The surge of Elizabeth Warren
Earlier this year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was underperforming in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary — which was surprising to her supporters in light of how influential she has been in the liberal/progressive wing of her party and the fact that she was reelected to the U.S. Senate by a landslide in Massachusetts in 2018. But the senator’s recent surge makes that underperformance seem like a distant memory. Although former Vice President Joe Biden remains the frontrunner, poll after poll this summer has found Warren successfully competing with Sen. Bernie Sanders for the primary’s #2 spot.
Depending on the poll, Warren has generally been in either second or third place in the primary this month. Warren was at #2 in Quinnipiac, The Economist/YouGov and Fox News polls, while Politico/Morning Consult, The Hill and Reuters/Ipsos found her in third place and Sanders in second place. A CNN poll, conducted August 15-18, found Sanders in second place but Warren trailing him by only 1%.
An abundance of recent articles, from the Washington Post to Rolling Stone, have analyzed the reasons for Warren’s surge. In the Post, columnist Jennifer Rubin described Warren as a “hugely impressive candidate” — and that’s coming from a conservative, albeit a conservative who has been a blistering critic of President Donald Trump. Rubin, in her August 23 column, attributed Warren’s surge to the senator’s ability to “explain a complex problem in simple and direct language” and her “skill in presenting lots of individual ideas under a big theme: give ordinary Americans a chance.”
Another reason for Warren’s surge, Rubin contends, is her ability to address issues that female voters care about without going out to her way to emphasize the fact that she’s a female candidate. Warren, according to Rubin, “doesn’t run on gender specifically — vote for me — I’m a woman! — but much of her agenda revolves around education, health care and child care, all issues that matter a great deal to women.”
In an August 21 article for GQ, Julia Ioffe reports that Warren has broken through because she is so policy-driven — where there is a problem, Ioffe stresses, Warren offers a solution rather than simply “cursory talking points.”
This summer, Ioffe writes, Warren has “outlined her intention to end the opioid crisis. She showed how she’d tackle housing costs and make amends for redlining and other policies that have held back black Americans. She announced plans to cancel student debt, prevent gun violence and bring manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt. Most recently, she detailed how she intends to help Native American communities. On nearly any subject of national concern, she’s offered a prescription that’s gone far beyond cursory talking points.”
In the “chaotic age of Trump,” Ioffe reports, Warren’s motto has, in essence, been “I have a plan for that.” Yet some of the people GQ interviewed asserted that as much of a policy wonk as Warren is, a big part of her appeal is that she’s also easy to relate to.
Andrew Crespo, a Harvard Law School professor who was once a student of Warren, told GQ that Warren is “totally relatable and easy to follow. She’s a natural teacher. On some level, teaching isn’t just about conveying information — it’s about capturing the attention and interest of your audience in a way that they come away with something new. She does that.”
Speaking to GQ, Warren asserted that the presence of other women in the Democratic presidential primary has worked to her advantage.
“I believe that having six women in the race right now makes it easier,” Warren told GQ. “It’s good to not be the only one standing on stage who’s female. Having started teaching in law schools decades ago when there were very few women, I taught in commercial law — which was largely male. Commercial and corporate and all the money and finance courses stayed heavily male-dominated much longer than some of the other fields.”
In terms of policy, the candidate Warren is often compared to is Sanders. When Warren and Sanders appeared on the same stage during a recent Democratic presidential debate in Miami, they attacked other candidates but didn’t attack one another. Warren and Sanders have been allies in the Senate, and on August 23 in Politico, Blake Hounshell and Eli Okun wrote that Warren has been able “to effectively use Sanders as a human shield” in the primary.
“Or maybe she’s more like a cyclist, drafting off Bernie’s leg work until it’s time to blow past him for the finish,” Hounshell and Okun write. “Her patient approach, along with her message discipline and lack of errors, has allowed her to rise steadily in the polls.”
But as much as Warren has in common with Sanders from a policy standpoint, her rhetorical style can be quite different. Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” while Warren has declared that she is a “capitalist to my bones.” Warren doesn’t view herself as an adversary of free-market capitalism, but as capitalism’s salvation.
On August 16, the British bookmaker Ladbrokes tweeted that despite what polls are showing, Warren had overtaken Biden as the “favorite” to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Matthew Shaddick, Ladbrokes’ head of political betting, told Newsweek, “It looks like the betting market is going a little cold on Biden despite his general lead in the polls. Warren seemed to get a boost after the last set of debates and, in particular, seems to be performing well in Iowa.”
In an August 23 piece for Rolling Stone, Jamil Smith stresses that it’s wrong to think of Biden as the inevitable Democratic candidate. Warren, Smith notes, is “within mere percentage points of frontrunner Joe Biden” — and Smith describes her as having a much stronger message than simply, “I can beat Trump.”
“Even more to Warren’s benefit,” Smith writes, “she is making an argument for her electability rather than contending that the argument for said electability has already been settled.”As more and more candidates ultimately drop out of the race, the primary will likely be reduced to a small core group dominated by Biden, Warren, Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. It remains to be seen who will ultimately win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. But whatever happens, there is no question that Warren has moved to the top three of a very crowded and competitive field.