A poll of Massachusetts voters gave Scott Brown the win over Elizabeth Warren in last night’s Senate debate by ten points. Though I think Brown probably did win the debate, I thought Warren kept it very close—much closer than that poll suggests—and helped herself in a few ways. But I think two exchanges make up for the difference in perception between the poll results and the way it looked to those outside Massachusetts.
As I wrote on Wednesday, one major advantage Brown has over Warren is the fact that voters consider him to have a much stronger connection to the state than Warren, who is from Oklahoma. That discrepancy is magnified in a debate, where Brown’s accent, and Warren’s lack of one, drive the point home. But there are other ways to reinforce the local-vs.-outsider dynamic, and I think the two candidates did so clearly during their answers to a question about whether climate change is real and what can be done about it. Here is how Brown ended his answer:
[Warren is] in favor of putting wind turbines in the middle of our greatest treasure–down in the Nantucket Sound. I, like Senator Kennedy before me, believe that’s not right.
And here’s how Warren closed her answer on the same question:
This race really may be for the control of the Senate. But what that would mean is, if the Republicans take over the Senate, [Oklahoma Senator] Jim Inhofe would become the person who would be in charge of the committee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s a man who has called global warming a hoax. In fact, that’s the title of his book. A man like that should not be in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, overseeing their work. And I just don’t understand how we could talk about going in that direction.
Brown’s rebuttal was a layup: “You’re not running against Jim Inhofe, you’re running against me, professor.”
And that was really Warren’s mistake, in a nutshell, because the other exchange I had in mind ended with Warren saying: “This really is about who you want as commander in chief,” explaining her support for President Obama over Mitt Romney as something the voters should consider.
The truth is, neither of Warren’s answers was bad, in and of itself. It’s that the responses explicitly nationalized a statewide election. And it only underlined the fact that Warren is, at heart, truly a national candidate. The Senate seat would be a consolation prize for her, since she really wanted to lead a new consumer protection bureaucracy in Washington. She has been focused on attacking Wall Street, and throughout the debate kept complaining about oil companies and a “rigged playing field.”
Her talking points are well rehearsed, but they’re mostly vague references worded for the Beltway press more than blue-collar Massachusetts voters. She seemed to be talking over her state, not to it–past the voters to the journalists who love catchy expressions of their own narratives.
Has Warren’s campaign even tested Jim Inhofe’s name recognition in Massachusetts? I’ll bet not—and I’d guess it wouldn’t be very high. That’s not because Massachusetts voters are disconnected from national issues. It’s just that name recognition of even high-ranking politicians is usually fairly low—lower, at least, than most people would think. So Warren’s decision to use her time in that answer to tie Brown to Inhofe may have been making a point her supporters would agree with, but it was probably a poor choice anyway.
It’s a bit of a vicious cycle for Warren: she is less familiar with Massachusetts issues than Brown, so she nationalizes the race, further seeming less familiar with Massachusetts issues. To break that cycle, she’d have to ditch Oklahoma politics for the Nantucket Sound.