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What’s behind Elizabeth Warren’s comeback in the polls

Elizabeth Warren has seen a solid polling bump. Here’s why.

Among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren has seen some strong polls lately.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The headlines for the 2020 Democratic primary election polls are still the same — Joe Biden is well ahead of everybody else — but the most interesting trend is the uptick in support for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the first major candidate to announce way back in December.

Warren, who had been lagging with just 4 percent in a March Quinnipiac University poll, reached 13 percent in their latest survey, nearly matching Sen. Bernie Sanders at 16 percent with Biden in the lead at 35 percent.

Looking across multiple polls paints a clearer picture of Biden’s lead — but also the Massachusetts senator’s rise. The former vice president is averaging nearly 40 percent in national primary polls, coming down a bit after a surge upon announcing his own candidacy this month. Sanders has seen his support drop lately while Warren, the rising bronze bar in this Real Clear Politics’s chart of 2020 polling averages over the last several months, has seen a steady uptick.


Warren has withstood the entry of 20-some competitors, and after mediocre polling led to media insinuations she couldn’t sustain a campaign, she still ranks in the top handful of candidates. She has two supremely obvious things in her favor: She’s very well-known and Democratic primary voters like her. Warren has distinguished herself with a very thoroughly prepared policy platform.

She’s positioned herself solidly to the left of the frontrunner Biden and already taken some oblique shots at the former vice president. If the rest of the Dem field comes down to Biden rivals and Biden replacements, as Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics is starting to expect it will, Warren is emerging as a top Biden rival. That puts her and Sanders in direct competition, and they do seem to be splitting the progressive wing’s vote.

“The Biden rivals are the candidate who hope to emerge as the main alternative to Biden and who can mobilize the support of younger, more liberal voters,” Kondik said. “The Biden replacements are those who seek to supplant Biden as a candidate who can rally the more moderate/older elements of the party.”

It’s still early, so caveats upon caveats, but voters have started to tune in. And the coming-up-quite soon primary debates give Warren a chance to introduce herself to an even bigger audience.

Democratic voters like Elizabeth Warren

It’s the simplest thing, really, but at this point, many Democratic voters are still just now beginning to really follow the primary campaign: 44 percent say they’re paying a lot of attention, according to the new Quinnipiac poll, and 34 percent said they were paying “some” attention.

Particularly at this early in the game, name recognition matters. Among the two dozen candidates, Warren is pretty clearly third behind Sanders and Biden in name recognition — and what voters have heard of her, they seem to like. Quinnipiac found 63 percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion of Warren, just 13 percent have an unfavorable opinion, with 23 percent saying they hadn’t heard enough about her.

Warren was better known than Kamala Harris (34 percent haven’t heard enough) and Beto O’Rourke (45 percent) and the rest of the field and she’s quite popular. Morning Consult similarly found her at 57 percent favorable, 16 percent unfavorable and 12 percent never heard of, putting her third in name recognition and favorability behind Biden and Sanders.

“She’s one of the more famous members of the Democratic Senate caucus, and she’s led the way on a number of prominent policy positions in the Democratic field. It’s not surprising that she’s typically among the polling leaders, although far off the lead,” Kondik says. “When and if Biden or Sanders falls off, she could potentially benefit.”

Warren has a clear reason for her candidacy — scaling back corporate power and putting better checks on capitalism while delivering more benefits for middle and lower-income Americans — and a very detailed policy agenda for how she would do it. She has embraced the “I have a plan for that” meme. In Iowa, according to a new 2020 survey from Change Research, Warren had the highest “very favorable” rating of any 2020 Democrat, up at 40 percent, edging out Biden and Sanders.

That’s certainly why people who believe in Warren think she has held on to a steady base of support in a crowded primary.

Let’s not go overboard. The RealClearPolitics average of national primary polls still has Warren as a distant third behind Biden and then Sanders, ahead of a cluster of Harris, Pete Buttigieg and O’Rourke. But she has solidified herself as a stable presence, in an apparent contest with Sanders for more progressive voters.

Warren and Sanders are competing for the left’s vote

Warren and Sanders have helped give the left a strong voice in the early 2020 campaign, both leading on big issues (workers’ rights and student debt for Warren, health care for Sanders) for the progressive base. But that also has them splitting those voters.

Morning Consult has found that Warren voters choose Sanders over Biden as their second choice in the primary. Sanders voters actually break solidly for Biden — which might suggest name recognition rather than ideology is a factor in his support — but a solid minority do split for Warren. Quinnipiac somewhat surprisingly found Warren leading Sanders among “very liberal” voters, 30 percent to 22 percent, though sample sizes start to get small at a certain point.

“Warren to me is a Biden rival, in that she hopes to become the main alternative to Biden, or whoever might replace Biden, and she is clearly oriented to his left,” Kondik says. “From that standpoint, she’s in direct competition with Sanders (and others) for that position.”

Warren’s aggressive proposals on issues like student debt might be helping her with black and Hispanic voters, important blocs in the primary race, Tim Malloy, assistant polling director at Quinnipiac, told me. She’s also rolled out policies to address maternal mortality (which disproportionately affects black women), to increase housing supply to bring down rents, and to legalize marijuana. Warren has framed the fight for economic justice and racial justice as intertwined.

She’s quite popular with nonwhite Democratic voters (55 percent favorable, 11 percent unfavorable in the Quinnipiac poll). A BlackPAC survey found that Warren’s favorability increased, from 58 percent to 67 percent, among black voters who are following election news closely, as Vox’s P.R. Lockhart recently noted.

“An aggressive education plan addressing student debt in a substantive way with a particular empathy for the debt burdens faced by minority students may be widening Sen. Warren’s appeal,” Malloy said. “That and the fact that she can throw a haymaker punch from the stump whether at corporate America, tech companies or President [Donald] Trump.”

In Warren’s favor is the good opinion Democratic voters broadly hold of her and the important niche she’s cultivated as the smartest campaign in the race. She’s also hired a lot of top talent in the early primary states.

But she still has to compete with Sanders, who’s also extremely well-known and liked and brings his own very loyal base of followers. Remember, Sanders enjoys far more individual donors than any other Democratic candidate. So he can keep raising money and with his strong polling and the infrastructure he built in 2016, he has every reason to stick in the race for the foreseeable future. Biden vs. Sanders and Warren is a race the latter two ultimately lose.

It’s Biden vs. the field... for now

The Democratic primary is in a holding pattern for now: Biden is well in the lead and then the names behind him keep shuffling, varying from poll to poll, with Sanders usually there in second and Warren just behind him. The primary debates, scheduled to start next month, could start to shake things up, when a national television audience finally gets a chance to see the candidates on stage with each other.

So we wait and see. As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported recently, the other Democratic campaigns are skeptical that Biden’s frontrunner status will last and voters give them good reason to believe that:

Donna Duvall, 70, was still looking for an alternative to Biden, whom she’d seen in Dubuque three weeks earlier, and who left her a little cold.

“He had a nice presentation, but I didn’t feel like it was very energetic and committed,” Duvall said. “I didn’t think he had a lot of specific proposals; I like [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren a lot, and she’s made a lot of specific proposals. I loved Joe as vice president, but I feel like he’s maybe somebody whose time has passed.”

The hopes of 21 Democrats — everyone in the field except Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are No. 1 and 2 in most polls — lie with voters like Duvall.

That’s why so many candidates have entered the campaign — they don’t believe Biden is a dominant frontrunner, If he falters, it becomes a wide-open race that anybody can win. Sanders’s seemingly limited ceiling for support at the moment will only add to that feeling.

Warren has given herself the chance to emerge from that chaos or to set herself as the most viable alternative to Biden for the Democratic left. Coming in third or fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire with 10 or so percent won’t be good enough — that’s just about where Warren is polling currently in those states. You must hit at least 15 percent to start winning delegates.

But Warren has built a real base of support she can try to build from — something it seems like she’s been doing steadily in recent weeks.