After LegoLand

Massachusetts Democrats, at least the progressive kind, continue to await Elizabeth Warren’s decision on a run against Republican U.S. Senator Scott Brown. Much of the Democratic elite consider Brown unbeatable, a topic I wrote about in April in Hugs for Democrats – CommonWealth Magazine. So how might Elizabeth Warren, who pondered her next step while on a visit to LegoLand with her grandchild, be expected to fare against Brown?

She’d unquestionably be an articulate voice on economic and consumer policies against Brown, who has the standard Republican positions. She’s been toughened by her DC experience and those who know her say she has a common touch one doesn’t usually associate with a Harvard professor. She is also said to be able to raise the money needed to compete.

Of course we don’t know if she would be an effective campaigner, or be able to raise money. She’s never done either.

So I looked up a few studies on challengers to U.S. senate incumbents that focus upon challenger quality. This usually means the challenger has held or is holding a political office, or can raise money. The first influences the ability to do the second. Peverill Squire and Eric R.A.N. Smith in “A Further Examination of Challenger Quality in Senate Elections” focus on challenger quality and campaign skills. Challenger quality has two components: challenger profile and challenger skills. Prominence means both the office held by the challenger and how visible it would be to voters in a senate election. Skill involves candidate appeal, eloquence, excitement, ability to manage the campaign wisely, and even physical attraction.

David Lublin found in “Quality, Not Quantity: Strategic Politicians in U.S. Senate Elections, 1952-1990” that U.S. representatives do significantly better than do other challengers; even governors do not perform as well. As Lublin says in explaining the superiority of challengers who hold U.S. house seats, “Federal legislators and state executive officials have quite different responsibilities and often contend with somewhat different types of issues and constituency groups. U.S. representatives may also have greater access to Washington campaign donors based on past contacts. Voters may perceive state and federal offices as requiring different sets of personal and political skills.”

All the studies I looked at conclude that a candidate with no experience in winning and holding political office performs the most poorly against an incumbent senator. But studies show that a quality challenger should emerge in a state where the non-incumbent party has a lot of quality officeholders, even if the incumbent senator appears formidable. That is because senate seats come up only every six years and if your party already holds one of the seats the chance to move up does not come along often.

So what might all this mean for Warren? Obviously the swooning in progressive Democratic circles over Warren could be overdone. It is very difficult for someone who has never run and won a political office to pivot into a successful senate challenge. Jousting with Republican senators in a hearing room might not be adequate preparation for campaign debates, never mind acquiring the appropriate demeanor for attending the Blessing of the Fleet in Gloucester or dropping in at the Ludlow Rotary Club meeting. Warren has never held political office, so that challenger quality variable cuts against her. She may be known to Beltway insiders, but she is not well known in Massachusetts. If she can raise money as her supporters hope, that would be significant. Diddy was mostly right – “It’s All About the Benjamins.”

There is one other matter that puzzles me about the Warren boomlet. On the day of the special senate election the AFL-CIO commissioned a poll to find out what had gone so wrong for the Democrats. The pollster concluded that “this was a working class revolt.” Martha Coakley had won narrowly among college voters but had been beaten by twenty points with non-college graduates. So how does nominating a Harvard law professor help with that group? (I’ll probably quarrel some other day with the definition of working class based on education level, but it is a commonly accepted definition).

Why hasn’t one of the Democratic representatives or a statewide elected official seized the moment? Well, studies also show that professional politicians are strategic – if they hold a safe seat, why risk it against a strong senate incumbent? Things are even more complicated because Massachusetts is losing one seat in Congress, and if Senator John Kerry should be elevated to Secretary of State, it might be easier to win a special election for that seat. Still, in a state with so many strong Democrats, we might expect one to take a chance against Brown.

The best candidate for the Democrats would still likely be a member of the U.S. House. I made the argument in “Hugs for Democrats” that there is every good reason for a quality candidate to defy the conventional wisdom of Senator Brown’s electoral impregnability. A congressperson would be best positioned to take advantage. That doesn’t mean we won’t be swearing in Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2012, just that she might not be the strongest candidate.


About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
This entry was posted in Mass Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to After LegoLand

  1. Reyes Coll-Tellechea says:


    I just happened to be at Warren’s first gathering held last night from 7 to 9 PM with a group of 4o–60 citizens in a private home in Dorchester.

    I am glad to report that she is a MAGNIFICENT candidate for the US Senate. She is poised, yet tough as nails, clearly raised and schooled as a working class woman, savvy, articulate, and vary respectful and perfectly able to connect with the common folk: want to talk credit cards? mortgages? unemployment? You have to see her in action! In fact, Mo, she lacks the characteristic phoniness of most professional politicians…. and basically transpires honesty. I am in! (By the way, I am a registered Independent)

    I, for one, am not waiting for one of those calculating politicians (democrats?) you describe, to feel safe enough to, perhaps… insinuate his intention to run… or not…
    We have no time for such calculations, vanity and ego trips. People are suffering. The public domain is being decimated and taken over by banks and insurance companies…

    We need warriors, she is a magnificent one, willing to take the punches and deliver them as well.

    I hope you have a chance to see Warren in person soon, and then I will be interested in your thoughts.

    About those articles and reports… Theoreticians have proven to be wrong before. Warren Consumer Protection Agency is a reality.

    Best regards


    I am sorry the articles you mention in your column

    • Maurice T. Cunningham says:


      I’ll get my first look “in the flesh’ at convocation next week. I’m looking forward to it. I remain a skeptic, as today’s post suggests.

  2. Tim says:

    What possibility does Warren have to break out of the “managerial class” in terms of voter support? It seems to me that Warren has almost a double edge sword in that her tough anti wall street stance at least opens up the possibility of gaining support from “yeomen” and “workers” that many other democratic candidates would be unable to get but on the otherhand turns off the possibility of the support from at least the the not inconsiderable portion of the managerial class that works for the local financial services industry here in Boston. (This will be only magnified if as rumored that Warren during her campaign intends to make a direct assault on Fidelity, John Hancock, State Street etc. and their efforts through Scott Brown to water down the Dodd Frank financial reform bill). I would also have to wonder how other major institutional players in industries such as Life Sciences, Academic Medicine, High Technology etc would view Warren attacks on major local companies such as Fidelity toward what their relations with her would be if she was elected. Now to be fair “worker bees” in financial services, life sciences etc do not necessarily have the same political views as the C-suite but in same ways I suspect someone with Warren national reputation would actually be better off running in another state with a more populist and less managerial/corporatist political culture.


  3. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    First, thanks to Tim for such perceptive remarks. This is just the sort of discussion we hope to have on
    Now as to Elizabeth Warren’s ability to break out of the managerial class and win votes from other groups like workers and yeomen. I keep coming back to the conclusions reached by the survey firm for the AFL-CIO, who polled the day of the special election. The finding that jumped out at me was that Brown’s victory was “a working class revolt.” How Warren relates to working voters is important and may be what Mayor Menino had in mind in his recent skeptical remarks. Professor Duquette posted on this recently at The Pol and the Professor. Scott Brown connected, even through sports talk radio, with the average guy. It is a big challenge to Warren, who has spent so much of her adult life in academia or government.
    She’ll have no appeal to yeomen. In fact I’m rethinking the whole yeomen aspect of Massachusetts political culture. Yeomen were very parochial and the current version is as well, but while the yeomen were centered in small towns the closest analog today is the Tea Party. As Jill Lepore has shown in The Whites of Their Eyes and Williamson, Skocpol, Coggin show in “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Perspectives on Politics 9:25-44 (March 2011) the Tea Party in Massachusetts is led by a political pro who moved here from another state and the movement has a broad membership. And they don’t get their political cues from local businessmen but for Fox News. So anyone who wants to offer comments on a new category for yeomen (neo-yeomen?) please do so.
    As to the managers, they are the big prize. But maybe the managers are bifurcated. Here is something I wrote in a recent paper presented at the annual meeting of the New England Political Science Association:
    As Andrew Gelman explains on a national level among upper income individuals, educated professionals have gravitated over the years to the Democrats, while managers and businessmen have moved toward Republicans. (Gelman et al. 2010)(26-28). As a sort of cross-pressure Gelman also argues that higher income individuals in rich states (like Massachusetts) tend to be pulled toward the Democrats by their social issue liberalism. It makes sense that such a dynamic could be used by Republican statewide candidates who combine managerial bona fides with social issue liberalism – like Weld, Cellucci, the pre-presidential candidate Romney, and even to a lesser extent Scott Brown.
    So you may very well be on to something in wondering if Warren simply won’t sell with voters tied to the financial services community, and perhaps with others reliant on powerful Massachusetts industries. You mention that Brown attempted to water down Dodd-Frank, but he will portray his efforts as helping a major Massachusetts industry with a lot of employees. There is an interesting report on the financial services sector by MassInsight, The Massachusetts Financial Services Sector. Among the findings is that the financial services industry “supports 170,000+ direct jobs, including a leading share of middle-income, middle-class positions in our companies.” So as Joe Biden would say, this is a big deal.
    I hope you’ll continue posting. You’ve obviously given this alto of thought and I’d especially like to see more of what you have to say about Massachusetts’ “managerial/corporatist political culture.”

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth Warren Strengths and Weaknesses | MassPoliticsProfs

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth Warren Strengths and Weaknesses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *