Warren’s lead is small, but that it exists at all hints at a potential path to victory over Biden. If Warren wins in early states where white liberals are plentiful, she could damage his electability argument and become the consensus candidate while avoiding the mistakes of some of her other competitors.
Biden has three advantages in this primary: association with former president Barack Obama, relative policy moderation and perceived electability.
It’s basically impossible for anyone to detract from or surmount those first two qualities. Biden was Obama’s vice president for eight years — he’s more closely linked with Obama than anyone other than Michelle, Sasha and Malia — and Obama is still popular among Democrats. And Biden has, for better or worse, spent decades building a left-leaning, but not radical, reputation and voting record. That’s likely helping him grab voters who see themselves as more moderate.
But Biden’s other strength — electability — is assailable. The easiest way to prove that a candidate isn’t electable is to beat them in an election. And Warren could do that in Iowa. Warren tends to do well with white voters who think of themselves as more liberal. Contrary to farm belt stereotypes, the Iowa Democratic Party is full of the sort of white liberals who might like Warren.
If Warren were to follow up an Iowa win with a victory in New Hampshire, another state with a solid number of white liberals, she might be able to simultaneously drive her opponents on the left out of the race and damage Biden’s electability argument. That could in turn damage Biden’s support with black voters in South Carolina — some of whom support him in part out of a pragmatic desire to beat President Trump. That could put her in a strong position. Recent national polls, along with the CNN Iowa poll, have suggested that a broad swath of the Democratic Party likes Warren and is considering voting for her. A few primary wins could quickly take her from second place to consensus candidate.
Warren’s rise has been steady, and she’s in a better overall position than her major competitors. Unlike Harris, she built a base while avoiding the trap of a debate-driven sugar high followed by a crash. And Warren seems to be more able to appeal to a broad swath of the party than Sanders, who has lost some of his 2016 supporters and mostly failed to make meaningful inroads with voters who supported Hillary Clinton last time.
But it’s still early. Warren is going to get increased scrutiny from voters and the media now that she’s emerged as Biden’s most formidable competitor. A Biden resurgence in the early states, a last-minute Rick Santorum-esque surge from someone like Buttigeig or some simple missteps by Warren could derail her. Crowded primaries like this one are chaotic and difficult to win.
But Warren has a plan for that. And it just might work.