According to GQ magazine, it is “The Summer of Elizabeth Warren,” so if you’re going to Massachusetts, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. The professor-turned-senator has turned “rock star,” drawing an estimated 15,000 people for a rally in Seattle (although the 12,000 who turned up for her in Minnesota is probably more impressive).
The establishment media is convinced more each day that Warren would run away with the Democratic presidential nomination, were it not for the voice of the patriarchy placing doubts in the heads of middle-aged women that she is not as electable or likeable as some of her rivals. Ironically, Warren’s rise is probably driven as much by her rivals as her own efforts.
Warren’s main problem is still Warren, and she knows it. The GQ profile gushes about her update of traditional rope-line politicking: “Other 2020 hopefuls oblige random requests for selfies with voters, but no one has the casual spontaneity of picture-taking down to a perfectly engineered production the way the Warren campaign does.” Her campaign sells the idea she has time for 42,000 selfies (and counting) because she has rejected big, corporate fundraising.
The truth is closer to the reverse. Team Warren wants those selfies flooding social media to raise her name identification in a crowded field and create the appearance of broad, grassroots support. While the campaign would probably never say it out loud to any but the friendliest journalist, the personal touch implicitly pushes back against the widespread perception that Warren is not particularly likeable. The rally crowds suggest this plan is working better to humanize her than that early campaign video of her drinking beer in her kitchen.
With Warren, it’s all about the planning. That’s not an insult when talking about a presidential campaign, an undertaking that usually requires a lot of planning (unless you are Donald Trump circa 2015). Beyond the mechanics of campaigning, Warren is marketing herself as the woman with a plan for everything, which is a turn-on to Democratic and progressive activists, if not to those who remember how central planners did during the Cold War.
Outside the activists, the median Democrat probably cares less about the details of Warren’s plans than the fact that she has them. The academic profile she shares has long appealed to Democrats, to varying results. Barack Obama was a big success; Michael Dukakis and Adlai Stevenson, not so much.
Even so, Democrats usually prefer to fall in love with their candidates. Warren’s slow but steady climb in the polls suggest it has not been love at first sight for many. Rather, her success may be as much a function of the competition and where she is positioned among the top candidates.
Joe Biden currently leads the field on the strength of conservative and moderate Democrats, particularly black voters (a key demographic that has yet to warm to Warren as she raises her profile). Yet a steady drip of media stories about Biden’s gaffes and misstatements keeps him from sealing the deal with primary voters or earning the confidence of the Democratic elite who aren’t already hostile to him ideologically. Every day that the media narrative is about ol’ Joe looking like Old Joe is a good day for the always-in-motion Warren (she is all too happy to tell reporters about how she paces around parking lots to unwind).
Warren is now in a dead heat with her colleague Bernie Sanders, who largely represents the young, revolutionary left. Although most Democrats are loath to discuss it openly, as the 2020 campaign has unfolded, it has become apparent that Bernie’s success in 2016 was a function of being the chief rival to Hillary Clinton (whose awfulness as a candidate Democrats still have not internalized completely). In a field with better choices, Sanders is struggling.
Moreover, while socialism may be where Democrats’ hearts truly are, the pros dread nominating someone who self-identifies as a socialist, knowing the label is political poison. Electability concerns work against Sanders even more than they currently advantage Biden.
Warren is trying—and succeeding, for now—at walking the line between Biden and Sanders. She has convinced Third Way Democrats that she represents a Democratic capitalist narrative, not a socialist one. She received a surprisingly warm response at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting “on the theory that she’s an outsider whom insiders can live with, and an insider who has credibility with outsiders.”
This is where the planning pays off for Warren. The median Democrat may care only that Warren has plans, but her positioning is of a style familiar to Democrats extending back at least as far as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Warren’s agenda would represent a vast expansion of the government leviathan, but she is selling it as saving capitalism from the socialist left.
Whether Warren’s planning pays off for Democrats is a different question. She remains the candidate whom President Trump seems most comfortable attacking. Should Warren secure the nomination, Democrats might immediately start wondering whether Biden—or even Sen. Kamala Harris—would be a better match-up against the incumbent. This is the problem with a candidate who thrives on her rivals’ weaknesses.