What we learned from Elizabeth Warren’s third-place finish in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts senator was undercut by her lack of support among those without college degrees, even in her highly-educated home state.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren waves during a rally Tuesday night in Detroit. Seth Herald / AFP/Getty Images

The Massachusetts primary results were far worse than expected for Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

In recent weeks, it became clear that the Cambridge Democrat would likely face competition to win her home state from her fellow 2020 candidate and progressive ally, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. What hadn’t been anticipated was that Joe Biden would surge to beat them both, with Warren finishing in a distant third place.

Despite polling as low as fifth place in the state last week, the former vice president won Massachusetts with roughly a third of the vote, after the other two more moderate-leaning candidates — Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — dropped out and endorsed him.

Biden was followed by Sanders with 26 percent and Warren with 21 percent, making the Massachusetts senator the first major home-state presidential candidate not to win the Bay State primary.


The story nationally wasn’t any better.

In the 14 states and one U.S. territory that voted on Super Tuesday, Warren failed to finish higher than third, meaning that she still hasn’t notched a second-place — much less a first-place — finish through the first month of primary contests. Biden was declared the winner of at least eight other states, while Sanders was on pace to win four, including the night’s biggest prize, California.

Warren’s campaign has downplayed the focus on “winning” or “losing” states, rightly noting that the nomination will be decided by which candidate accumulates the most delegates. 

But even by that metric, Warren fell farther behind Biden and Sanders as the votes were counted Tuesday. And in Massachusetts, the reality of one of her campaign’s fundamental problems was laid bare.

Warren’s potential primary challenges have long been foreshadowed, not just by the recent primary polls, but also by her past Senate election under-performances relative to other Democrats in Massachusetts, particularly among independent men. Despite the state’s liberal politics, Warren has repeatedly ranked among Morning Consult’s list of the country’s 10 least popular senators.

A CNN exit poll breaking down the results Tuesday in Massachusetts by gender, race, age, education, and ideology found that literally the only group that supported Warren over Sanders and Biden were white, college-graduate women (33 percent).


But among voters in the state with no college degrees, Warren (15 percent) trailed both Biden (37 percent) and Sanders (34 percent) by more than 20 percent. 

Broken down by sub-category, the results didn’t improve much: 42 percent of non-college-educated white voters in Massachusetts broke for Biden, while 34 percent supported Sanders and just 14 percent backed Warren. And 33 percent of nonwhite voters without college degrees backed Sanders, compared to 25 percent for Biden and 16 percent for Warren. The gap was most dramatic among white men without college degrees: 14 percent supported Warren, while 39 percent backed Biden and 38 percent went for Sanders.

Even in a state with a disproportionately educated populace, it was enough to sink Warren.

On the ‘wine track’

The results Tuesday also came on the heels of a New York Times story examining potential campaign missteps that cemented her struggles to appeal to working-class voters. Allies and rivals alike said Warren’s compelling origin story — her Oklahoma upbringing and early-life hardships — were eclipsed by her campaign’s stream of policy proposals, which powered her surge early last fall. However, despite the populist nature of Warren’s trademark plans, the wonky strategy generated more enthusiasm among the so-called “wine track” of Democratic politics: “white, affluent and college-educated voters, especially women.”

And while Warren has included her biographical story in her stump speeches, little of her early life made it into paid TV advertising (a campaign advisor to the campaign told the Times that the campaign simply aired its best performing ads).


“Think about who goes to rallies — well-educated activists, not noncollege voters,” Meredith Kelly, a former spokeswoman for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign, told the Times. “A bigger and earlier spend on television to talk about her working-class roots would likely have gone a long way.”

With the exception of a handful of small Western Massachusetts towns, municipal-level results showed that the only communities Warren won were affluent Boston suburbs, like Cambridge, Brookline, Somerville, and Arlington. 

In the city of Boston itself, she finished third — nearly 4,000 votes behind Biden and Sanders.

Meanwhile, the Vermont senator won the state’s more diverse, working-class cities — from Worcester to Lowell to Lawrence to New Bedford — as well as its western liberal enclaves, like Amherst (Warren, however, won Northampton). For his part, Biden dominated the rest of the Bay State’s rural communities, especially the conservative-leaning southeastern region of the state.

Warren wasn’t in Massachusetts to watch the results trickle in. After voting Tuesday morning in Cambridge, she traveled to Detroit to hold a town hall-style rally (Michigan holds its primary on March 10) and took the stage shortly before 7:30 p.m. eastern time, before the polls in her home state had closed. 

And while Warren acknowledged the primary contests still underway across the country, she also decried the type of strategic voting and electability considerations that have defined the 2020 race. Polls have repeatedly shown that Democratic voters have prioritized defeating President Donald Trump over picking at candidate with whom they most agree (a preference that has also appeared to hurt Warren).


“What I see happening is a lot of folks trying to turn voting into some complicated strategy,” Warren said Tuesday night.

“But prediction has been a terrible business and the pundits have gotten it wrong over and over,” she added. “Here’s my advice: cast a vote that will make you proud. Cast a vote from your heart. And vote for the person you think will make the best president of the United States.”

The line received thunderous cheers from those in the crowd Tuesday night. 

But it also came amid increasingly loud calls from Sanders supporters — though not the campaign itself — for Warren to drop out like Buttigieg and Klobuchar did, allowing progressives to coalesce around Sanders they way moderates did around Biden (how the delegate math would actually play out is less clear).

“If Warren had dropped and endorsed Bernie when the centrists dropped and endorsed Biden, progressives would have had a fighting chance,” Krystal Ball, a Sanders supporter and pundit for The Hill, tweeted Tuesday night.

Jacobin, a socialist magazine backing Sanders, accused Warren of standing “in the way of the Left’s best chance in a century to chart this country’s destiny” and increasing the chances Biden would be nominated, which Warren herself has said would be a “big risk.”

“There are no far-flung strategic reasons that are more pressing than the need to form a united front against Biden and the politics and interests he represents,” the magazine wrote. “Warren has an historic opportunity to be one of the leaders in that fight.”

Staying in the race?

Warren gave no indication that she has any such plans Tuesday. Her campaign has signaled it was prepared to stay in the race until the convention, predicting that no candidate would have enough delegates to clinch the nomination. They also sent an email to supporters late Tuesday night, after the results in Massachusetts and elsewhere were clear, asking for donations to help “keep up the momentum” ahead of the next round of primaries March 10.


Closing her speech Tuesday night, Warren she “got in this fight” in response to economic and political systems that increasingly disadvantaged those who weren’t already wealthy, from “trickle-down economics” in the 1980s to the policies of Trump’s administration.

“This is a decision each and every one of you will have to make,” she said. “When there is this much danger, do you decide to kind of get a little timid, back up, crouch down a little, or do you decide to fight back? Me, I’m in this fight because I’m fighting back. I’m fighting back. I’m fighting back.”

In the CNN exit poll Tuesday, the one other voter subgroup in Massachusetts that backed Warren over Biden and Sanders were those who said the candidate quality that mattered most was being a “fighter.” However, that group made up just 10 percent of overall vote.


Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct date of Michigan’s primary. It is March 10, not March 17. Boston.com regrets the error.


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