Behold, the Elizabeth Warren surge has arrived.
Overinterpreting small movements in polls is always dangerous, but if she does continue to rise — and right now she looks like one of the only Democratic candidates who is gaining support — there are some particular reasons why, reasons that may help us understand what primary voters are thinking and how the media are shaping the race.
Let’s be clear: Warren’s gains are modest at this point. But she is getting more attention on cable news, and more stories written about her in other media (see here, here, or here). While, nationally, she still trails former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in most polls, a new Economist/YouGov poll shows her passing Sanders into second place, and a Monmouth University poll in the key early state of Nevada also shows her in second place, as well.
Most notably, in the Des Moines Register poll that came out last weekend (the gold standard of Iowa polls), she moved from 9 percent in the newspaper’s March poll to 15 percent now, while Biden fell from 27 percent support to 24 percent, and Sanders went from 25 percent to 16 percent. Just as important, 61 percent of potential caucus-goers said they were considering supporting her, the same number Biden got.
That’s consistent with what journalists on the ground in Iowa have been reporting: Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, is drawing some of the largest crowds as she campaigns across the state. Those attending her events testify to her skill in winning people over, her ability to describe policy challenges through effective storytelling, and her seemingly inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm.
Then there’s the role of the media. For a variety of reasons, Warren has become the favored candidate of the liberal opinion-writing elite. Even those (such as myself) who aren’t endorsing any candidate have been complimenting Warren for a while, writing and talking about her in ways that may be having an impact on how everyone else sees her and her candidacy.
It started as a reaction to her early struggles, with explorations of how sexism and problematic ideas about electability might be holding back a candidate who should be at least one of the most appealing contenders for Democratic voters. An ever-growing pile of laudatory opinion pieces about her may eventually have had an effect on how she is being perceived.
Which brings us to what has become Warren’s slogan: “I have a plan for that.”
Warren may be successfully turning the act of having policy plans into a virtue in and of itself, one that stands apart from the substance of the plans. Democratic voters are drawn toward candidates they think have policy muscle to go along with charisma. And in Warren’s case, what’s in her plans may matter less for the support she gets than for the idea that she’s the candidate who has plans for everything. It means she’s serious, substantive, prepared and ambitious about change. Not coincidentally, these are all things President Trump is not.
There’s something else Warren has that wins respect from those who have covered lots of campaigns, and winds up producing better media coverage in subtle ways: A clear, coherent message of the kind most of the other candidates are lacking.
A successful presidential campaign message tells voters three things: What the problem with America is, what the solution is, and why the candidate is the right person to bring us from the first to the second. In Warren’s case, she argues that the system is distorted by the interests of the rich and powerful, and she wants to reorient it both politically and economically in the direction of everyone else. She’s the one to do it, she argues, because she understands what’s necessary and has already figured out how to go about it (see: the plans).
A coherent message not only persuades voters, it also gets you good reviews from journalists covering the race, whether they personally agree with it or not. That’s not only because they respect a skillfully designed campaign but because it creates a kind of narrative coherence to the candidates’ actions and voters’ responses to them, one that makes easier the difficult task of writing about the contest every day.
None of this guarantees any particular result in the long run. Warren may be pulling support from Sanders now, but that could change. The significant number of moderates in the party could stick with Biden. A different candidate could catch fire. There are guaranteed to be ups and downs in the campaign; the first votes won’t even happen for more than 7½ months.
But there are good reasons why Warren is moving up, and why she at least has the potential to keep rising.