Something interesting and potentially telling is happening in the Democratic presidential contest. While Joe Biden predictably experiences post-announcement regression in his polling, and while other headline candidates remain flat, Elizabeth Warren is undergoing a steady rise toward the top of an uber-crowded field. Recent polling shows her inching up to second place in some national and key state polls, ahead of Bernie Sanders in the early states of California and South Carolina. While I can’t emphasize enough that polling at this stage is useless as a predictor of who will ultimately prevail in the nomination contest, it is a fairly reliable indicator of trends, and the trend for Warren is a slow and steady rise above the pack of candidates not named Biden or Sanders. Warren is the only candidate thus far to improve her standing without the benefit of a campaign kick-off event. What makes her interesting is how she has done it: with authenticity, specificity, fearlessness and empathy. 

When you consider each of these qualities in turn, it’s easy to see how they combine to create a potent candidacy. 

If you look at how Warren utilizes these qualities for coalition-building, I think mainstream pundits are making a mistake by pigeonholing her in the “progressive” lane of the primary race next to Bernie Sanders. While in Washington, I heard an analyst I respect say that the Democratic “final four” would include either Warren or Sanders but not both, because they are competing for the same voters. This misunderstands Warren’s path forward. Although she is unquestionably progressive, her success rests not with gobbling up progressive voters but with selling a progressive message to those Iowa farmers and temperamentally moderate voters who would be more naturally drawn to a Joe Biden. She cannot win with progressives alone, but if she continues to build a grassroots coalition she will surprise a lot of experts who do not have a model for a candidate converting voters by telling them who she is and what she plans to do.

Let’s be clear: Warren faces a steep challenge if she is to emerge victorious. She will have to parry charges of “socialism” by convincing people that she is a capitalist trying to make the system work for ordinary people again. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, she will have to persuade the electorate that government can accomplish things, even gigantic things, and that the country will still be solvent should she get her way and implement her many plans. She will have to convince primary voters to take a chance on another female nominee after the debacle of 2016. She will have to build a multigenerational, multiracial coalition that reaches well beyond the progressive base. She will have to convince Democratic voters that she is the best candidate to do the thing they want most — defeat Donald Trump. To do these things, she will need to lean on the characteristics that have separated her from the pack early and deploy them strategically.

If, as in past years, the electorate is looking to replace the incumbent president with his opposite, it is hard to imagine a stronger set of qualities than authenticity, specificity, fearlessness and empathy, and I am not surprised that a candidate who exhibits all of them is finding her way to the top of the field. While this in no way guarantees that Warren will be the last candidate standing, I do think it means her emergence is not a fluke. Elizabeth Warren can go a long way in this political climate. If nothing else, she is a weathervane telling us where a significant portion of the Democratic electorate is heading.