Before I left the country last week, the biggest news on the Democratic nomination contest front was Pete Buttigieg’s surge. This was big news mainly because of the threat Buttigieg suddenly posed to Elizabeth Warren in Iowa, not because Buttigieg has much chance of winning the nomination.
But now, the big story for the Democrats is the decline in national support for Warren. A month ago, polls consistently showed Warren’s support to be in excess of 20 percent. Nearly all of them had her in second place, and many had her within six to eight points of Joe Biden.
However, the current Real Clear Politics average (Nov. 17-26) places Warren third, 12 points behind Biden and 2.5 behind Bernie Sanders. Buttigieg, who a month ago had about one-third the support of Warren, now trails her by only four points.
What happened? My sense is that Warren committed a strategic error. She passed up the opportunity to occupy a lane that would likely have given her a clear path to the nomination — the lane between Sanders and Biden.
Sanders, a socialist, and Biden, a mainstream Democrat, have always defined the outer bounds of a nominee acceptable to the party. This makes them inherently vulnerable — Sanders for being too extreme and hard to elect; Biden for being too cautious and out of step with the emerging party base.
Absent a Biden implosion, therefore, the most promising path to the nomination for any candidate other than Biden or Sanders has always been located in the middle of the ideological gap between these two. And, given the power of identity politics within the Democratic party, the ideal candidate to fill that lane has always been a woman.
For a short time, Kamala Harris looked likely to sprint through this lane. Among other problems, however, she seemed too self-consciously trying to split the difference between Biden and Sanders. She came across as wishy-washy and inauthentic.
Harris’s collapse left the lane between Sanders and Biden wide open for Warren. Unlike Harris, Warren possessed the policy chops to navigate that lane. In addition, she had managed to gain credibility with the left without unduly alienating the party’s establishment.
But instead of filling the lane between Sanders and Biden, Warren opted to compete head-to-head with Sanders in the far left lane. It is Buttigieg, not Warren, who has filled the “middle” lane, to his great benefit.
By declining to increase her ideological distance from Sanders, Warren has saddled herself with the Vermont socialist’s vulnerabilities. To an increasing number of Democrats, she too seems extreme and difficult to elect.
Nor, despite her gender, does Warren have an advantage over Sanders when it comes to winning the support of far left Democrats. To many in this cohort, Sanders comes across as more ideologically genuine. It’s hard to out socialist a longtime socialist.
Warren hasn’t always been a hard leftist. It shouldn’t have been difficult for her to distance herself from Sanders. Yet, she chose not to. Why?
Maybe she has become a true believer. I doubt it, though, because Warren now, belatedly, is trying to tack back towards her party’s center.
My guess is that Warren simply blundered. She overestimated the leftism of actual Democratic voters, underestimated the desire of Democratic voters to defeat Trump no matter what it takes, and underestimated both Biden and Sanders.
This is not to say that Warren’s candidacy is doomed. I’m pretty sure she’s not going the way of Kamala Harris. She will remain relevant. Indeed, there may still be enough time for Warren to tack away from Sanders, and she remains the only strong female contender in a party many of whose members want to nominate a woman.
Still, I believe that Warren has blundered her way into a hole. And suddenly, not all that much time remains to dig herself out.