The Washington Post

Why the Native American heritage fight isn’t hurting Elizabeth Warren

Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren's claim to Native American heritage has been the focus of three recent TV ads, the first ten minutes of a debate and countless headlines. And yet, roughly 70 percent of likely voters familiar with the story simply aren't moved by it one way or the other, suggesting the heritage issue may be, well, not much of an issue, after all. 


A Boston Globe poll released Sunday showed Warren leading Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) 43 percent to 38 percent. A deeper dive into the survey’s crosstabs reveals that most voters aren't swayed by the tussle over Warren’s ancestry.  (For a refresher on what it is about Warren's heritage the candidates are fighting over, check out this rundown.)

More than eight-in-ten likely voters (86 percent) have at least some familiarity with the Native American heritage story. Of those with at least some knowledge of it, about seven in ten (71 percent) said the story would have no impact on their vote for Warren, while 24 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for the Democratic nominee.

Among voters who are undecided about whether they support Brown or Warren – a crucial subset of the electorate -- nearly three-in-four (74 percent) said the story would have no impact on their vote for Warren, while nearly one-in-five (19 percent) said it would make them less likely to vote for her.

What's clear is the issue doesn’t move the majority of voters. And considering Brown’s ramped-up offensive on the issue of late over the matter, that’s good news for the Warren camp.

The Globe poll is one of two live-caller public surveys conducted since the two candidates first debated on Sept. 20; Warren holds a slight lead in both. 

The latest is a WBUR MassINC poll released Monday that showed Warren up 49 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, a slender advantage considering the poll’s margin of error. 

The Republican goal is to use the Native American story to make a broader argument questioning Warren’s integrity and credibility. It’s one part of a larger case, in their view, that also includes pointing to the Democrat’s legal defense of large corporations, for example. So, whether or not the Native American issue moves votes is immaterial, they would argue, since it's meant to  be part of a bigger point about who she really is.

But by itself, the issue of Warren’s heritage doesn't appear to be sinking her candidacy. Indeed, it’s forced her to play more defense than she’d like. She’s had to cut her own ad responding to Brown's attacks, and it’s veered her off message. But it simply hasn't been a political silver bullet -- though Republicans would say they never thought it would be.

The two candidates will debate for a second time Monday night. (The Fix will be offering a few thoughts on the debate in this space after it wraps up.) Given the tone of the campaign, it’d be surprising if the issue of Warren’s heritage didn’t come up. But it would also be surprising if further discussion of it shakes up the race in a major way.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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