Can Warren Overtake Sanders?

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to local residents during a meet and greet in Ottumwa, Iowa.

In a nomination battle that requires candidates to get at least 15 percent of the vote to win delegates in a primary, the presence of both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—as well as other candidates with appeal to liberals—has always had the potential of splitting the left and denying any of a state’s delegates to Sanders or Warren, or possibly both. A few months ago, it looked as though Sanders had the advantage and might knock Warren out of the race as early as the New Hampshire primary.

But things are looking different now as Warren’s campaign picks up speed. If she matches or overtakes Sanders, it could affect the entire character of the presidential race.

Although Joe Biden continues to have a double-digit lead in the polls, the race between Sanders and Warren has tightened, and what is impressive is where Warren’s support is coming from. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, Warren not only led Sanders by a margin of 30 percent to 22 percent among “very liberal” Democrats; she was also ahead, 15 percent to 8 percent, among Democrats paying “a lot of attention” to the race. In contrast, Sanders had a big lead, 28 percent to 5 percent, among Democrats paying little or no attention.

As Nate Silver points out:

…doing well with high-information voters is usually a bullish sign. These voters are more likely to judge the candidates on factors beyond name recognition, and so may be leading indicators for how other voters will view the race once they’ve acquired more information. Moreover, high-information voters are more likely to eventually turn out to vote.

The advantage among high-information voters may be particularly important because of the continuing importance of caucuses among the states voting first and therefore having inordinate influence on which candidates survive the early elimination rounds. Caucuses give an advantage to a candidate who enjoys strong support among activists and others who pay a lot of attention to politics. The Democrats have eliminated most caucuses for 2020 in favor of primaries, but the two states that still have definite plans to run caucuses are Iowa and Nevada.

Warren’s poll numbers may be rising as the early brouhaha about her onetime claim of Native American heritage fades away, while news coverage and those high-information voters focus more on her steady barrage of impressive policy proposals. Although Sanders and Warren overlap in many of their positions, there is an important difference between them.

David Dayen, the Prospect’s incoming executive editor, describes the substantive difference between the two this way: “Warren wants to organize markets to benefit workers and consumers, while Sanders wants to overhaul those markets, taking the private sector out of it.” The difference shows up in the legislation they are supporting as well as the language they use to describe themselves. While Sanders calls himself a socialist, Warren describes herself as a capitalist who believes in rules, as she did in a CNBC interview last July:

I am a capitalist. Come on. I believe in markets. What I don’t believe in is theft, what I don’t believe in is cheating. That’s where the difference is. I love what markets can do, I love what functioning economies can do. They are what make us rich, they are what create opportunity. But only fair markets, markets with rules.

This framing is one of several reasons that Warren may be able to broaden her support and overtake Sanders. Three other factors seem to me important.

First, there is continued bitterness among many Democrats over the role Sanders played in 2016 in reinforcing the accusations of corruption that Donald Trump made against Hillary Clinton. As many of Clinton’s supporters see it, by continually charging that the nomination had been “rigged” against him, implying that Clinton was just a stooge for Wall Street, and only grumpily supporting her after the race was decided, Sanders contributed to the party’s loss. Warren does not bear any of this burden.

Second, Sanders has a long history of antagonism to the Democratic Party and as recently as last year refused the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in Vermont. To run in the primaries, he had to sign a pledge to govern as a Democrat, but many of the party’s leaders and activists still do not trust him. Again, this is not an issue for Warren.

Third, many Democratic voters may be worried about Sanders’s vulnerabilities as a general-election candidate. In a column in The Nation, Eric Alterman notes that he personally held some of Sanders’s socialist views when he was young:

… but I am not running for president. And if I ever thought I might, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to attend a rally in 1985 in Managua, Nicaragua, with a crowd chanting, “Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die,” while the Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega, condemned my country’s “state terrorism” (accurate as the term was).

I mention this appearance because, according to reporting by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, Republicans have it and similar events on tape. They also have binders full of statements made in support of the kind of socialism that Sanders backed before he became what he is today: a typical New Deal–style liberal or European social democrat. Much of Sanders’s agenda is popular, but calling yourself a “socialist” is, according to recent polls, a losing proposition—74 percent of independent voters disapprove of it, with just 9 percent approving.

Several liberal commentators, including New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, say that Democrats should put aside concerns about electability and just vote for the candidate who rouses them. But if voters care above all about defeating Trump, why shouldn’t they make choices on the basis of who they think can win? Besides, while electability is hard to judge, unelectability is easier.

I am not saying that Warren is going to run away with the nomination, but she is now more likely to be among the final three or four candidates who survive the early elimination rounds. Warren has already shaped the party’s debate through her policy ideas. If she makes it into the “finals” rather than Sanders, her presence will encourage a debate that is both more substantive and less harsh.

As I’ve argued before, the contest may be close enough that no candidate has a majority going into the convention, which means that the nomination will be decided on the second or a later ballot when superdelegates are able to vote. If Sanders is one of the finalists and the superdelegates deny him the nomination, we might well see a replay of 2016 and another round of accusations about a corrupt establishment. That scenario seems far less likely if Warren is one of the finalists and falls short of the nomination. But because she is more acceptable than Sanders to party stalwarts, Warren is more likely to emerge as the nominee if it comes down to a convention fight. I wouldn’t count her out.

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