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How Elizabeth Warren Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

It’s as if we skipped right from 2018 to 2020. On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren became the first major Democratic candidate to formally dip a toe in the water of the 2020 presidential campaign, announcing the creation of an exploratory committee. Not everyone who creates an exploratory committee ends up becoming an official candidate, but Warren is very likely to. For all intents and purposes, she is now running for president.

Warren has experienced a swift rise, if not a meteoric one, to political stardom. A celebrated consumer advocate and law professor, she oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program (better known as the post-financial crisis “bailout”) and shepherded the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during President Obama’s first term. In 2012, she ran for and won elected office for the first time, defeating Republican incumbent Scott Brown 54 percent to 46 percent in the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts; she was re-elected by 24 points in 2018. Though not quite at the level of the current Beto-mania, she’s had her moments as a progressive folk hero — a viral video on fair taxation that helped clear the field for her first Senate campaign and Mitch McConnell’s swag-spawning complaint that “Nevertheless, she persisted” after she was cut off in the middle of a speech on the Senate floor.

But if you listen to conventional wisdom — and our favorite quasi-scientific tool, betting markets — Warren’s star has dimmed in recent months. President Trump’s repeated references to her as “Pocahontas” have kept alive a seven-year-old controversy over Warren’s claims that she has Native American ancestry, which potentially helped advance her career. Her release of a DNA test in October 2018 that she hoped would settle the matter was not well received. And in a party reportedly thirsty for a new generation of leadership, the 69-year-old Warren may have missed her window. For the first but certainly not the last time this year, let’s take a look at the case for and against the chances of a major 2020 Democratic candidate.

Ideologically, Warren is right where a Democratic primary candidate should want to be — it’s one of the strongest cards in her hand. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score, she votes with the president just 13.1 percent of the time, making her the third-most anti-Trump senator in the 115th Congress. Although she’s best known for her stands against income inequality and big banks, she is deeply liberal on both social and economic issues, according to an analysis of her votes and positions by OnTheIssues — although not quite as liberal as Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of Warren’s potential 2020 rivals.

Warren’s base is likely to overlap quite a bit with Sanders’s, the self-described democratic socialist who turned heads in the 2016 presidential primaries by winning 40 percent of Democratic delegates. Warren even seemed to make an explicit play for Sanders voters when she devoted a full minute (mid-personal bio, no less) of her four-and-a-half-minute announcement video to an economic-populist message. “America’s middle class is under attack. … Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie and they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice.”

In fact, at least one poll suggests that Warren and Sanders (if he runs again in 2020) will be fighting over the same pool of voters. Back in April 2018, Suffolk University conducted a poll of two versions of the 2020 Democratic primary in New Hampshire: one without Warren and one with her. In the version without her, Sanders pulled 25 percent of the vote. In the version with her, he dropped to 13 percent; Warren got 26 percent. None of the other six candidates about whom the poll asked lost as much support as Sanders did with Warren in the field.

Sanders and Warren have something else in common: the support of small donors, or those who give $200 or less to a campaign. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Nov. 1, small donors were behind 56 percent of all the money raised by Warren’s re-election campaign. The only 2018 Senate candidate whose fundraising was more reliant on small donors was Sanders himself.

Small donors gave big to Warren

The five 2018 U.S. Senate candidates who raised the largest share of their donations from small donors as of Nov. 1, 2018

Candidate Party State Share of Contributions From Small Donors
Bernie Sanders I Vermont 77%
Elizabeth Warren D Massachusetts 56
Corey Stewart R Virginia 50
Beto O’Rourke D Texas 46
Geoff Diehl R Massachusetts 45

Source: Federal Election Commission via Center for Responsive Politics

And in terms of raw dollar amounts, Warren raised $10 million more from small donors than Sanders did, even though neither one was facing a competitive race. Warren’s $19.4 million small-donor haul was second only to Beto O’Rourke’s among 2018 general-election candidates for Senate or House. Presidential campaigns are expensive affairs, and being a strong fundraiser — particularly among small donors, a well that is less likely to run dry — is a huge advantage. It can also signal high voter enthusiasm for a candidate.

Warren’s deep pockets may also be financing her apparent strategy of building up goodwill among state-level Democrats who will be instrumental in primary and caucus field organizing. According to the Washington Post, she directed at least $7.6 million to Democratic campaigns for offices like state treasurer and legislator in 2018 — more than any rumored 2020 contender not named Michael Bloomberg. As of mid-October, Warren had also made 172 post-primary congratulatory phone calls to Democratic candidates, blasted her email list on their behalf 180 times, shared policy documents with them 63 times, held 61 one-on-one meetings, hosted 41 fundraisers and shot 36 videos. That is how you develop a network.

Central to Warren’s grassroots networking strategy may be New Hampshire — less than an hour’s drive away from her home base and the second state in the country (after Iowa) to cast primary ballots. While she sent one staffer each to Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada for the 2018 election, two of her aides moved to New Hampshire despite it not hosting any particularly competitive major elections. (They assumed pretty major roles there, too — as the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s political director and communications director.)

The polls at this point aren’t very predictive, but if the primaries were held today, it looks like New Hampshire would be her strongest state. In the latest poll of the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary, 17 percent of Granite Staters said they would vote for Warren, putting her in third place — 2 points away from second.1 In Iowa — or at least in the three Iowa caucus polls taken since Nov. 6, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polls database — she averages 8 percent, putting her in fourth place. She fares the worst in national polls, averaging 5 percent in seven national 2020 Democratic primary polls2 conducted since Election Day.

Overall, Warren’s campaign looks like it could go either way. With some skill and luck, she could launch herself right into the thick of the nomination fight. But there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about Warren as well, starting with her stature among her own constituents. Just after Election Day, UMass Amherst released a poll of the 2020 Democratic primary in Massachusetts, and Warren garnered just 11 percent of the sample. That is not good in a state where her name recognition is already high and Democrats are as intimately familiar with her record as any 2020 voter is going to get: Most eventual nominees were already lapping the field in polls of their home states at this point in previous presidential election cycles.

Her 2018 re-election was also unimpressive in a state as blue as Massachusetts. Warren won, but only by 24 points in a state nearly 30 points more Democratic-leaning than the country as a whole.3 Add in the extremely favorable national environment to Democrats, and she “should” have won Massachusetts by more than 39 points.4 By this method, Warren had the weakest incumbency advantage across hundreds of Senate and House elections last year.

Elizabeth Warren was 2018′s weakest incumbent

The 10 Senate and House incumbents who underperformed by the most in the 2018 elections*

Incumbent Party State or District Expected Margin† Actual Margin Net Incumbency Advantage
Elizabeth Warren D MA D+39 D+24 -15
Chris Collins R NY-27 R+13 R+0 -13
Sheldon Whitehouse D RI D+36 D+23 -12
Mia Love R UT-4 R+12 D+0 -12
David Cicilline D RI-1 D+45 D+34 -11
Bob Menendez D NJ D+22 D+11 -11
Jim Costa D CA-16 D+25 D+15 -10
Duncan Hunter R CA-50 R+14 R+3 -10
Steve King R IA-4 R+13 R+3 -10
Rob Woodall R GA-7 R+10 R+0 -10

*Excluding open-seat elections, elections that did not feature both a Republican and Democratic candidate, jungle primaries, elections with multiple incumbents and elections where the incumbent was an independent.

†Based on the state or district’s partisan lean, its elasticity and the national popular vote.

Source: ABC News

It’s unclear what’s cooling voters on Warren. The fallout from her DNA test just weeks before Election Day is a decent guess. But the controversy over her ancestry may also be a proxy for other, less socially acceptable reasons why people dislike her, such as her gender or age. “I don’t think America’s ready for another Hillary. It has to be someone young and dynamic,” one interviewee told Boston radio station WBUR-FM.

Warren has long polarized audiences and was never the world’s most beloved politician to begin with. That may be because she’s a woman with a confrontational style. It may be sexism mixed with other reasons. Whatever the cause(s), Warren isn’t in the best starting position as she enters the fray. But she’s not in the worst position either — she’ll likely find a receptive audience for her message in terms of policy and ideology. A well-run campaign would put her among the field’s top contenders. We’ll find out soon enough: Warren says she’ll announce for sure whether she’s running “early in the new year.”

From ABC News:

Senator apologizes for her claims of an American Indian heritage


  1. A caveat: That poll is from August, back when Warren was flying higher overall, although that New Hampshire percentage was still better than she was doing in any national or Iowa polls around the same time.

  2. But eight questions; one of the polls asked two versions of the 2020 horse-race question, in order to test different candidates.

  3. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, where 2016 presidential election results are weighted 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results are weighted 25 percent, and results from elections for the state legislature are weighted 25 percent.

  4. Here’s the gory math behind that calculation: Democrats won the national popular vote for U.S. House by 8.6 percentage points. Massachusetts has an elasticity score of 1.15, which means that, on average, the state swings by 1.15 percentage points for every 1-point change in the national political environment. From here, it’s simple arithmetic: 8.6 times 1.15 equals 9.9 — or a nearly 10-point advantage on top of Massachusetts 29.4-point Democratic lean.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.