There has been only one sustained-momentum candidate early in the 2020 Democratic primary contest: Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She’s risen to second place in some polls after what those same polls suggest was the strongest performance of last week’s debate.

But for as long as she’s been talked about as a presidential hopeful, one potential problem has loomed over her like Joe Btfsplk’s perpetual rain cloud: electability. Warren is not only among the most liberal candidates in the 2020 field; she’s also an older, white, intellectual woman running in the aftermath of the Hillary Clinton debacle, and she follows in a long line of failed presidential nominees from Massachusetts. Dukakis ’88. Kerry ’04. Romney ’12. It’s entirely too easy to caricature her as a liberal-elite former Harvard professor whom President Trump could drub with those oh-so-important working-class white voters.

But is that fair? And what do the numbers say? These are questions that need to be broken into two parts:

  1. Whether she is electable, and
  2. Whether Democrats perceive her as electable (and the impact it might have on her primary support)

Let’s take that second one first. A Quinnipiac University poll Tuesday showed Warren rising to 21 percent in the Democratic primary field — six points higher than last week, and her best showing to date in any national poll. The same poll, though, showed just 9 percent of Democratic primary voters viewed her as the most electable. So more than half of her supporters say they’ll vote for her but don’t say she’s the most likely to beat Trump.

As has been the case throughout 2019 — including in recent Washington Post-ABC News polling — that distinction belongs to former vice president Joe Biden, with 49 percent saying he had the best chance.

What’s interesting here, though, is that the last person to get a debate bounce — Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) — did so while cutting into Biden’s electability edge. After the first debate, the number viewing Harris as the most electable jumped from 2 percent early in the race to 14 percent — close to her 20 percent share of the vote — while Biden’s most-electable number dropped down to 42 percent. So while Harris got a polling bounce and an electability bounce, Warren only got the former.

That could have been due to Biden’s abject first-debate performance more than anything else, though. And just because voters might not view Warren as the most electable doesn’t mean they don’t see her as electable, period.

Other polls suggest Democratic voters don’t necessarily view this as a huge liability, but they may need some convincing. A new HuffPost/YouGov survey asked people to select each candidate they felt could beat Trump, and Warren ranked second behind Biden, with 46 percent of Democratic-leaning voters picking her as among the electables:

  • Biden: 61 percent
  • Warren: 46
  • Harris: 43
  • Sanders: 43
  • Pete Buttigieg: 25
  • Cory Booker: 21
  • Julián Castro: 18
  • Beto O’Rourke: 14

A June Monmouth poll, meanwhile, asked people to assign a number value (from 0 to 10) to each candidate’s electability. Warren’s average (6.4) was third-highest, behind Biden (7.1) and barely behind Sanders (6.5). At the same time, just 32 percent ranked her between an 8 and a 10, compared with 59 percent for Biden. People were much more likely to choose a midrange number for her, suggesting they’re yet to be convinced she’d be as much of a favorite.

The question from there, as with nearly all early polling, is how much that has to do with views of the candidates’ relative strengths, and how much it has to do with name ID and familiarity. Biden could be viewed as the most electable in large part because he’s more moderate than some other 2020 Democrats and has already been vice president, or it could be he’s simply the candidate that casual voters know well. As other hopefuls make names for themselves, it may not be as difficult to see them in a presidential light.

Let’s set that aside for the moment, though, and go back to the first question: Who actually is electable?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) slammed former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.) in the second round of the Democratic presidential debates on July 30. (CNN)

Again, whatever the reasons (name ID or something else), Biden is the obvious leader on this question. Polls nationally and in key states show him leading Trump by as much as double digits, while other Democrats like Warren are in much closer races. Biden leads Trump by 8.1 points in the national RealClearPolitics average, while Sanders leads by 5 and Warren leads by 2.4 — within almost every poll’s margin of error. The recent Post-ABC poll (among others) suggested this is in large part thanks to moderates. While Biden led them by 29 points, Warren’s lead was 18.

A new poll from Stanley Greenberg of left-leaning Democracy Corps, though, provides some more encouraging signs for Warren. It tested both her and Biden against Trump, seeking to find out how the leading candidates from the party’s two flanks might compare in a 2020 general election. The answer is: pretty similarly.

While Biden leads by eight points (49-41) in a race that includes Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) as the Libertarian nominee, Warren leads by six (49-43). What’s more, Greenberg finds that, while Biden does better among independents (+10 vs. Warren’s +5), Warren consolidates Democrats better (getting 90 percent of their support vs. Biden’s 86 percent). And while Biden gets 21 percent of Republican moderates, Warren gets a respectable 15 percent.

Perhaps most importantly for Warren, she actually does just as well as Biden among working-class white voters. Both trail by 19 points with a group Trump won by 27 points in 2016 — a margin he’ll probably need to match in 2020.

2020 Democratic presidential candidates made their stances clear following the first of two debates in Miami on June 26. (Drea Cornejo, Joyce Koh, Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

This is but one poll, of course, and most polls show Biden clearly doing better than Warren against Trump. That could change as Warren becomes better-known. There’s also something to be said for motivating the base (if Democrats don’t feel like unseating Trump is motivation enough). These early general-election polls test a static universe of voters that doesn’t change with each potential nominee, but that nominee could matter in some voters’ decisions about whether it’s worth showing up — on both sides.

It’s also worth emphasizing that this is a question as old as time, and early prognostications often don’t pan out. As Dan Balz was written, there was a time when electability was supposed to be a hurdle for Ronald Reagan. People wondered whether the United States would elect a black president before Barack Obama answered that pretty emphatically. And electability was supposed to be Clinton’s calling card, before the supposedly unelectable Trump made us all look like fools.

Underlying all of this are very valid questions about whether being a female candidate is an asset or a liability — questions that one election three years ago couldn’t possibly answer definitively.

Warren, for her part, seems to recognize that rising in the polls will only lead to these kinds of questions, and she offered a pretty emphatic statement about the importance of electability in last week’s debate.

“I get it: There is a lot at stake, and people are scared,” she said. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else.”

Polls suggest, for now, that Democratic voters are more concerned with beating Trump than with ideological purity. Warren’s job will be to convince them that she’s got enough of the former for people to vote for the candidate with the latter.