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Election Update: Why Warren Needs To Play To Win — And That Includes Beating Sanders

We’ve officially entered silly season in the Democratic primary, which means we’re at the point where you can get pretty far by just stating the obvious. So here are a few rather obvious truths about the Democratic primary:

  1. Only one candidate can be nominated.
  2. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of the more likely people to be nominated, have heavily overlapping bases of support.
  3. But Warren narrowly trails Sanders in the national polls (both candidates trail Joe Biden) and Sanders is perceived as having momentum.
  4. There are less than three weeks to go until Iowa.

What might you expect to happen under circumstances like these? Well, you’d probably expect the Warren campaign to become less risk-averse. If, for example, it had a damaging piece of opposition research on Sanders, now might be the ideal time to drop it. You’d disrupt the current, good-for-Sanders-and-not-so-great-for-you news cycle and shake things up a bit. But there would also be just enough time to pivot to a more positive message in the final week or so before Iowa.

Of course going negative can be risky, for any number of reasons. But campaigns have to assess risk and reward — and campaigns in third place have to take more risks. Virtually all campaigns show some ability to throw a few elbows when needed, combined with also driving an affirmative message. In primaries, the positive messages mostly prevail — after all, everybody’s in the same party. But primaries can also get really nasty, and this one has been relatively tame by comparison.

So some of the assessments of Warren’s recent strategy toward Sanders have seemed off-kilter to me. For instance, people on Twitter — where both candidates have lots of support — seem shocked that Warren would escalate conflict against Sanders, first over the relatively minor matter of a script that Sanders volunteers were using that described Warren as a candidate of the “elite,” and later, over the more serious accusation that Sanders allegedly told Warren that a woman couldn’t be elected president.would suggest that people close to Warren were behind the leaks.


In fact, this is all pretty normal at this point in a presidential campaign — especially for a candidate in Warren’s situation. And there’s even some initial evidence that her strategy is working! Voters in our post-debate poll with Ipsos gave Warren the highest grade of any candidate for her debate performance — which mostly featured a positive, policy-oriented message along with a couple of chilly moments between her and Sanders. Meanwhile perceptions of Warren’s electability improved among voters in the poll after the debate, while Sanders’s favorability ratings worsened.

More nuanced analyses of the Sanders-Warren conflict suggest that maintaining a nonaggression pact would be mutually beneficial because otherwise Biden could run away with the nomination. But the word “mutually” is debatable. I’d argue nonaggression toward Warren is pretty clearly in the best interest of Sanders, who was in the stronger position than Warren heading into the debate and who would probably prefer to focus on Biden. But it’s probably not beneficial to Warren. Any scenario that doesn’t involve Warren winning Iowa will leave her in a fairly rough position — and winning Iowa means beating Sanders there.

Let’s take a look at the results of 10,000 simulations from Wednesday night’s run of our forecast model, which accounts for the effects that Iowa could have on subsequent states. Below are the results of simulations showing all the possible ways the top four candidates in Iowa — Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Pete Buttigieg — could finish, and the subsequent effect this would have on Warren’s chances of eventually winning the majority or plurality of pledged delegates. (You can read more about how the model works here; we’ve put in a lot of thought about how to measure bounces, as well as how the various candidates’ bases of support overlap with one another. Note that for purposes of this article, I ignored candidates beyond the top four, although some of them — most notably Amy Klobuchar — have outside chances in Iowa.)

Warren’s best- and worst-case Iowa scenarios

How the top four national candidates could finish in Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast, as of Jan. 15, 2020

Order of finish* Warren’s chances of a delegate…
Warren Sanders Biden Buttigieg Majority Plurality
1 3 4 2 63% 67%
1 4 2 3 55 59
1 3 2 4 54 59
1 4 3 2 52 58
1 2 4 3 50 61
1 2 3 4 50 56
2 4 3 1 17 21
2 3 4 1 16 20
3 2 4 1 8 12
2 1 3 4 8 11
3 4 2 1 8 11
2 4 1 3 8 10
2 3 1 4 6 8
3 1 4 2 6 7
2 1 4 3 5 10
3 2 1 4 4 5
3 1 2 4 3 5
4 3 2 1 3 5
4 1 3 2 3 5
3 4 1 2 2 3
4 2 3 1 2 3
4 3 1 2 1 2
4 1 2 3 1 2
4 2 1 3

* Does not consider other candidates, who may finish in the top 4 in some simulations.

No surprise, but by far the most important consideration for Warren is that she wins Iowa herself. Case in point: The worst winning scenario for Warren — where the order of finish is Warren-Sanders-Biden-Buttigieg — is still about three times better for her in terms of her chances of eventually winning a delegate majority than the best losing scenario, which is Buttigieg-Warren-Biden-Sanders.

The next-most-important consideration for Warren — although it’s an order of magnitude less important than whether Warren herself wins — is whether Buttigieg wins Iowa if she doesn’t. Because he’s the weakest of the four front-runners in polling in states beyond Iowa, a Buttigieg win would be easiest for Warren (or Sanders or Biden) to tolerate.

But if Warren had to choose between Biden and Sanders winning Iowa, it’s not clear which she’d prefer. On the one hand, Biden is in a stronger position nationally than Sanders, so giving him any kind of running start in Iowa would make him harder to beat. On the other hand, lanes do matter to some degree, and our model assumes (with plenty of evidence in the polling data) that a lot of the gains that Sanders might realize in his Iowa bounce could come at Warren’s expense; he’d essentially have won the progressive semifinal.

If you look at the scenarios in detail, a lot of fairly nuanced questions involving the exact order of the top four finishers come into play. (To take a subtle example: While Warren might not mind Buttigieg winning Iowa, she also might not mind him doing really badly there, badly enough that he dropped out, since Buttigieg voters often have Warren ranked relatively highly as a second choice option.) That said, when looking at the table, keep in mind that the sample sizes are fairly small for some of the scenarios, so in some instances, there’s a fair bit of noise in the data.

Bottom line: Warren’s job is to figure out how to win Iowa, or failing that, to finish second to Buttigieg there. That inherently involves beating Sanders — and Biden. Whether she’s pursuing the right strategy to achieve that goal is another question and beyond the scope of the model.

As for our overall forecast, it remains largely unchanged from previous days. Biden is the most likely winner, with a 41 percent chance of a delegate majority, followed by Sanders at 23 percent, Warren at 13 percent and Buttigieg at 8 percent, with a 15 percent chance no one wins a majority.

The forecast doesn’t yet include any post-debate polling — the poll I mentioned earlier that we conducted with Ipsos did not include any horse-race questions and so does not factor into the model. The model will be relatively aggressive about accounting for post-debate polling once we get some, however, so stay tuned.

Biden, Sanders neck and neck In Iowa


  1. Although it’s hard to prove an allegation like this, since reporters don’t reveal sources, and most of the details about the story — how the sources were described, which reporters the story was leaked to, and the fact that Warren herself repeated the accusations! — would suggest that people close to Warren were behind the leaks.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.