Think Warren’s more interested in policy details than in Massachusetts?”, the video implicitly asks. “Well, consider the policies that Brown endorsed.”
This is unlikely to work. First, as the Boston Globe points out, Brown voted twice to prevent the Senate from considering the Ryan budget. In context, his comment is noncomittal praise of Ryan for provoking debate. And a politician as skillful as Brown will have little trouble rebutting suggestions that he’s some kind of stealth Objectivist.
Second, Warren’s strategy of linking Brown to the national ticket makes the mistake on which her whole campaign has been based: the assumption that large numbers of voters are swayed by arguments about specific proposals. But undecided voters, especially, respond to personal affinity and cultural appeals. Their views on most policy issues are either nonexistent or incoherent.
Warren’s not the only one to overestimate voters’ interest in regulatory and fiscal issues. Romney’s selection of Ryan as a sort of chief wonk seems to be based, at least partly, on the same error. That’s one reason I expect them to lose in November. Brown, on the other hand, is likely to keep his seat. For better or for worse, that’s because he’s been more attentive to his actual constituents (who are doing much better than residents of many other states) than to debates that seem abstract and remote to much of the electorate.