In this phase of the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, there are a number of interesting story lines for political observers: the huge candidate field that keeps resisting its “winnowing,” the apparent indestructibility of front-runner Joe Biden, the constant fears about electability and Trump’s efforts to paint the Donkey Party as a bunch of socialists who hate America and love open borders, and the intermittently sharp elbows the candidates are displaying toward each other.
But the development that currently demands attention is the emergence of Senator Elizabeth Warren as something other than the candidate of policy wonks, dismissed as nonviable even among people who think she’d make an outstanding president. Her strong debate performances, a knack for organizing (based on her outstanding retail political skills), and the misfortunes affecting some of her rivals have combined to give her the clear path to the Democratic nomination that she really did not have in the early going.
Recent polls have clearly indicated that Warren is going places. The RealClearPolitics national polling averages show her as basically tied with Bernie Sanders for second place with Joe Biden’s lead narrowing. The two most recent national polls (from Quinnipiac and Economist–You Gov) place her seven and five points, respectively, ahead of Sanders. Just as important, she’s gaining strength in the early states. A new Monmouth poll from Iowa places her ten points ahead of Bernie, and just nine points behind Biden, in a state where everyone concedes she has the best organization. In New Hampshire polls, where Biden’s early lead was less formidable, she’s nipping at Sanders’s heels. Warren is in a similar position in Nevada (which holds its caucuses 11 days after the New Hampshire primary), where Politico reported yesterday that she has already built a “monster” of an organization.
Warren is also clearly making gains in her implicit rivalry with her friend and ally Bernie Sanders for the affections of self-consciously progressive voters, even as she maintains some potential as a party-unifying figure that Bernie may lack thanks to leftover bad memories of his 2016 campaign. In that recent national Quinnipiac survey, she trounced Sanders among “very liberal” voters and actually led him among those under the age of 35.
Whether or not you think Sanders is losing strength (there’s evidence pointing in both directions on that proposition), it is clear that Warren is benefiting from the erosion in Kamala Harris’s support, which probably reflects both the dissipation of the buzz she commanded after the first round of debates and her widely panned performance in the second. Harris’s national polling average has dropped from 15 to 8 percent in the last month. And perhaps just as important, she’s showing little or no progress in taking away Joe Biden’s overpowering position among African-American voters, central to the Obama Redux strategy she is relying on. Quinnipiac gives her just one percent of the black vote nationally. A somewhat older Monmouth survey of South Carolina showed Harris with 12 percent of African-American support in what for her is a key state, where a majority of Democratic primary voters are black — but Joe Biden had 51 percent.
Put all that together with the inability of any candidates outside the Big Four of Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Harris to gain any momentum at all, and for the first time you can clearly see a plausible path to the nomination for Warren.
Given her competition with Sanders for a similar pool of voters, Warren can probably afford to practically ignore Biden and Harris and focus on riding her organization to a better performance than Bernie in Iowa on February 3 (he doesn’t have her organization but does have a strong volunteer base), which should give her a bump in New Hampshire (February 11). Beating Sanders there, where Bernie won 61 percent of the vote in 2016, could be a game-changer for Warren, much like fellow Massachusetts candidate John Kerry’s win in the first two states over Sanders’s fellow Vermonter Howard Dean in 2004.
As noted above, Warren is well positioned in Nevada (which caucuses on February 22) and can probably stand aside and benefit in South Carolina (February 29) either from Biden being weakened or Harris all but eliminated. And she’s doing pretty well in polls for the big Super Tuesday (March 3) states of California (running second behind Biden in a new SUSA poll) and Texas (running third behind Biden and a likely-to-be-eliminated Beto O’Rourke in the polling averages). Her own state of Massachusetts votes on Super Tuesday as well.
This scenario helps explain why Warren has been so careful to avoid any friction with Sanders. She’s in a good, if hardly unassailable, position to squeeze Bernie out of the race by the beginning of March if Bernie-or-Bust voters don’t talk him into staying the course at Warren’s expense. If she can win that implicit progressive sub-primary and Harris continues to flounder, she could be in a one-on-one competition with Joe Biden earlier than anyone might have managed, and that could produce her best shot at the nomination.
That mano a mano with Uncle Joe is obviously what Sanders wants to produce for himself. But even if he does hold his own and stick it out, Warren might still be a plausible compromise candidate for a party exhausted by an ideological fight between the two old guys.
There are certainly other pitfalls ahead for Elizabeth Warren. She needs to continue her recent fundraising success; despite outraising Sanders in the second quarter, she still can’t match his durable small-dollar machine and could well be outgunned by Biden, who has none of her inhibitions against passing the hat among wealthy donors. The high expectations she has set as a debater will add pressure to her performances in the September and October sessions.
And most of all, as Aaron Blake points out, she needs to shake doubts about her electability:
Warren is not only among the most liberal candidates in the 2020 field; she’s also an older, white, intellectual woman running in the aftermath of the Hillary Clinton debacle, and she follows in a long line of failed presidential nominees from Massachusetts. Dukakis ’88. Kerry ’04. Romney ’12. It’s entirely too easy to caricature her as a liberal-elite former Harvard professor whom President Trump could drub with those oh-so-important working-class white voters.
As Blake notes, Warren has made recent progress in both objective (head-to-head polls versus Trump) and subjective (the all-important perception that she could beat Trump) measurements of electability, which often improve as a candidate does well in the primaries. If she gets that one-on-one competition with Biden, the question may be whether Democratic voters want her to be president enough to take a bit of a risk. Warren probably has a plan to make that happen.