intelligencer chats

Are the Electability Fears About Elizabeth Warren Overblown?

She’s had a hell of a summer. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Ben: Elizabeth Warren is not only creeping up in the polls — she’s drawing record crowds (15,000 people the other day in Seattle), more endorsements, and after two solid debates, is viewed the most favorably of the primary candidates among Democratic voters, according to an aggregate of August polls.

Yet the questions about her electability — which is a dirty word to some – persist, as a recent New York Times story detailed. Those concerns include Warren’s gender, her Native-American heritage issues, her not-that-impressive 2018 reelection victory to being a deeply liberal Harvard professor from Massachusetts. (I admit that I myself have voiced some of these concerns — in a chat from April, before her candidacy exploded, I worried that she could not beat Trump.) To what extent should Warren’s impressive performance this summer quell the doubts many had/have about her fitness as a general-election candidate?

Ed: I don’t think some of those who “doubt” Warren’s electability will ever be convinced — particularly those who don’t believe a woman can be elected until 2048 or something. But yeah, she is demonstrating that perceptions of candidates can and do change.

Sarah: With the caveat that it’s still kind of early: I think her recent performance really should quell most if not all of the concerns people previously raised about her candidacy. Trump is going to keep calling her Pocahontas, but it doesn’t seem to land anymore if it ever did in the first place. She’s shown that she can be personable and engaging in ways that Hillary Clinton never mastered, and while it may be true that the primary won’t turn on policy, I think it’s fair to say that people are attracted to the ideas that she’s putting out there. Certainly if we compare her to Joe Biden, she looks like a much more reliable bet for the party.

Ed: She’s also a more plausible unity figure than either Biden or Bernie Sanders.The closer we get to a context in which the presidential field has essentially shrunk to three viable candidates (we’re obviously not there now, but you could definitely see it happening) her status as a party unifier will become more obvious.

Ben: A thing you hear a lot is that Joe Biden can appeal to the kind of blue-collar Democrat that is needed to get the party over the line, particularly in the industrial midwest. I don’t think this is a completely frivolous argument, since Wisconsin may well be the most important state on the electoral map next year. Do you think concerns that Warren can’t reach that demographic as well are justified at all?

Sarah: Not really. I don’t want to read too much into recent polls, but considered together they offer some early evidence that Biden’s grip on this demographic is perhaps not as firm as many thought. Bernie seems to be cutting in there more than Warren, but I wouldn’t count her out.

Ed: Well, to the extent that reachable (a very important qualifier here) blue-collar swing voters like “populist” messages, she’s really good at delivering them in relatable ways. I also think observers vastly underestimate the extent to which any “backlash” among men who aren’t “ready” for a woman as president is going to be overmatched by a “frontlash” among women moving in the opposite direction. Of course, I’m one of those who doesn’t believe HRC’s gender really hurt her in 2016.

Above all, in the end, this is likely to be a base-mobilization contest more than a fight over 10,000 blue collar dudes in Wisconsin. So a unified, energetic party gives you more than you risk.

Ben: My concerns about Warren had been less about her gender and more about the Native-American issue, her curiously middling popularity in Massachusetts, being a candidate from Massachusetts in the first place, and the Medicare for All stuff, among other lefty proposals. But her ability to harness party energy has been enough to change my thinking, at least to some degree.

Sarah: I think she’s done a relatively good job of making amends post-Native gaffe. Her tribal policy proposal was well received. And second, the fact that she, Biden and Sanders are all in the top three tells me that maybe voter preferences don’t map as neatly onto the leftist v. liberal divide as do pundit preferences.

Ben: I agree. That’s been clear in polling from the beginning — it’s more about personalities than anything.

Ed: Well, I’ll put my cards on the table as someone with a relatively “centrist” background … I’m not crazy about all of Warren’s “plans” … for example, her Global New Deal trade proposal strikes me as unserious. But what she has that Democrats desperately need is a plan to govern, without which “electability” is a bit barren. Warren has thought deeply and realistically about implementing her agenda, even as Biden has pretended he can bring back bipartisanship and Sanders has pretended he can overwhelm both parties with some imaginary “political revolution.” So that’s an estimable quality for her.

I understand that beating Trump is Job One. But there needs to be a Job Two and Three, or something like Trump could return.

Ben: So, with all that said: What is the biggest obstacle to Warren actually winning the nomination right now? She has made very little headway with black voters, which would seem like her biggest challenge.

Sarah: Biden’s lead depends heavily on older Democratic voters, too. But who knows, if he keeps stumbling dramatically in public maybe they’ll reconsider their preferences.

Ed: I agree that Warren needs to broaden her base of support and begin attracting more minority and non-college-educated white voters. But strategically, what she needs most is to beat Bernie Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire. If she can do that, he might even drop out; but at least she’d be in a position to directly challenge Biden, who I suspect will be losing steam too.

She also needs to pray that no fourth candidate catches fire. I think the Big Three as it currently exists is fine for her.

Ben: The other day, Gabe and I were discussing how bad it would be for Biden to lose Iowa, given his brittle lead, Similarly, with Warren’s electability concerns (fair or not), how big a blow would, say, coming in third there be for her? Also given that she has, by all accounts, the strongest organization in that state.

Sarah: I think it’s hard to say! But I wouldn’t characterize it as the death knell for her campaign

Ed: I don’t think any of us really knows whether Warren’s paid staff of wizards or Bernie’s army of volunteers provides the crucial advantage in Iowa. Typically finishing ahead in Iowa is worth a few points in NH, so I’d have to figure a third-place finish in Iowa for Warren might lead to the same in NH. On the other hand, I don’t think Democrats are going to be satisfied with a binary Bernie/Biden choice; so long as no other “third candidate” emerges, Warren doesn’t need much to hang around.

Are the Electability Fears About Elizabeth Warren Overblown?