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Elizabeth Warren Wouldn’t Be 2016’s Obama, But She Could Be Its John Edwards

Sen. Elizabeth Warren claims she’s not running for president in two years. Of course, President Obama and many others said the same thing before running. But even if she does seek the Oval Office, the Massachusetts Democrat wouldn’t be 2016’s version of Barack Obama in 2008.

Still, Warren may be able to transform the policy debate in the way John Edwards did in 2008.

One way we know Warren isn’t the 2008 Obama is the thermometer test. It’s a good way to test a relatively unknown potential candidate’s likability. It asks people (not counting those who don’t yet have an opinion) on a scale from 0 to 100 how they feel about a person. Warren’s average temperature among Democrats nationally was 63.9 in a Quinnipiac University survey conducted in March; that’s behind Clinton’s 78.7. Among all voters, Warren was at 48.6.

In February 2006, Obama was more well-liked among all voters and among Democrats. His thermometer score among Democrats was 73.8, which was slightly ahead of Clinton’s 73.1. His score among all voters was 59.9.

Instead, Warren’s scores look a lot more like Edwards’s in the early stages of the 2008 campaign. He was at 63 among Democrats and 50.8 among all voters, according to Quinnipiac’s survey in February 2006. Both of these are within two degrees of Warren.

Edwards, of course, didn’t win. But he did appear to move the conversation, highlighting the issue of inequality though his “Two Americas” trope. He filled the populist gap and, in doing so, forced the field to the left. The rest of the field came around to Edwards on the economic stimulus, the minimum wage and his reservations with a free-trade agreement with South Korea., which ranks candidates’ ideology based on their public policy statements, shows that Clinton and Obama saw their economic liberalism scores rise between January 2007 and January 2008. On a scale of 0 to 100, Clinton became more liberal by 18 points, while Obama’s became more liberal by 10 points. By the end of the campaign, both of their absolute scores matched Edwards’s.

If Warren runs in 2016, she could have the same effect. Like the vast majority of Democratic voters, Warren believes in “equality [and] opportunity” for the middle class and how difficult that would be to achieve. Three-fourths of Democrats think the current economic system is unfair. Just 49 percent of Democrats believe most people can work hard and get ahead. And two-thirds of all Americans say corporations pay too little in taxes.

In other words, Warren would have a receptive audience. She probably wouldn’t win the nomination, but — like Edwards — she could help to shape the policy debate.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.