No, Elizabeth Warren Is NOT a Big Favorite for the Nomination (Nor Should She Be)

A three-post week? You betcha. After updating my Power Rankings, I revealed the top two of those rankings (and sprinkled in a debate preview) to determine that Elizabeth Warren has, in fact, edged past Joe Biden into the 2020 Democratic Primary lead. I did note, however, that unlike the punditry and oddsmakers — the latter of whom sees her as an enormous front-runner — I do not see her as a dramatic, permanent favorite over the field. With her officially becoming the national polling leader in just the last 24 hours, it’s time to evaluate her new status as the favorite.

With nearly four months to go before a cast ballot, Warren is far from a lock to win this thing. Consider the following five factors that can derail her campaign:

1. In two of the last three open Democratic Primaries, the October favorites — Howard Dean in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 — ended up losing the nomination. On the Republican side, too, we see similar patterns. In 2011, Herman Cain held some leads in October polls but ultimately flamed out by 2012. Four years earlier, Rudy Giuliani was October’s Republican front-runner.

Even 2016 Hillary Clinton, though she held on to the nomination, lost her massive lead in the last couple months before voting. Warren’s lead will never be that massive. If she had her druthers, she certainly would have preferred taking the lead late in January, not early in October.

One wants to peak at the right time, because, for a variety of reasons, achieving front-runner status can be easier than maintaining it. The collective mass of challenging candidates creates a sort of gravity well that pulls on these front-runners. I don’t see Warren having sufficient velocity to escape that gravity.

2. One source of these gravitational forces is the added scrutiny that comes with being a front-runner. A candidate’s rise to the top is frequently unchecked, but once at the top, all of a sudden the new favorite’s negative attributes get more attention.

In Warren’s case, she thus far been treated incredibly well by the media and her fellow candidates. No one has really attacked her in this six-month ascent. As the new polling leader, more scrutiny should follow. The media will want a dramatic race, and it’ll exaggerate anything that can help achieve that.

Meanwhile, the new front-runner should expect salvos from her Democratic opponents as early as this Tuesday’s debate. We can expect Biden and other moderates will push her from the right, while we still await Sanders to attack from her left. The resulting pinch will be the first test of her campaign since the earliest parts of 2019.

3. Another factor that doomed earlier October favorites is their stumbles in the Iowa Caucuses. Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton (2008), and Rudy Giuliani never recovered from Iowa disasters.

Iowa loooovees to break late. Cruz surged past Trump in the final weeks before the 2016 Iowa Caucus. I remember Rick Santorum polling in the low-to-mid single digits one month before Iowa, then surging to tie/beat heavy favorite Mitt Romney there. Four years earlier, Hillary Clinton led most Iowa polls as 2007 closed out, then Barack Obama won the state by seven points.

If history teaches us anything, a candidate or two will surely give us a late surge this January. At that point, the media will want the drama and highlight all polls that support that narrative, further fueling the surge of Candidate X. Warren looks great in Iowa now, but now is not February 3.

4. President Trump has left Warren alone for a while, but he might not be able to help himself. He loves attacking Sleepy Joe and Crazy Bernie, but he barely gives two tweets about ‘ole Pocahontas anymore. In the past, his trolling of Warren usually hurt her in the eyes of Democratic voters who worried about her as a general election candidate. Her worst polling figures always came while the two were embroiled in a feud. As the kids say, he straight up owned her. Indeed, her rise in the polls didn’t happen until he left her alone. If Trump sees her as the polling leader and decides to resume his attacks, she needs to do something she never has before — win a PR war against him.

Of course, there’s a decent chance Trump has left her alone precisely for that reason — he wants her to become the nominee then complain about the Democratic Party’s lurch left until independent voters come back his way. Trump is itching for this fight, as it’s the closest thing he’ll get to Hillary Clinton 2.0 — a highly educated, well-prepared, plan-heavy, northeast elitist woman who knows her issues but has a reputation of being fake. If his unusual discipline continues — if he stays out of the way of her nomination — that’ll help her chances in the primary. But if he just can’t help himself (and when can he?), Warren might again find herself on the losing end of their feud. Democratic voters would take notice.

5. Finally, even without the above drags, I’m wondering if her popularity is sustainable. On the surface, it appears that the more people get to know her — that is, as the primary drags longer and longer — the more people like her. If you subscribe to that theory, however, the citizens of Massachusetts would like a word.

Her Massachusetts approval is suspiciously low, particularly among independents. Morning Consult found that she’s one of the country’s five least popular Senators among their state’s constituents (in contrast to Sanders and Klobuchar, both among the six most popularincluding being seven points under water with independents (whereas Sanders and Klobuchar boast a +34 and +25, respectively).  FiveThirtyEight found that if you account for a state’s partisan lean, she’s 20 points worse than she should be — one of the worst in the country and by far the worst of the Senators who ran for president this cycle. (On the list of one hundred Senators, Warren ranked 93rd, Harris ranked 76th, Gillibrand 71st, Booker 50th, Sanders 30th, Bennet 23rd, and Klobuchar 3rd.)

What gives? Why do the people who know her best actually not like her all that much? These are important considerations in a general election that’s still 13 months away. That’s plenty of time for the American people, including its independents — who have not warmed to her like Democratic voters have — to get to know her as well. If they do, Democrats could be in trouble.

Consider her 2018 re-election. Cook Political Report editor Dave Wasserman relays that Warren did worse than Hillary Clinton in 228 of Massachusetts’s 351 towns — and in a “blue wave year” no less. He believes that should call into question her ability to outperform the 2016 Democratic nominee in the demographically similar areas of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — and we know how important those states are. Since Clinton narrowly lost those contests, Warren’s worse struggles with similar voters in her own state means she might lose them by more. She could well run up the popular vote margin thanks to huge hauls in California and the northeast, but that’s not where the election will be won.

So, with another four months of getting to know candidates before voting, can Warren continue her climb when the people who know her longest actually don’t like her as much as they should? And even if her popularity survives through primary, will it survive to next November?

Perhaps. Or, perhaps, for all of the reasons above, Democrats will think a bit harder about Elizabeth Warren — and they probably should.

14 thoughts on “No, Elizabeth Warren Is NOT a Big Favorite for the Nomination (Nor Should She Be)

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