Assessing Elizabeth Warren’s wounds

at 10:01 AM ET, 06/04/2012

Has Elizabeth Warren paid a price in the polls for the ongoing flap over her Native American heritage?


Supporters of Elizabeth Warren cheer after Warren won the delegate vote to become the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate at the Democratic State Convention in Springfield, Mass., on Saturday. (Michael Dwyer — Associated Press)
Survey says: Yes. And no.

Two new polls out this weekend show the former Obama administration official and Harvard professor hanging tough in her race against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). The race remained a virtual tie in a new Boston Globe poll by the University of New Hampshire and another from Western New England University.

The Globe poll, in fact, showed the exact same two-point lead for Brown as it did two months ago, before the controversy over Warren’s minority claims began.

But a dig a little deeper in the poll shows at least some key voters are turned off to Warren. And in a tight race, that could matter.

The Globe poll showed the vast majority of voters — 72 percent — said the issue didn’t matter to them at all. But 31 percent of independents said that it did matter, at least somewhat.

What’s more, Warren’s personal image has taken a hit, with her unfavorable rating rising from 23 percent to 32 percent over the last two months, even as her favorable rating ticked up just one point. She’s still in plenty positive territory (48 percent favorable, 32 percent unfavorable), but she’s underwater when it comes to independents (35 percent favorable, 38 percent unfavorable).

What really matters is how many of those independents planned to vote for Warren in the first place.

Brown, by virtue of Massachusetts’s demographics, needs to win a huge victory among independent voters, and given his big early lead with them, many of these voters may already be predisposed to support him.

Whatever the case, the last couple of months seem to have helped him with this group; his lead among independents grew by 10 points — 51 percent to Warren’s 13 percent.

UNH pollster Andrew Smith told The Fix “this issue is having an impact on Democrats and independents who, in Massachusetts, typically would vote for the Democratic candidate. And it’s happening when the campaign really hasn’t even begun.”

Independents remain by far the critical voting bloc of this election, with 36 percent remaining undecided at this point.

Three more points to keep in mind here:

1) These polls were conducted largely before Warren’s admission Thursday that she had, in fact, told Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania that she had Native American heritage. This was perhaps her most troubling moment of the entire monthlong controversy, because it appeared to contradict her previous statements.

It’s also not clear that the controversy is over. Republicans plan to pressure Warren to release all of her records, and right now, she’s not in much of a position to resist.

2) It’s early. Just 37 percent of respondents said they are “very familiar” with the issue, meaning most people only have a passing knowledge of what’s occurred — or no knowledge at all. That can change once Election Day approaches, especially if Brown’s campaign were to put some money behind an attack ad focused on the issue.

Conversely, the issue could also fade entirely. If it’s not a huge problem for Warren now, Brown’s campaign may opt to simply forgo it in October and November.

3) One interesting note: Brown leads by 15 points among those who are “very familiar” with the issue, suggesting familiarity may breed contempt (for Warren). Then again, those who seek more information about the issue may be predisposed against Warren already (much like people seek out news sources that agree with their ideology).

Through all of this, though, keep in mind: this is certainly not a positive for Elizabeth Warren, and it never will be. It's not like President Obama’s decision to support gay marriage, which made some voters like him more and others like him less.

This will only make voters like her less; it’s just a matter of degree. Right now, it’s not an issue for the vast majority of voters, but it is an issue for a significant number of electorally crucial independents.

And if it swings even 1 percent of the vote, that could be the difference.

 
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