In blessing the presidential candidacy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and recent presidential dropout Julian Castro used an interesting rationale to explain his endorsement: “More than any other candidate in this race…Elizabeth Warren is the candidate who can unite the entire Democratic Party.”
That premise may well explain the strategy behind her campaign, to win the Democratic nomination as the “Goldilocks” candidate—not too hot, and not too cold.
The strategy wouldn’t make Warren a political moderate, by any stretch. No nominee who has endorsed a conversion to a single-payer system of socialized medicine would fall into that category. But making Warren the candidate most acceptable (or least unacceptable) to moderates and leftists alike does mean that, the longer the nomination fight plays out, the stronger her chances might get.
Contested Convention Ahead?
In the past several weeks, multiple stories have analyzed the possibility of a prolonged contest for the Democratic nomination. In the fourth quarter of 2019, four candidates—Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Warren—raised more than $20 million, suggesting they will have ample resources to compete in primaries throughout the spring. The nomination fight also features two billionaires who have the ability to self-fund their campaigns, Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Couple the field of well-financed candidates with the Democratic Party’s proportional allocation method, in which any candidate exceeding 15 percent of the vote in a state receives a share of that state’s delegates, and you have the recipe for a prolonged campaign of attrition. In this year’s “bizarro world” scenario, each of the half dozen candidates has the means to continue competing in primaries, and because many (if not most) will amass delegates along the way, they will have every incentive to do so.
It seems premature to make definitive judgments on the complexion of the campaign weeks before the first ballots get cast. But Democrats may convene in Milwaukee this July without a single candidate controlling the majority of delegates necessary to win the presidential nomination.
Least Common Denominator Candidate
If Democrats do end up with a contested convention, it seems unlikely to result in an outcome in which a previously undeclared candidate emerges from the shadows to win the nomination. Given the acrimony throughout the 2016 campaign, when Sanders’ supporters (rightly) protested at a process rigged against their candidate, the idea that a “white horse” candidate such as Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or someone similar could win the nomination without having entered a single primary seems far-fetched, not least because of the outrage that would ensue.
So a contested convention would feature the candidates currently declared, and only the candidates currently declared, battling for the nomination. At that point, it likely would become less a contest of persuasion—which candidate can I most enthusiastically support?—than an attempt to cobble together a coalition of delegates that focuses on a different test: Which candidate offends the least?
Of the four candidates leading the polls, Warren appears to win this test, by a fairly wide margin. Consider the negatives against the other candidates:
- Biden’s age (77) has raised questions throughout the campaign about his physical stamina and mental acuity. Even after he reversed himself (under pressure) on taxpayer funding of abortion, Biden’s history of positions on issues—from his support for the 2005 bankruptcy bill, to his vote for the Iraq War, to his support for the 1994 crime bill, to his treatment of Anita Hill—remain to the right of the party, drawing scorn from leftists as a moderate supported by corporate interests.
- Like Biden, Sanders’ age (78) remains an issue, particularly given his heart attack in October. While many on the left believe he has strong appeal to working-class voters, particularly in the Rust Belt, who have deserted the party, establishment types worry that a self-proclaimed socialist will prove unelectable in November.
- Buttigieg has age concerns as well because of his relative youth (he turns 38 this month). He has little political experience outside South Bend, won his last mayoral election with a total of 8,515 votes, and lost his only statewide campaign by a nearly 25-percentage point margin. And his experience working at McKinsey has become fodder for attacks by the far-left, who love to hate the candidate they call “Wall Street Pete.”
By contrast, Warren has comparatively few obvious drawbacks. While a septuagenarian, her age (70) makes her several years younger than Biden and Sanders, and younger than President Trump. She has endorsed a host of far-left policies, but insists she remains a capitalist to her bones. And in a field that has shrunk to become dominated by white men, a Warren nomination would provide Democrats an identity politics card.
For all these reasons, Warren remains the top second choice of voters in most polls, even as her standing as voters’ first choice has shrunk. It makes her well-placed to serve as the compromise candidate should Democrats face a contested convention, which by definition would involve at least some delegates choosing their second-favorite candidate as the nominee.
The two biggest strikes against her appear largely self-inflicted: The controversy over her ancestry (exacerbated by her DNA test), and her evasions on health care. While Trump would bring the latter up often—indeed, has already done so—it seems unlikely any opponent would make it an issue during a fight for the Democratic nomination. (At least he or she would not do so publicly.)
As for health care, she evaded questions about how to pay for single payer for months, and finally released a funding plan in early November, only to say two weeks later she wouldn’t push for single payer until the third year of her term. This bobbing and weaving coincided with a pullback in her polling numbers. But to take the longer view, it syncs up well with a larger “Goldilocks” political strategy.
Her eventual position, in which she pledged to enact a robust “public option” immediately, followed by a push for single payer later, drew little love from either moderates (who don’t like talk of single payer at all) or leftists (who want to enact single payer immediately, as Sanders has promised). But it represents the kind of clunky political compromise could easily envision a party’s platform committee drafting. That makes it entirely consistent with an attempt to position Warren in ways that offend the fewest number of Democrats—a helpful strategy in the event of a contested convention.
Obama Wild Card?
One other figure could loom large over a prolonged nomination fight: Barack Obama. Two reports in recent weeks suggest first that Obama doubts Biden’s connection with voters, and second that Obama has talked up Warren’s candidacy behind closed doors. While one must caveat the articles with two of the biggest weasel words in politics—“If accurate”—these reports suggest that, should the nomination fight become prolonged, the last Democratic president may weigh in on behalf of the Massachusetts senator. While such a development might not decide the nomination, it could go a long way in doing so.
After Warren’s fumbling on health care this fall, some had begun to write off her candidacy. Indeed, this author said she had “Swift-boated” herself, by turning her supposed strength as a policy wonk into her biggest weakness. Paradoxically, however, while Warren’s machinations cost her in the polls over the short term (and would harm her in a general election campaign), they could help her to win the Democratic nomination.