Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., written off by the chattering class earlier in the year as “unelectable,” now sits at the top of several polls in the first two state contests’ polling and a whisker behind former Vice President Joe Biden in national polling (less than two points in the RealClearPolitics average). Solid fundraising, substantial organization on the ground in early states and a work ethic second to none make her a formidable candidate. Her consistent focus on fighting corruption is well-attuned to the Trump era.
In the CBS News-YouGov poll released on Sunday, Warren and Biden are tied in Iowa at 22%, statistically tied with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is at 21%. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the only other candidate in double digits (14%). Voters in this poll still say Biden’s electability against President Donald Trump (“probably would win”) outpaces Warren (68 vs. 51%), and more voters think Biden will protect Americans “very well” from terrorism (58 vs. 49%). A warning to Biden, however: 51% are “somewhat satisfied” with Biden’s response to Trump’s attacks, while only 23% are “very satisfied.”
In New Hampshire, the same poll has Warren at 32%, Biden at 24, Sanders at 17 and Buttigieg at 7. There, too, Biden does better on electability and ability to keep Americans safe. Meanwhile, Biden holds a commanding lead in South Carolina (43 vs. 18%) over Warren.
Warren now faces the challenges that come with front-runner status, including dealing with high expectations for the early primaries and being the target of attacks from opponents and of criticism from the media. She has yet to be strongly challenged on the debate stage on the math for her wealth tax, the funding for her Medicare-for-all plan and her views on national security. Although she has shown steady improvement with African American and non-college-educated voters, her support still rests mostly on college-educated white progressives. Finally, she faces the nagging concern as to whether she is too far left to prevail in the general election, although Sanders handed her a gift in declaring, “Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones.”
As polls show, her margin over Trump in the general election about equals Biden’s; “electability” concerns may fade. Consistent work in reaching out to African American voters (without the kind of unrealistic promises they have, over decades, learned to view with extreme skepticism) can help increase her appeal with the most critical Democratic bloc in the primaries. Beyond that, Warren might plan to take the wind out of the predictable attacks she will face.
First, she still faces the commander in chief test, a requirement of any presidential candidate but especially so in light of Trump’s mismanagement of national security from North Korea to Russia to Saudi Arabia to China. Warren would do well to issue a robust condemnation of Trump’s retreat from Syria and explain how she would wind down “forever wars” without endangering allies, giving a shot in the arm to Islamic State terrorists and losing allies’ confidence. Will she be guided by conditions on the ground? How will she reestablish U.S. credibility with allies? On China, she needs to articulate a policy that distinguishes her from Trump and communicates seriousness about protecting American values and interests. Democratic voters might not put national security at the top of their list of concerns, but polls repeatedly show voters remain concerned about terrorism and keeping our alliances strong.
Second, at some point she’s going to have to make the case that she is flexible, savvy and wise enough to know how to take a half or three-quarters of a loaf. When Medicare-for-all proves to be unattainable, does she have a backup plan? If she cannot raise enough revenue from her wealth tax, what does she do with her assortment of domestic programs?
Trump made promises in 2016 he could not keep: getting Mexico to pay for the wall, coming up with a cheaper but better health-care plan and developing a tax cut that wouldn’t make the rich even richer. One of Democrats’ best lines of attack is that Trump not only did not produce for the “forgotten man and women,” but he also made life harder for them.
A candidate who comes across as peddling easy fixes and unattainable deals will not be nearly as effective as a candidate who levels with voters and makes clear what can be reasonably accomplished. The answer to criticism cannot be to ridicule critics as “thinking small,” nor can every explanation for achieving unreasonable goals be “I’ll fight.”
In sum, by presenting a mainstream foreign policy vision and giving herself and moderate voters an off-ramp or two on the highway to progressive nirvana, Warren can solidify her gains and win over skeptics. If she can do that, she will be hard to stop.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. Follow her @JRubinBlogger.