Elizabeth Warren is gaining. She has breached 20 percent of the vote in recent national surveys and might hold a narrow lead in Iowa and New Hampshire. The prediction markets now consider her a clear favorite to win the nomination. It can be hard to see how her Democratic rivals will attack or stop her.
But the challenge facing Ms. Warren, if past primaries are any indication, isn’t those rivals. It is whether she will hit a wall: the rank and file of the Democratic primary electorate.
In primary after primary, the candidates of the party’s left-liberal activists have failed to win the more typical members of the Democratic Party. These voters don’t show up at rallies or post on political Twitter. They are more moderate. They are disproportionately nonwhite; Southern; and less likely to have graduated from college. But in the modern era, they have usually had the votes to decide the nomination. In August, they even had the votes to sway an Iowa straw poll to Joe Biden when other candidates attracted far bigger crowds at the same fair.
To win the nomination, Ms. Warren will need to advance beyond her factional base to a broader coalition. Historically, many left-liberal candidates have found it easy to attract 20-plus percent in the polls and five-digit crowds on the stump. Howard Dean (2004) and Bernie Sanders (2016) had done so by this point in the election cycle. But such candidates have found it far harder to win.
Those who manage to pull it off, like Barack Obama nationally or Bill de Blasio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City, often have special appeal to nonwhite voters. Without that advantage, they might have fallen short, as Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon did in New York State, or Jerry Brown and Gary Hart in presidential races.
There are important factors, which we’ll get to, that might make it easier today for a left-liberal candidate to win. The ranks of the activists have swelled in recent years, and Ms. Warren’s opposition could prove weak as well.
For now, it is not clear whether Ms. Warren has made the breakthrough. And until she does, it will be an open question whether her pitch has what it takes to succeed where previous white activist-favorite candidates have fallen short.
Ms. Warren holds the support of just 10 percent of black voters and 10 percent of Hispanic voters in a recent CNN/SSRS poll. That survey included large samples of black and Hispanic voters, providing a clearer look than usual at these groups. She had the support of just 12 percent of moderate and conservative Democrats in the same poll, and of 15 percent among whites without a college degree.
Some polls have shown Ms. Warren making additional gains with nonwhite and more moderate voters over the last few weeks. A Quinnipiac poll last weekend, for instance, found that 19 percent of black voters supported her nationwide. If confirmed in other surveys, it will show her with signs of strength that a candidate like Mr. Sanders never claimed in 2016. Not all polls show this move — a CNN poll this weekend, for instance, found her at just 4 percent among black voters in South Carolina.
This does not mean she has a “ceiling” on her overall support, in the sense that there is a hard cap on it. In surveys, a large majority of Democrats like Ms. Warren and say they’re considering her for the nomination. And the substantively populist elements of her appeal could help her break through among low-income voters.
But the weak track record of the activist-backed candidates suggests there is something limited about the appeal of candidates who depend on policy, ideological argument or idealism. These are just some of many factors for most people. They have policy views, too, but not with the kind of depth or passion that would leave them feeling strongly about intraparty disputes, like a public option versus “Medicare for all.”
Establishment-backed candidates have typically had the inside path to votes of the less engaged and less ideological remainder of the electorate. Those candidates often bring name recognition; a reservoir of good will; perceived electability; and superior financial resources. Perhaps they also have advantages on the superficial dimensions of politics that have allowed them to succeed throughout their career. And of course, there are some number of moderates who are alienated by the activist candidates.
History, however, does not always repeat. It’s possible that the obstacles for a left-liberal favorite like Ms. Warren have grown less formidable, because of a leftward shift in the Democratic electorate.
In 2008, moderates outnumbered liberals by a 20-point margin. Today, the Democratic Party is roughly evenly divided between liberals on one side and moderates and conservatives on the other.
The party is also split in roughly three ways between nonwhite voters, white college graduates and whites without a degree. Back in 2008, whites without a college degree outnumbered white college graduates by nearly a two-to-one margin.
To some extent, the party’s politicians have matched this shift. Mr. Biden’s current policy positions are arguably to the left of those of past activist favorites, like Mr. Obama in 2008, who opposed same-sex marriage, or Mr. Dean in 2004, who emphasized a balanced budget and argued to allow Americans to buy into the private health plans available to federal employees. Mr. Brown was a flat-taxer in 1992.
Mr. Biden’s gradual ideological drift over his long career, which has kept him close to the center of the party, illustrates the adaptability of the establishment-backed candidates, who usually move just enough to neutralize ideological considerations for a majority of a party’s voters.
But the changing composition of Democratic voters shows more than just ideological movement. It reflects a more engaged and policy-aware electorate, which is basically a prerequisite for voting for the kind of ideas-based campaign that activist-backed candidates tend to mount.
And Mr. Biden is not the strongest of establishment favorites, if he even counts as one. His endorsement tallies are underwhelming. His poll numbers are good enough to put him in the lead — but still put him behind all of the comparable candidates in the modern primary era, going back to the 1970s. This might be in part because of the size of the field, but his inability to deter challengers is probably an indication of his weakness as well.
He is relatively weak in the first two contests, Iowa and New Hampshire; it is easy to imagine him losing both.
And he is highly unlikely to command a substantial fund-raising advantage, once a key advantage for the establishment favorites. This is as much about longer-term trends in fund-raising than anything about Mr. Biden, but he appears likely to be outspent, perhaps even by a wide margin, if the field narrows. Mr. Sanders managed to narrowly outspend Hillary Clinton’s fund-raising juggernaut in 2016, and Mr. Biden is not matching Mrs. Clinton’s tallies to this point.
And then there are the questions beyond the data, like Mr. Biden’s age (76), his uncertain performance in the debates, and his long record.
Mr. Biden’s resilience in the polls suggests that these issues might not be quite as problematic for his candidacy as they seem. It could be a Democratic version of what happened in the 2016 Republican primary, when Donald J. Trump easily won despite the fact that highly informed, college-educated and conservative voters found him unsuited for the presidency and insufficiently conservative. But it might still prove fatal to Mr. Biden’s chances, by slowly eroding his numbers or limiting his upward potential, allowing Ms. Warren to slip by with a narrower coalition than would typically be necessary.
He can also make an electability pitch, which most Democrats say they prioritize. He leads Mr. Trump by eight percentage points in the Real Clear Politics polling average, double Ms. Warren’s four-point lead. Although it’s generally unwise to put stock in these head-to-head polling matchups so far ahead of the election, it’s hard to convince most voters of that.
In the end, Ms. Warren could easily win the nomination. Perhaps she should even be considered the favorite (as bettors see it), especially if longstanding doubts about Mr. Biden’s ability to maintain his support finally materialize in the polls. But for now, her poll numbers are not quite so high and her support not so broad that she has resolved questions about whether she will be a mere factional candidate, of the sort that has typically gone on to lose.