What Warren's Recent Rise in the Polls Really Means


Elizabeth Warren’s latest surge in the polls is no mirage. It is not the result of a good moment but rather a prolonged and extensive effort on her part. In other words, she earned the support. She wasn’t handed it temporarily by the press. She worked for it and it is truly organic- grassroots I think they call it. As you might expect, what is good for Elizabeth Warren may not be so good for some others. Who is most likely to be hurt by Warren’s rise and how could it affect the race for the Democratic nomination going forward? Let’s take a look.

Let’s start by admitting that Warren has taken support from ALL other candidates. When an uncommitted Democratic primary voter decides to support Warren, that voter does so at the expense of every other candidate running. Likewise, when a voter decides to switch support from another candidate to Warren, it is another lost opportunity for every one of her opponents. Each voter who arrives at the Warren camp does so having left, having never joined, or having decided not to join another campaign.

Bernie Sanders is the candidate with the most to lose by a Warren surge, or so the conventional thinking goes. It is true that in many regards they both occupy much the same space. Bernie unashamedly proclaims an affinity for socialism. Warren is a bit less frank when it comes to owning that particular label but has put forward plans that leave little doubt as to her leanings. They are both white. They are both old. They are both from the Northeast. They are both senators. They are both wonkish intellectuals with an animated and passionate rhetorical style. They both have high name recognition. They are competing to represent the progressive wing of their party. While Bernie doesn’t necessarily have a ‘woman’ problem, Warren does give women an attractive, and mostly equivalent, female option. It is no surprise then to see Sanders’ poll numbers dip as Warren’s have risen.

Joe Biden, as the standard-bearer of the moderate wing of his party, has enjoyed front-runner status since before announcing his entry into the race. Currently, there is no obvious alternative able to challenge him for support from the establishment of the party. He should profit from the Warren/Sanders battle, and indeed he does, as his lead in the polls is owed much to them splitting the vote of progressives. But having two of the top three candidates advocating from the left has served to expand that wing of the party’s base, and as Warren’s numbers have gone up, Biden’s have fallen. There can be little doubt that she has drawn support from one-time Biden followers, and the last thing he needs is another viable campaign to contend with.

The rest of the field is just that: the rest of the field. The brighter the light on Warren, the darker the shadow on them. As she becomes more viable they grow less necessary. At a crucial time when many voters are making their choices, she is able to pitch ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, while the field continues to croak out another chorus of ‘get in on the ground floor’. She has what they call ‘momentum’, and comes at a cost to the many minor players still hoping for a similar break-out. As she ascends, they are presented with less and less opportunity, and the most recent numbers support just that. Twelve of the twenty who made the first debate have polled at an average of no more than one percent. Most of them will be gone by the third debate if they don’t find a whole lot more supporters. Each new vote for Warren makes that less and less possible. As Warren experiences new enthusiasm, the five other more-or-less viable candidates (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke) have seen their numbers plateau or decline.

Are there many independents, or Republicans even, who are finding their way to the Warren team? Party affiliation, which could be an indicator of that kind of movement, has trended slightly in the opposite direction. As a leader of the left wing of her party, she is not well positioned to capture votes from the center or the right. She is a woman, which may be an important and desirable qualification for some voters across the political spectrum, but it seems that most of her recent growth has come from inside her own party.

Interestingly, her newfound popularity increases the odds of a brokered convention. It may well be that no one candidate receives the majority of the delegates needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot. Because delegates are awarded proportionally in Democratic state contests, but only handed out to candidates who receive at least fifteen percent of the votes cast, every strong campaign makes that scenario more likely. Splitting the pool of available delegates three ways, between Warren, Sanders, and Biden, makes winning an outright majority by any one of them that much less likely. If a fourth candidate were to emerge and rise above the fifteen per cent threshold, it would almost guarantee a second ballot and the attendant influence of the ‘Super Delegates’, who are barred now by new rules from helping to determine a winner on the first ballot. That would present the party with problems they’d rather not encounter.

If Warren is able to sustain, perhaps even expand, this new level of support among her fellow Democrats, she will present a myriad of complications for the competing campaigns. From a position of strength, she is moving her party to the left, at the expense of moderates. She is overshadowing the lesser-knowns and claiming the gender card from the other female aspirants. She has worked harder than the others and that hard work is paying dividends. Once written off, she has shown that she is not just a show, but someone in it to win it. She has become a formidable force that the front-runners must contend with, even as they now admit her among their ranks.

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Elizabeth Warren is rising in the polls, but she says only one poll matters: the totem pole.