What does it even mean for a presidential candidate to succeed in an election that is still in its early, overcrowded phase?
Former vice president Joe Biden leads the field of Democratic contenders in polls by a long shot, and has nowhere to go but down for the next several months. Former representative Beto O’Rourke peaked at 8 percent in March 2019 only to recede in recent months. His campaign has been slow to materialize as something more substantial than an elevator pitch. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is the one candidate whose positive movement in the polls registers as steady progress.
Warren, who trails Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders in most polls, launched her candidacy first and, initially, she flopped hardest of any candidate. Warren announced her intention to run for president on New Year’s Eve, a date that fell squarely between Donald Trump’s inauguration (23 months prior) and the 2020 presidential election (23 months later). She had her reasons for the timing. If more than 20 Democrats are vying for the party’s presidential nomination, then Warren might ideally get a head start among Iowans, organizers, and donors. She’d have a month’s worth of primary news cycles, however slow, to herself. Of course, Trump heckled Warren, who has suffered many of the president’s Twitter tirades, rehashing her embarrassing claim to Native American heritage; Warren apologized to Cherokee Nation leader Bill John Baker in late January. Cautiously, Warren moved on.
Since February, Warren has defined her presidential aspirations apart from the easy contrast with Trump. In the Senate, she has been a proponent of beginning impeachment proceedings against the president. On the campaign trail, however, she speaks—in great detail—about tax rates, antitrust, education reforms, and women’s health. It’s not as if the other couple dozen candidates aren’t discussing public policy at their town halls, but Warren has attempted to distinguish her candidacy through ambitious left-wing policy proposals, such as her call to break up the internet monopolies, and her plan to forgive student loans and provide free tuition at public universities. She hasn’t criticized her primary rivals; the Democratic candidates aren’t explicitly attacking one another yet. She’s gone about distinguishing herself as her party’s preeminent policy wonk—and an establishmentarian alternative to Sanders, the only other candidate to match her commitment to formulating left-wing public policy.
Warren’s insistence on defining her candidacy through policy prescriptions is a crucial distinction between her and her competition, especially Biden, who seems eager to belabor the differences between himself and Trump, while largely ignoring the challengers for his party’s nomination. Biden’s campaign strategy reflects his political career: He’s more responsive and, at times, sympathetic to friendly Republicans than he’s been to anyone in his party to the left of Hillary Clinton. For now, Biden enjoys a large enough advantage over his opponents to seem invincible before the debates begin. O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg aren’t as avowedly post-partisan as Biden, but they, too, largely base their appeal in contrast with Trump’s temperament; they pitch themselves as decent men in an indecent time. Rapidly, O’Rourke and Buttigieg surged—the former in March, the latter in April—with both overtaking Warren as well as California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
Warren’s boosters resent that she has been positioned in contrast with these two breakout novices. They see two white men presenting their affability as their bona fides and their personal stories as their life’s work.
Given their star power, Buttigieg and O’Rourke excelled while Warren languished in most polls from winter through spring. Warren’s supporters, unhappy that the media has underestimated their candidate, are now rejoicing, as Warren’s policy distinctions are finally translating to advancement in the polls. Warren’s supporters, and everyone else, for that matter, all seem to be overstating the significance of early 2019 polling for a 2020 election. Warren’s campaign is proof of the folly in prematurely attaching significance to campaign fluctuations; her early failure was, in fact, a hasty presumption. It runs the other way, too. The height of Buttigieg’s surge wasn’t some incomparable, double-digit miracle; he peaked at a whopping 11 percent in Iowa. Now, Warren is gaining in national polls, despite still trailing Biden, while O’Rourke’s numbers have plummeted.
Of course, the polls will continue to fluctuate before the Iowa caucuses begin in February next year. The Democratic presidential candidates will be fewer and, presumably, present a more formidable challenge to front-runners Biden and Sanders. The O’Rourke insurgency was always a hazard; there was always the risk that his slapdash campaign would peak a year too soon. Bill de Blasio entered a congested contest only to discover that the mayor of New York City may not even qualify for a debate stage. It has to be demoralizing for so many prominent senators to all be polling around 1 percent, if not less. For the first few months, Warren’s supporters worried most of all. Nevertheless, she persisted.