Warren Wows 'Em

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about the much-rumored Elizabeth Warren US Senate candidacy; in it, I reported that my "conversations with Bay State Democratic operatives... suggest a certain level of resistance, if not outright hostility, from the local political establishment." Those activists, organizers, campaign veterans, and fundraisers, I wrote, are generally open to persuasion -- mostly because they haven't given their hearts to any of the current candidates -- but do still need to be persuaded, directly. They didn't want to be told from some party leadership that this is their candidate.

And, off I went for a 10-day vacation. While I was away, Warren launched her campaign. Pretty sneaky, sis!

Yes, yes, I know, she hasn't officially announced she's running; she's "exploring." Whatevs, as the kids say; she's running for US Senate. She's raising money, she's hiring a team, she's conducting a strategic rollout, she's pitching herself to activists and funders. I suppose it's possible she could stop running sooner rather than later, if this rollout goes really badly, but anyone who says she's not currently running for US Senate is buying some spin.

It's very clever spin, BTW -- tip o' the hat to Doug Rubin and others advising her. She's rolling out with a "listening tour." (Note: when political reporters hear phrases like "listening tour," our eyes automatically roll up into our heads.) That means generating buzz among Democratic activists by going to likely supporters' homes and talking to groups of generally left-leaning folks, many of whom are, in marketing terms, "influencers" among Massachusetts Democratic grassroots activists.

Nothing new under the sun about that. Many, if not most, state-wide candidates do some version of it -- Alan Khazei certainly did for his '09 run. (Side note: Khazei and Warren have no elected-office experience at all, and yet it's Setti Warren who gets hammered for daring to run for Senate after so little time as mayor. Don't you love politics?)

A tour like this can be very risky, of course -- if the activists react badly, those influential types spread their negative views about her. But I suspect that Rubin et al were pretty confident that Warren is particularly skilled at working a room of progressives. In the event, that seems to have proven out; this has got to be the most widely discussed set of private meetings since the Obama/Boehner debt-ceiling negotiations. Trust me: that's no accident. Rubin knows the Massachusetts grassroots network better than anybody. He knows what buttons to push to trigger a desired cascade of reactions. This didn't happen by accident.

I will also, self-servingly, suggest that this is all because the Warren team recognized the same key problem that I brilliantly identified in my article. This "listening tour" was entirely about getting Democratic activists to feel like they're part of something exciting from the ground floor. (Many of them, being less cynical than this hard-hearted reporter, actually seem to believe that Warren is undecided about whether and how to run, and is actually "listening" to them for advice and direction.)

All very clever, and builds interest up to an actual media-event "announcement" -- either preceded by, or followed by, a round of "exclusive" media interviews to win over the cynical reporter types. (And yes, I would gladly take one Kyle!)

This leads me to mention a little mini-dispute of sorts, about whether A) Warren sucks for shunning the "mainstream media," or B) the mainstream media sucks for complaining about Warren shunning them. (See Blue Mass Group.) (Note: I tend to get confused in these arguments about which side I'm allegedly on.)

I actually don't think there's that much of an issue -- as far as I know of, only one columnist has criticized Warren for avoiding the media. The other example given, of the Boston Globe failing to cite Blue Mass Group as the web site where Warren posted her semi-pseudo-announcement, is just the Globe being the Globe.

There's no reason that Warren needs to be talking to the press at this point, and I think pretty much everybody gets that. But if a lot of people, including media mainstreamers, are wondering if Warren will try to run around the press as a long-term campaign strategy... well, they're absolutely right to wonder. Personally, I don't think she will do so to the extent that, say, Rubin's corner-office client has been known to do. But we really don't know that yet.

I would also note that if the local media is feeling shunned, even at this early stage -- and I don't know if they are -- I can't say I'd blame them. As I pointed out in my article, Warren seemed to give interviews to every non-Massachusetts publication that called as she was heading out of Washington. If you're a political reporter at the Globe, or WBZ, or even the lowly Phoenix, it might be a little off-putting to see a Warren interview in New York Magazine while your own calls go unanswered.

I sometimes get criticized for saying this, but from a political analysis perspective it matters if a candidate pisses off the fragile, petty media ego. Believe me, Janet Wu and Frank Philips and Scot Lehigh and the rest are tough enough on pols whom they respect; you really don't do yourself favors by having them think you're thumbing your nose at them. Unless, of course, battling the media is part of your strategy (a la Sarah Palin), but I don't think that makes sense for Warren.

What does make sense is to make Democratic activists feel like they're part of discovering Warren first, before the common people of the state discover her on Channel 5 and NECN. As I said above, I suspect that she and her team are smart enough to do that phase once they finish the first one. If not, then maybe we can revisit this mini-controversy about her attitude toward the media, and vice-versa.

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