A poll last week signaling an early near-tie in the 2012 Massachusetts U.S. Senate race found about as many registered voters hadn't heard of Elizabeth Warren, by far the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, as would likely vote for her against Republican incumbent Scott Brown. A closer look at voters unfamiliar with Warren hints that she doesn't have nearly as much upside with that group as their numbers might suggest. But an analysis of demographics and attitudes of those voters who are truly up for grabs indicates they could help ensure Warren stays competitive with Brown, if - and it's a big if - she can turn them out to vote.
The University of Massachusetts Lowell/Boston Herald poll, which I produced for UML's new Center for Public Opinion, found 41% of registered voters likely would vote for Brown and 38% for Warren (within sampling error of +/- 3.8 percentage points) if those were the choices in November 2012. And in an earlier question in the survey asking voters for general views on numerous political figures, 37% said they had never heard of Warren, the Harvard law professor and former Obama administration consumer champion.
But seven in 10 of these voters stated a vote preference nonetheless - 48% said they'd likely vote for Brown and 22% for Warren. The 2012 trial heat question gave Brown's and Warren's party affiliations, though nearly a third (31%) of this group who said they'd likely vote for Brown identified themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents - at least twice the share of such partisan crossovers as among Brown supporters overall. These swing voters are critical in heavily Democratic Massachusetts and presumably both campaigns will place great emphasis on them. (There were relatively few leaned-Republican crossovers among Warren supporters, whether they knew of her or not.)
We're left with 11% of the potential electorate who both haven't heard of Warren yet and didn't state an early preference for her or Brown in the general election trial heat. Because of the sample size of this survey - 1,005 registered voters, far more than any in other live-interviewer poll on Massachusetts Senate race thus far - we can compare this group (N=105, sampling error +/- 11.6 points) against likely Warren and Brown voters who have heard of both candidates (N= 308 and 228, with sampling error of 6.8 and 7.9 points, respectively).
Though the relevant subgroups can get pretty small, some findings of clear statistical significance emerge nonetheless:
- The 11% who haven't heard of Warren and don't have a vote preference yet don't seem terribly likely to vote at all: Few are following the campaign closely yet, many (in some cases, a third) offer no opinion about many questions about Brown, and they skew young - typically the lowest-turnout voters. (And remember, this was a sample of registered voters. If the 2008 presidential election is any indication, in Massachusetts perhaps four in 10 of them won't vote in 2012.)
- But if these voters who are up for grabs do vote, overall they far more closely match the profile of likely Warren than Brown voters in party affiliation and in views about the role of government and the 2010 national health care reform, and they lean more toward likely Warren voters on most other issues. They may be a little closer to likely Brown voters in their assessment of the national economy, though, and few of them fall into Warren's strongest demographic group - post-graduates.
The poll also found 8% saying they hadn't heard of Brown, even though he's been in office since January 2010. That subgroup of just 62 respondents is not enough to similarly analyze, though a large majority of them hadn't heard of Warren either.
Those who have not heard of Warren nor expressed an early vote preference aren't following the campaign closely (in all the tables that follow, likely voters for each candidate excludes those who said they hadn't heard of Warren or Brown):
They're far more likely than likely Brown or Warren voters - by at least 22 to 30 or more percentage points - to not give an opinion ("don't know" or refused to answer) to numerous questions about Brown, including how is handling his job as U.S. senator, his ideology overall and the extent to which he's looking out for the economic interests of the middle class.
Those who haven't heard of Warren also align with some typically low-turnout demographic groups. In particular, 26% of them are under age 25, compared to 4% each of likely Warren and Brown voters.
And they're more likely to not have a college degree (though age explains some of that); in a particularly challenging finding for Warren, just 5% are post-graduates, compared to 28% of her likely voters; Among all registered voters, post-graduates were the only education group that favored Warren, by a whopping 54%-29%; they're typically a high-turnout group, too, but Warren apparently has few votes left to gain among them.
Not surprisingly given their age and education, this those who haven't heard of Warren also tend to report lower 2010 household income than other voters. There were no significant differences among the groups by race, while those who hadn't heard of Warren were distributed geographically around Massachusetts a little more like Brown's likely voters.
If they do vote, by party affiliation, this group is a lot less Republican than likely Brown voters, by initial party ID (unleaned) and especially with independents leaned to a party:
There are numerous indications that those who don't know Warren are more closely aligned in their views with those who know and are likely to vote for her than with Brown supporters. The strongest correlation is on this question about the fundamental role of government:
About as strong is the correlation on this question on budget and spending priorities:
There's a particularly sharp negative relationship between those who haven't heard of Warren and likely Brown voters on this question about national health care reform:
Those who haven't heard of Warren also disagreed with Brown supporters on denying in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, and they were a lot less apt than likely Brown voters to support the Tea Party, though also less inclined than likely Warren voters to oppose that movement.
On one broader mood measure, those who haven't heard of Warren were less apt (51%) than likely Brown voters (76%) to say things in this country today are seriously off on the wrong track. But they might lean slightly closer to Brown voters in their assessment of the economy:
All told, across all the attitudinal measures in the survey - and including "don't know/refused" responses to each - the views of Massachusetts registered voters who hadn't heard of Warren correlated with those of likely Warren voters at 0.86 and with attitudes of likely Brown voters at 0.53 (where 1 is a perfect correlation and -1 is a perfect negative correlation).
That suggests Warren has a little more upside than Brown does among this group - if (and again, it's a big "if") they vote.
Another way of conducting this analysis is to look at those who haven't heard of Warren vs. voters who hold a favorable overall view of Warren only and Brown only. The results were broadly in line with the analysis by vote preference.
A final note: This analysis does not look at the possibility that some who say now that they are likely to vote for Brown or Warren could end up changing their minds; we can't gauge the probability of that from this survey. And, of course, there's more than a full year of campaigning still to come.