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.
- Authenticity: Warren knows who she is and why she is running for president. Rather than temper her progressive ideas in an effort to broaden her appeal, she invites people who may not agree with her to listen to what she has to say. This permits her to speak with refreshing directness. She answers yes or no questions by saying yes or no, much like ordinary people will do. Although Warren is not the only candidate with this quality — Mayor Pete has it, and Bernie has always been Bernie — it helps set her apart from candidates who sound practiced or evasive because they have been politicians their entire lives.
- Specificity: Whether or not Warren intended her tag line to be “I have a plan for that,” the catch phrase is a fortuitous form of branding. It defines her as a substantive candidate at a moment when there is an appetite for someone with a road map out of the mess we’re in, a direct contrast to the flimflam man she would face in the general election. And she does have plans. Her website contains an issue page with no less than twenty-two plans — all with specifics — to address everything from climate change and green manufacturing to cancelling student loan debt to tackling the opioid crisis to breaking up big tech companies, with plans to tax wealth and corporate profits to pay for some of her more ambitious ideas. This flies against the conventional way to run for president, which is to be short on specifics and long on promises, but it is gradually winning converts. In the present political environment, specificity is leadership.
- Fearlessness: Warren campaigned in bright red Kermit, West Virginia where she spoke to Trump-supporters about their struggles with opioid addiction — and won converts. She has talked to Iowa farmers about enlisting them in the battle against climate change. Unafraid to face hostile crowds, Warren offers herself as a fighter and implores her audiences to fight along side her. In so doing, she is tapping the populist energy that propelled Trump three years ago with people still hungry for someone who will represent their needs over the interests of the permanent political class.
- Empathy: Contrary to her press image as wonky and bookish, Warren has proven remarkably adept at relating to people. She has a gift for distilling complex policies into simple language and is an able story teller, drawing on her personal experience with economic insecurity to connect with voters where they live.
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.