Elizabeth Warren 2020 makes sense on paper. The Massachusetts senator is obviously a very smart person who thinks seriously about policy. She has credibility with left-y activists, and she can blend some of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) strengths (a power-to-the-people attitude and progressive platform) with some of Hillary Clinton’s advantages (experience, being a woman in a majority-female party). And she’s running in a party that wants to nominate women — just look at the 2016 Democratic presidential primary and the 2018 House primaries.
But Warren 2020 hasn’t polled well in practice. On Monday, Emerson released a poll that showed her in third place behind Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden in her home state of Massachusetts. She has less than 6 percent support in national primary polls and is stuck in the single digits in both Iowa and New Hampshire. These numbers can change, but they’re not a great start.
These numbers might seem weird to Warren supporters. 2020 seems like it should be her moment, but she hasn’t taken off. This shouldn’t be too surprising. She’s in a rough position — running in a crowded part of the field in a media environment that’s especially tough for her. Warren could still become the nominee, but she’s facing some real obstacles.
Warren’s basic political instinct seems to be to fight style with substance — to push out a boatload of highly progressive policy proposals, focus on fighting corporate power (an issue most of her competitors haven’t talked about as much), build a base on the left and expand from there. That’s not a crazy strategy. She’s a former Harvard professor who is beloved by liberal activists, so it builds on her strengths. And there is real energy on the left side of the party.
But that approach puts Warren in a crowded space. She’s competing with Sanders, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) (who has moved left over time) for those same voters. Very liberal voters are a limited resource, and Warren is competing for them with some of the strongest contenders in the field.
And policy stories about Warren will have to compete with other stories about her. According to Northeastern University’s Storybench project (which collects and analyzes news reports from leading news outlets), stories about her new tech policy push have had to compete with stories about her ancestry/DNA issues. And as the primary unfolds, Warren may have to deal with problems that competitors such as Sanders might not. Political scientists Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt write that media coverage of female politicians tended to “deemphasize their policy positions while focusing more on … information such as what the candidate is wearing or her marital and family status,” and that women generally get less issue-based coverage than men. If that pattern holds in 2020, it could complicate Warren’s strategy.
The content of the news surrounding Warren isn’t her only challenge — the volume matters, too. In the early phases of presidential primaries, voters often don’t know much about candidates. They have some loosely formed opinions, but they might change those opinions if they learn about someone new. So when a candidate gets a sudden surge of media attention, he or she gets the opportunity to broadcast a distinct message and win over new voters. (See Trump, Donald J.)
Warren is already an established figure, and many journalists feel they know her, which makes it tougher for her to have that sort of “breakout” moment. Just last week, Pete Buttigieg (the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a relative newcomer to national politics), Tim Ryan (an Ohio congressman who just announced his bid) and Beto O’Rourke (who is on track to be the first person to stand on every object in Iowa) all got more television coverage than Warren did. Sanders and Harris, who are in second and third place in national polls, also got more attention than Warren.
This shouldn’t be read as some sort of weird, conspiratorial effort to deprive Warren of attention — Buttigieg’s fundraising and Ryan’s announcement were genuinely newsworthy events, and there’s nothing wrong with covering candidates who are ahead in major polls. Moreover, Warren has been getting more TV coverage than most other candidates. But so far it hasn’t been enough for her campaign to catch fire.
None of this means that Warren is doomed. In fact, Warren has a clearer path than most. Warren could build a progressive base, appeal to women (again, who make up a majority of Democratic voters), win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, and build enough momentum to get the nomination. She doesn’t need a breakout moment in April 2019 to make that happen. And it might not be so bad to lay low now and avoid the early boom-and-bust cycle that trampled Republicans Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann in 2012.
But if Warren wants to win, she does have to climb out of the single digits at some point.