In recent weeks, as most of the attention in the chattering classes has focused on Joe Biden’s presidential bid, something interesting has been going on a bit below the surface: Elizabeth Warren has emerged as the solidly third-place candidate behind Biden and Bernie Sanders. That’s evident in horse-race polls: In the Real Clear Politics average of national surveys, she’s at around 10 percent, comfortably ahead of Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, with the rest of the field (including the steadily fading Beto O’Rourke) not making much of an impression so far.
It’s harder to get a grip on the infrequently polled early states, though Warren does seem to be running a bit behind her national averages in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But on the other hand, she has invested the most of any candidate in early-state staff and infrastructure, and has an especially impressive organization in Iowa, as the New York Times reported earlier this month:
[Warren has] about 50 paid staff members … already on the ground in Iowa, far more than any other Democratic candidate is known to have hired in the state. The growing Warren juggernaut reflects a bet that rapidly hiring a large staff of organizers will give the senator an advantage over her rivals who are ramping up their efforts at a slower pace.
You can add to that her enormous credibility among Democrats nationally when it comes to policy chops, which she has enhanced significantly during the early stages of the campaign, and the opportunity she may have to excel during this summer’s first two rounds of candidate debates. Her favorability ratings in her own party are solid; she’s at 57/16 in the Morning Consult tracking poll, with some room for growth. 28 percent of Democrats say either they’ve never heard of her or don’t know enough about her to form an opinion, as opposed to only 8 percent with no opinion of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
The major rap on Warren among political observers has involved poor electability credentials, which is a big deal in 2020 given the obsession of Democrats with denying Trump a second term. Actually, in nine head-to-head trial heats against Trump published this year, Warren has led in six (including two this month). But her favorability ratios beyond the ranks of Democrats have been weak: a recent Quinnipiac poll showed her well underwater at 32/41 in the general electorate, and at 28/44 among independents (in both cases, there are plenty of people who haven’t formed an opinion of her yet).
It’s unclear how much Warren is still suffering from the poor impression she made with her handling of claims that she erroneously identified herself as Native American some years ago — claims that Trump and his allies have kept alive with their racist but effective “Pocahontas” sobriquet for her. But time is on her side. Generally speaking, presidential candidates who grow in strength in their own party ranks eventually develop better electability indicators.
Strategically, Warren is one candidate with little initially to fear from Joe Biden’s front-runner status. Indeed, it benefits her if Biden beats Sanders and Buttigieg in Iowa and New Hampshire and Kamala Harris in South Carolina. She’s not that strong presently in New Hampshire, which is troubling given her residency in next-door Massachusetts, but historically candidates who overperform in Iowa get a nice bounce in the Granite State. If she can finish ahead of Bernie Sanders in Iowa or New Hampshire, that’s a very big deal, since his expectations are higher (especially in New Hampshire, where he trounced Hillary Clinton in 2016) and he is perceived as occupying the same “lane” as she does. Warren has more potential as a party-unifier than Sanders, and would probably thrive if the field melts down quickly to a battle with Biden.
For now, though, Warren’s “She Persisted” catchphrase fits her campaign quite well. She’s broadly admired in her party, and has a quality of toughness that is the next best thing to a lead in trial heats as evidence she can go toe-to-toe with the sinister incumbent. She will always be vulnerable to someone younger or flashier catching fire as caucus and primary voters prepare to start voting. But if that doesn’t happen, she should have her chance to compete and win.