Do Voters Care About Elizabeth Warren’s Past Claims To Native American Ancestry?

At this early stage of the Democratic race, it doesn't appear that voters care very much about the controversy surrounding Elizabeth Warren's claims of Native American ancestry.

Elizabeth Warren is well into her campaign for the Democratic nomination and, so far at least, the controversy about her claims of Native American ancestry do not seem to be having much of an impact on voters:

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Anna Stein, 44, doesn’t have a preferred presidential candidate yet for the 2020 Democratic nomination. But one thing is certain, she says: Elizabeth Warren’s handling of her Native American ancestry claims will not factor into her decision.

A.J. McConnell, 70, suspects he’ll vote for Kamala Harris, the California senator, for president. But he thinks the criticism over Ms. Warren describing herself as Native American for years is unfair, because he also had family members who once identified as Native Americans.

Bobbie Pate, 69, arrived at a Warren rally in northern Georgia on Saturday a little worried that Ms. Warren would mention the ancestry issue. Even acknowledging it would give credence to President Trump’s “racist attacks” on Ms. Warren, the Massachusetts senator she said. (Mr. Trump routinely slurs her as “Pocahontas.”)

“Everybody makes mistakes,” Ms. Pate said of Ms. Warren’s bumpy handling of her ancestry. “But it’s small potatoes compared to what Trump had done.”

In interviews over the last month with about three dozen Democratic voters, many in early primary states, almost all of them expressed far more interest in Ms. Warren’s policy ideas than her ancestry and said that they were exhausted or uninterested by the story line. They described it as overblown, reflecting a disconnect between voters in the party’s base and some political elites, media commentators and conservatives who have been preoccupied with the issue.

“Right now is a time to listen to ideas,” said Holly Sauers, a staunch Democrat and resident of Charleston, S.C. “That’s what we’re focused on.”

Among these voters, who were mostly white and black Democrats who acknowledged their own misunderstandings about Native American communities and history, Ms. Warren is not a perpetrator of harm, but a victim of a Washington culture that delights in any scandal among politicians — and particularly elected officials who are women.

Citing the 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated for president from either major party, many Democrats — including those not predisposed to Ms. Warren — expressed particular protectiveness of their candidates this cycle. That instinct has extended not only to Ms. Warren, but also to other Democratic presidential candidates such as Senator Harris, who has faced questions about her own views, and more recently Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has been accused of sharply criticizing some of her own staff members.

“This time, we don’t want to focus on the negativity,” said Ms. Stein, who attended Ms. Harris’s rally on Friday in Charleston. She said she felt that the talk of Ms. Warren’s Native ancestry was driven by Mr. Trump.

To be fair, many of the voters who were questioned in this article are people who are probably inclined to support Warren in the primaries, and they are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. To that extent, it’s likely that the reporters talking to them were dealing with a self-selecting sample of people already inclined to support Warren, or at least people who likely view the whole controversy as something cooked up by the President and his fellow Republicans, who have been trying to use this issue against Warren since she ran for Senate against Scott Brown seven years ago. Just as Democratic and other voters didn’t care very much about the issue in 2012 or 2018, these voters inclined toward supporting Warren or at least listening to her on the issues may not be the appropriate audience with whom to address the impact of Warren and the Native American issue.

Taking those caveats into account, though, it would appear that the views of these voters are consistent with voters as a whole as shown by polls and election results. For example, polls that were taken in advance of the 2018 election showed that most voters had not changed their opinion of Warren after the controversy that erupted when she released a DNA test that showed she had a very small amount of DNA linked to Native Americans. That move was widely criticized by Native Amerian groups who insist that being Native American is tied to tribal ties, not DNA tests, and mocked by Republicans due to the fact that it showed that the Native Amerian segment of her DNA was so incredibly small as to be largely insignificant and, in any case, no indication that she had a Native American ancestor in the recent past. Another poll showed similar results as did a third that showed Warren would run neck and neck with Trump in a hypothetical General Election. Additionally, of course, Warren won in both 2012 and 2018 easily notwithstanding the controversy. Taking this into account, one has to wonder whether the whole”Native American” controversy is going to matter to Democratic voters in 2020 and whether it really matters to anyone other than Republicans who aren’t going to vote for Warren in the first place.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    Here’s what’s puzzling me, Doug: why you don’t feel like a total jackass for posting this clickbait nonsense.

  2. @MarkedMan:

    She’s running for President. She has made several major errors in how she has handled this matter. It seems entirely relevant to me. Whether voters will agree is another question.

  3. wr says:

    What? Next you’ll be telling us that voters don’t care if Kristen Gillibrand used a fork to eat fried chicken or whether Kamala Harris listened to the right music when she smoked dope in college. That’s like saying that the American voters are so foolish they’re going to focus on the issues that have an impact on their lives instead of the things jaded pundits decide reveal “character.” And then where will we be?

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Do Voters Care About Elizabeth Warren’s Past Claims To Native American Ancestry?

    Not if they have a lick of common sense, but…. trump.

  5. Kylopod says:

    Voters will care if the media tells them to care.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    The real story here is that the GOPs will desperately exploit anything they can find and the supposedly liberal MSM will once again enthusiastically steno it. But, realistically, what can they do? Run on policy? Write think pieces on policy positions?

  7. Bob@Youngstown says:

    No, it doesn’t matter to me, and (partisanship aside) it makes no matter to anyone conversant with ancestral origins.

    Technically, Warren could claim that her ancient ancestors were African, and scientifically be on sound foundation.

  8. Hal_10000 says:

    “Do Voters Care About Elizabeth Warren’s Past Claims To Native American Ancestry?”

    Mostly no, but with one small caveat. I forget who said this, but someone pointed out that in our “victimhood culture”, falsely claiming membership in a victimized group — and few groups are as victimized as Native Americans — is kind of a stolen valor. Whether or not Warren benefited from that claim is kind of beside the point. And we know very well that if a Republican falsely claimed Native American ancestry …

    That having been said, I don’t expect it to matter and I personally don’t care. Her terrible policy ideas are reason enough to be wary of her.

  9. Kylopod says:


    Technically, Warren could claim that her ancient ancestors were African, and scientifically be on sound foundation.

    If a white politician were found to have once identified as “African American” on the grounds that everyone’s ancestors are from Africa, that would be an utterly obnoxious and tone-deaf thing to say. I think it might even be disqualifying for a presidential candidate, because it would suggest a profound insensitivity to the impact of race as a social construct, by trivializing the issue with semantic word games.

    That’s not what Warren did. No one has produced any evidence that she deliberately fabricated information about her background that she knew to be false. One of her grandparents claimed partial Native American heritage, and she took the claim at face value. You can criticize her for having been overly naive and credulous (though most people accept family claims like this at face value), or for making too much out of a marginal level of ancestry, but the notion that she engaged in some kind of identity-fraud akin to Rachel Dolezal is simply without basis.

    In the words of a noted genealogist: “Many more Americans believe they have Native ancestry than actually do (we always suspected this, but can now confirm it through genetic testing)…. And someone who hails from Oklahoma [as Warren does] would be even more prone to accept a tale of Native heritage than most.”

  10. wr says:

    @Hal_10000: “Whether or not Warren benefited from that claim is kind of beside the point. ”

    Boy, if someone ever asks me “What is the tell that proves the lie?” I’m going to steer them directly to this sentence.

    Because, of course, if there is any point at all to all this hoo-hah, it would be only that Warren used this claim to benefit herself. Without that, it’s entirely empty. But you just handwave right past that point, claiming that the only thing that could possibly give it importance is irrelevant… because it’s not true, and so you can’t hope to use it against her.

  11. Gustopher says:

    @wr: I’m concerned with how Warren has handled the entire stupid controversy, not the controversy itself. I like Warren. I want her to be better.

    Gillibrand hasn’t somehow made her chicken eating dilemmas a bigger issue, nor has Kamala Harris responded by going out and smoking pot with Snoop Dog on national TV or something.

    Warren should have spoken to some tribal leaders around Oklahoma before the big DNA rollout, so she wouldn’t have gotten the “she’s not really one of us” response. 1/1024th is low, and was bound to be used against her, and she didn’t anticipate that — people here put it into context, but that should have been part of the release of DNA results. It’s a pretty dumb controversy, but she could have handled it better.

    Is she gong to be equally tone deaf with African-Americans as she was with Native Americans? Is she going to handle more important scandals as badly?

  12. wr says:

    @Gustopher: Is she gong to be equally tone deaf with African-Americans as she was with Native Americans? Is she going to handle more important scandals as badly?”

    Seems to me there are two ways to find out. We can wait and see. Or we can decide that she’s a loser and not worth consideration over a “scandal” that everyone agrees is a bunch of nonsense about nothing.

  13. Tyrell says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Nobody cares about that stuff. Warren is wasting time and energy on it. Most people who have done those ancestry programs have discovered that they have some Native American dna in there somewhere.
    “It’s all for nothing, Will. All for nothing” (Martin Howe – “High Noon”)
    What I am interested in is lower taxes and lower credit card rates.
    Senator Warren has proposed a free and reduced childcare program; details are still in the works. Now that is something I can get into. One way to help parents out with the cost of childcare would be to increase the tax deduction for childcare expenses. Another route would be to fund centers at the local public schools. Some states already fund childcare. One problem would be that many schools may not have the space for this. Constructing an addition would be costly. So I am not sure what she has planned as far as the physical location would entail and other such logistics.
    See: “Four Observations on Elizabeth Warren’s Universal Child Care Proposal” (Foundation For Economic Education). This is an analysis of possible economic factors and outcomes.

  14. Gustopher says:

    @wr: We now have some evidence that she isn’t going to do a good job of the inevitable next scandal or “scandal”. It’s not definitive, and I honestly hope she learns to do this better — she’s the candidate that I really want to support.

    I don’t write her off, but her ability to handle things like this is a real problem. She has about a year before voting starts to show she can do better.

  15. Gustopher says:

    @Tyrell: All the best policies in the world are useless if you can’t get elected to implement them.

    Dealing with bullshit scandals so they don’t derail your campaign is a large part of getting elected.

  16. Kylopod says:


    We now have some evidence that she isn’t going to do a good job of the inevitable next scandal or “scandal”.

    I think that’s the key point. I don’t think this will be her version of “But her emails.” Of course if she becomes the nominee Trump will be sure to call her Pocahontas at every opportunity (which actually could backfire on him). But she isn’t under FBI investigation, and unless the media continues uncovering examples from her past where she identified as an Indian, it’s not likely to have the kind of traction that would enable it to remain in the news the way the email stuff did at exactly the wrong moments during 2016.

    What the controversy does reveal is a certain political tone-deafness, a difficulty getting in front of the narrative, and a tendency to backpedal more than necessary.

  17. wr says:

    @Gustopher: “I don’t write her off, but her ability to handle things like this is a real problem.”

    Apparently you missed the posting and went directly to the comments. Actual voters don’t care about this. Pundits and right wing hacks care about it. And pearl-clutchers on the left, who choose to internalize this kind of toxic crap instead of rejecting it.

    Here’s a suggestion — when someone says “Oh, Pocahontas is a fake,” instead of responding with “I don’t agree, but I am worried that this whole incident suggests she’s a poor candidate,” try “this is a bullshit made-up scandal manufactured by the right wing nose machine. Let’s ignore this kind of crap and talk about where she wants to take the country.”

  18. al Ameda says:

    Do Voters Care About Elizabeth Warren’s Past Claims To Native American Ancestry?

    Let’s put it this way:
    At a minimum the 62 million Trump voters care, and the further she progresses in the campaign season, the more likely it is that they’re going to be framing this as nearly as egregious as Benghazi or emailing government business matters on a private server.

    Personally, I think she’s already made a tactical error by apologizing for any of this. She is better served by being combative, and throwing punches right back at Trump and his campaign+media surrogates. Nothing is gained by apologizing.