Does Elizabeth Warren Have a Critical Vulnerability?

ORLEANS, Mass. — I have voted two times for Elizabeth Warren to represent Massachusetts in the Senate. I would certainly vote for her for president over Donald Trump. But as the Democratic primary unfolds and she extends a steady rise in the polls, I keep coming back to a political vulnerability of which many followers of Massachusetts politics are aware but others may not be.

The problem is that she has a relatively weak standing in Massachusetts with non-college-educated working-class voters, and especially white workers. These voters are critical, especially in the Midwest and in states crucial to Mr. Trump’s victory like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

You might call it the Warren Paradox. Her core message as a politician — that America has become rigged in favor of the very wealthy, and the rich get richer as the rest of us get shafted — is very much aimed at the working class. What’s more, her personal narrative, of her rise from “the ragged edge of the middle class” in her native Oklahoma, as she has put it, to professional success and acclaim in the fields of education and government might seem to embody a character trait of grit that appeals to blue-collar workers.

Yet while all of the major Democratic presidential candidates face difficulty with this constituency, polls suggest that this is especially a problem for Ms. Warren. For example, in a Fox survey, she drew 33 percent of white, non-college respondents in a matchup against President Trump, versus 38 percent for Joe Biden and 37 percent for Bernie Sanders. For Democrats to feel fully confident about nominating Ms. Warren as their standard-bearer, she needs to figure out this puzzle.

In Massachusetts, the Warren Paradox can be glimpsed in towns like Rockland, population near 18,000, a suburb about 20 miles south of Boston, overwhelmingly white and working class. In her November 2018 Senate race against a pro-Trump Republican, Ms. Warren won 60 percent of the vote statewide but only 44 percent of the vote in Rockland. By contrast, northwest of Boston, in the upscale suburb of Lexington, where the median home value is $1.15 million, (compared with $340,000 in Rockland), Ms. Warren took 74 percent of the vote.

On a recent visit to Rockland, I encountered a sentiment that her policies to address economic hardships might actually penalize those who have played by the rules. In a conversation in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, a young mother, after depositing her two children into the back seat of her car, said she viewed as unfair Ms. Warren’s proposal to forgive college student loans for most people carrying such debt. Now a manager at a local restaurant, she said she had attended a technical institute after high school and duly paid off her loans. “Probably,” she told me, she would vote for Mr. Trump for delivering on his promise to create more jobs.

I also came across what certainly sounded like, although it was not overtly expressed, reluctance to embracing her because she is a woman. “I can’t even listen to her. I just shut it off” — the television — “when she comes on,” a man at Uptown’s Finest Barbershop told me.

In part, Ms. Warren is afflicted by an authenticity problem with these voters. A former Harvard law professor, she is viewed by some, whatever her declared agenda, as typical of an elite that is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary working people. Doubts about her genuineness are nourished by her claim of Native American ancestry — which her detractors in Massachusetts have long framed as a dubious attempt to elevate her career prospects over equally qualified white job candidates. In 2012, Scott Brown, her Republican opponent in her first Senate race, tried to use this issue against her.

These misgivings feed a conviction that she doesn’t have Rockland’s back — a belief common to white non-college voters, often held against the Democratic Party in general. “She’ll tax me,” insisted a 49-year-old high school graduate who works at a town agency. (Ms. Warren’s proposed wealth tax targets only households with assets exceeding $50 million.)

“She wants to have open borders,” he added, voicing another reason that some people in Rockland think a President Warren won’t protect them. (Like a number of the Democratic presidential candidates, Ms. Warren is in favor of decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings.) And the sense that Ms. Warren, who has voted in Congress for a ban on assault weapons, is soft on gun rights also plays into the notion that she would leave Rockland unprotected. The 49-year-old voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and fully plans to do so again in 2020, with the “good job” the president is doing on the economy. (After speaking to me, he climbed into a car with a National Rifle Association sticker affixed to the back windshield.)

As Ms. Warren’s Senate campaigns attest, she is by no means uniformly unpopular in Rockland or, for that matter, in neighboring communities with a similar socio-economic profile.

“I love Elizabeth Warren,” said a welder and member of a plumbers union local, age 68, by phone. “She’s my bulldog. She is 100 percent for us — for the working man, the exploited person, the underdog.” He is from Weymouth, next door to Rockland. “If she were a man, they would love her.” He paused. “Or they would like her more.”

As he explained, places like Rockland, on the South Shore of Massachusetts, need to be understood as products of “white flight” from Boston, following court-ordered school busing in the mid-1970s.

Should she win the Democratic nomination, it’s easy to see the difficulties she will face in gaining the allegiance of the white working class in a matchup with Mr. Trump. White flight also defines a number of working-class suburbs in the Midwest, as in the metropolitan Detroit region.

But even though the Warren Paradox will be a real challenge, she still has the opportunity to impress potentially unreceptive voters with her “bulldog” tenacity, as in her visit this year to a small town in West Virginia to talk about the opioid crisis — a state, 93 percent white, taken by Mr. Trump in 2016 by nearly 42 points. She has also put gut economic issues at the centerpiece of her agenda: For instance, her “Plan for Economic Patriotism,” an industrial-policy tack calling for such steps as “more actively managing” the currency value of the dollar “to promote exports and domestic manufacturing” and a tenfold increase in government spending on job apprenticeship programs, won praise from the Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson. “It’s just pure old-fashioned economics: how to preserve good-paying American jobs,” he told his audience, a form of “economic nationalism.”

And to be sure, while white working-class voters get a great deal of attention in battleground states like Michigan, if Democrats can increase turnout among African-American voters in 2020, that would help counterbalance any weakness among white working-class voters.

As I was reminded in Rockland, the task of beating Mr. Trump doesn’t require passion for the president’s challenger, whoever that may be. The president, too, arouses a visceral dislike among some people there. One man, a Vietnam veteran who works at the American Legion post in Rockland, screwed up his face at my mention of the president. Among the things he finds unappealing is Mr. Trump’s disdainful posture toward the news media. We chatted about the fractious state of American politics at the Rockland Bar and Grill, as he sipped his Guinness. “If it’s down to Trump and Warren, it’s definitely Warren,” he declared without hesitation. Ms. Warren versus Mr. Trump would be a grind, but that, it might be said, is the story of her life.

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