The new Suffolk poll released late last night shows the US Senate race in Massachusetts as effectively dead-even, with Scott Brown at 48% and Elizabeth Warren at 47%. This is a big improvement for Warren over Suffolk's February poll, which had Brown ahead 49%-40%.
I'm going to make two quick arguments here: that the Cherokee-heritage story has helped Warren; and that the poll actually holds some good news for Brown.
First though, an overview analysis. When Suffolk, and a couple of other polls around the same time, showed Brown with a lead, I suspected that it was a little misleading. It stood to reason that the bulk of the undecided voters in those polls were generally Democratic-voting people, who don't dislike Brown enough to be willing to say flat-out that they plan to vote for the opposing Democrat who they knew little or nothing about. As they have learned enough about Warren in the past three months -- bear in mind she's been running positive ads as well as campaiging -- they quickly became comfortable saying (for now) that they will vote for her.
I think that bears out with the Suffolk poll's finding that Brown leads Marissa DeFranco -- essentially an unknown Democrat -- 49%-28%, with 22% undecided. Same support for Brown, while a large number of generally Democratic-leaning voters aren't quite willing to commit to the non-name "anyone-but Scotto."
So, to my point above about Warren. Clearly she hasn't been hurt significantly by the month-long Cherokee storyline. But I would suggest that the story has actually helped Warren introduce herself to those cautious Democratic-leaning voters.
Consider: the personal narrative Warren wants to spin is that she comes from an ordinary, unprivileged Oklahoma upbringing; rose to great success and prominence, as a Harvard Law professor; and then turned her efforts to fighting in Washington for working families against big Wall Street interests.
The Cherokee-heritage story has pretty damned effectively solidified the first two legs of that tripod in voters' minds, hasn't it? And the campaign has been hammering home the third through ads like the one with Obama praising her work.
So, if those voters aren't buying the negative implications of the Cherokee stories -- and the Suffolk poll suggests that, other than predisposed Brown voters, they aren't -- they are actually heading into the summer with the prefered Warren personal narrative quite well established.
I would note as a caveat that the story could create problems later, if other stories about Warren seem to fit with it to form some pattern of troubling behavior.
Now to the good news for Brown. In brief: voters are apt to see him as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The most striking thing in the new poll compared with the one from February is the burst in voter optimism. In February, 48% said that Massachusetts is on the "right track," and 39% said "wrong track." In the new poll, that's improved to 61%-28%.
Unsurprisingly, the poll shows a corresponding boost in voters' opinions about Deval Patrick (now 62%-32% favorable/unfavorable, up from 54%-37%) and Barack Obama (62%-32%, from 54%-38%).
And by the way, compare those numbers to the last Suffolk poll before Scott Brown was elected in January 2010. Back then, the right track/wrong track was deeply negative, at 33%-55%, while Patrick's favorable/unfavorable was 41%-50%, and Obama's was 55%-35%. (Patrick and Obama's job approval ratings were considerably lower still.)
I think it's fair to surmise that, for most Massachusetts voters -- especially those persuadable ones in the middle -- the national Republians are not receiving a similar boost in popularity since the 2010 Brown election. Quite the opposite: Republicans are seen more as obstacles to the progress being made by Democrats like Patrick and Obama.
That has certainly rubbed off on Mitt Romney. Back in that January 2010 poll, more Massachusetts voters viewed Romney favorably than unfavorably, 49% to 43%. By this February's Suffolk poll, that had dropped to 41%-47%. In the new poll, it's 36%-54%.
But not Scotto. In January 2010 his favorable/unfavorable split was 57%-19%; in February 2012 it was 52%-28%, and in May 2012 it's 58%-28%.
It seems to me that Massachusetts voters at the moment feel that what they have in place right now is working, and that is, so far, holding ground against voters' naturally inclination toward voting for a Democratic candidate like Warren.
Assuming people in the Commonwealth continue to feel good about things over the coming months, the big battle this fall will be fought primarily on these two fronts: 1) is Brown part of the Republican obstacle to staying on the right track, or part of the status quo making that progress; and 2) is Elizabeth Warren a risky unknown to throw into that working status quo, or someone well-suited to keep the Democrats going on the right track.
So far, it seems that both are winning their positive battles. That is, Brown is successfully defending on front #1, and Warren is successfully defending on front #2. But the real offensive firepower has yet to let loose, and when it does we'll see who can better withstand it.