vision 2020

Will Elizabeth Warren’s Comeback Strategy Work?

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the seemingly endless saga that is the Democratic primary, Elizabeth Warren has experienced some high highs and some low lows. Will her final act before the Iowa caucus vault her back near pole position? I discussed the road ahead with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti.

Ben: After roaring to the top of many polls in the fall, Elizabeth Warren has perhaps inevitably come back down to Earth. In recent weeks, she’s been surpassed by her left-wing rival Bernie Sanders in some surveys, and her momentum seems to have flagged — whether because of her attachment to Medicare for All, sexism, or other factors. As the New York Times put it this week, Warren is looking for a “second act,” though, thanks to the length of these primaries, it’s more like a third or fourth. This second act involves going after her rivals more forcefully than she had been, a strategy in evidence over the last few days with her criticism of Pete Buttigieg’s fundraising practices and transparency. Warren wasn’t exactly known as a shrinking violet before; will getting more aggressive help her rebound as Iowa looms in seven weeks?

Gabriel: It’s not just that Warren is now “going after” rivals, exactly. The difference now is that she’s making even more explicit where she differs from the other top candidates in the race, in even more concrete ways, occasionally all but calling out her rivals by name. This stage of the primary was probably inevitable, but it’s really important that we note this isn’t all she’s doing differently right now. Much more interesting, if you ask me, is how she’s changed the format of her town halls. She used to give a long stump speech, then take three to four questions at most events. Now, she’s cut down the speech and uses most of the time to take questions, an implicit acknowledgment that the electorate has, well, questions for her before it’s ready to commit. Now, I’ll answer your actual question …

Ben: I’m glad you set me straight.

Gabriel: Obviously, we’ll see if this will help her with voters. She’s not just doing this to get news coverage. She has clearly seen that there is a large group of voters willing to consider supporting her, so she’s (a) trying to offer reassurance that she can win, and (b) calling into question whether her opponents can. Those two go to the heart of what voters, including/especially in Iowa, are concerned about. It’s a bet that this is what it’ll take to get caucusgoers to commit.

Ben: The dreaded “electability” question hangs over all of this. As much as her supporters, and many political observers, stress the basic impossibility of knowing who would match up well with Trump, there’s considerable anxiety out there that she wouldn’t connect with voters Democrats need to win, specifically in the Rust Belt. Some polls showing her performing worse than her rivals have not helped her escape this problem. Do you think sharpening the contrasts with her rivals and changing her approach, as you outlined, will actually help address those concerns?

Gabriel: Taking more questions at events allows her to answer more questions that surround this central issue, so in that sense, sure. Insofar as she’s highlighting contrasts with other candidates, she’s also largely doing it in a frame wherein her opponents’ actions are a liability, not just ideologically wrong. Look at how she’s criticized Pete Buttigieg’s fundraising practices, for example. I don’t know if this is exactly what’s needed to unlock the electability box that everyone’s trying to figure out how to get into, but I don’t know what is. Maybe it’ll work! It’s not like just saying “I’m electable!” has worked for other candidates. As you mentioned at the start, Warren’s slip from the top of polling came in part while she was facing a lot of heat over her Medicare for All position. Anecdotally, changing her town-hall format has allowed her to take specific questions about it. In theory, that could allay voter fears.

Ben: What is the thinking in her campaign on that issue at the moment? Do people acknowledge that the initial full-fledged endorsement of Bernie’s bill may have been a mistake?

Gabriel: I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but it doesn’t take any behind-the-scenes reporting to reveal that she’s clearly felt the need to clarify her position on health care in recent months, and, whereas she once said, “I’m with Bernie,” she’s now offering more specifics about her own view rather than just letting his perspective lead the way. At the same time, it’s not like she ever sought to make M4A a central plank of her pitch — she has mostly only talked about it when asked.

Ben: Warren versus Pete has been the story in the primaries the last week or two. Meanwhile, Joe Biden has cemented his front-runner status, and the Warren-Biden debate confrontation many people were expecting months ago never really happened. Why isn’t he the primary target for her (or seemingly for anyone else)?

Gabriel: Four candidates have gone directly after Biden in high-profile settings (i.e., debates): Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Julián Castro. How’s that worked out for them?

Ben: True, but doesn’t someone in the top tier (other than Harris, who was at the time) have to do it at some point?

Gabriel: If you have any ideas for how to do it in a way that doesn’t anger voters and turn them against the aggressor, I’m sure there are phone lines ready for your call in South Bend, Boston, and Burlington. For a year, the theory has been that Biden will implode on his own, and that no outside pressure will matter on that front … That hasn’t happened, obviously, but I would still be pretty surprised to see one of Warren/Sanders/Buttigieg suddenly try to blow him up so soon before Iowa.

Ben: Back to Warren: There’s obviously still time for her to rebound fully. When do you think she’d be running out of time for one to happen?

Gabriel: Iowa could easily break late, of course. I’d say Warren will want to be back on the upswing by mid-to-late January. If she’s still in the “answering questions” phase just a few weeks/days before the caucuses, that might not bode well. But, then again, the last few contested Iowa caucuses are good evidence that a lot can change in the final hours.

Will Elizabeth Warren’s Comeback Strategy Work?