So it begins. On New Year’s Eve 2018, Elizabeth Warren rang in the official start of the 2020 presidential campaign when she posted a video previewing her launch of an exploratory committee to consider a run for the highest office in the land.
In plain speech: She’s running.
Warren’s announcement marks the first high-profile candidate from the Commonwealth since former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, and the first Democrat since John Kerry in 2004. But her candidacy is primed to be decidedly different from Mass’ establishment cozy candidates of elections past.
At a time when some liberals are pushing for a return-to-normalcy-style candidate as a foil to the erratic presidency of Donald Trump, Warren’s announcement offered an indictment of the system that made Trump possible.
“I’ve spent my career getting to the bottom of why America’s promise works for some families but others who work just as hard slip through the cracks into disaster, and what I found is terrifying,” Warren says in the video. And has reiterated ad nauseum since. “These aren’t cracks families are falling into, they’re traps. America’s middle class is under attack.”
Four years ago, progressives were begging Warren to jump into the 2016 race, which seemed destined to be dominated by centrists with deep ties to the political establishment. When she didn’t, that energy was swooped up and taken to another level by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy. Her decision not to endorse Sanders in the primary still doesn’t sit well with some on the left.
“I feel that was unfortunate and possibly even a critical error,” said Juliann Rubijono, an activist and Sanders volunteer in 2016.
Hated by the right, considered unpragmatic by the center and untrustworthy by the left, it’s possible that Warren lacks the philosophical constituency to make a successful run.
“I’m willing to bet that she won’t even win Massachusetts,” Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara tweeted.
But at a time when progressive ideas are gaining salience, and women have surged into the political spotlight, Warren might not be the worst bet in a field that will start filling up very soon. Even if she isn’t everybody’s first choice, the prospect of a President Warren—a proponent of stiff corporate regulations, an increased minimum wage, student debt forgiveness, and single-payer health care—is still intriguing on the left.
“No candidate is perfect and narratives can be spun all over the place,” Rubijono said. “At the end of the day, she fights for what I care about—anti-corruption and systemic fairness for economic opportunity.”
In 2018, I approached Warren’s reelection bid as the first leg of the 2020 presidential primary. She didn’t lose, but despite beating her opponent by 20 points, it wasn’t a great result.
Nationally, Democrats soared on election night, running well ahead of Trump’s 2016 numbers—even in seats they lost. Despite ceding some seats to the GOP, the Democrats dominated their opponents in Senate contests nationwide, picking nearly 57 percent of the total vote.
Of the 35 Senate elections in 2018, there were just three where the Republican candidate ran ahead of Trump’s 2016 numbers. One was in Mississippi, a deep conservative state that featured two races in 2018—one close, the other a GOP blowout. A second was in New Jersey, where Democrats defended the seat of Sen. Bob Menendez, a deeply corrupt politician who nearly went to jail for his crimes less than a year before the election.
But the third was Warren’s race. While Democrats in Senate races ran seven points ahead of Clinton, nationally, Warren’s numbers virtually tied the party’s presidential results from the previous cycle.
Perhaps more significantly, GOP nominee Geoff Diehl, who spent a majority of his campaign tying himself to the president, handily surpassed Trump’s 2016 numbers. So, to this point, the one finite electoral result we have for Warren showed her essentially plateaued at Clinton’s 2016 performance, and her right-wing opponents gaining ground.
The Washington Post reported that “even Warren’s supporters acknowledge that she has lost ground in the last few months, both by her own hand and because the November midterm elections redefined Democratic success with candidates who were in many cases a generation younger.”
However, while Warren’s election night results didn’t exceed any expectations, they didn’t buck the major nationwide trends: Progressive areas are getting more progressive, conservative areas are getting more conservative, suburbs are becoming more liberal, and left-leaning populist agendas aren’t damning campaigns the way centrists predicted. These are all good signs for Warren.
In traditionally progressive western Mass, Warren’s numbers surged from Clinton’s already-strong showing from 2016, while in the more conservative parts of the state, like Plymouth County and the rural parts of Worcester County, Diehl outperformed Trump. It’s a long way off, but if these trends hold through 2020 on a national level, any Democrat could emerge victorious.
And evidence from 2018 suggests that the ideas Warren espouses can win elections outside of Democratic strongholds.
Nov 6 wasn’t a great night for progressives. In competitive races, left-leaning challengers went down against their GOP opponents at a high rate, with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party claiming no meaningful wins at the national level that weren’t predetermined. (Though, at the state and local levels, the progressive movement saw greater success, particularly on ballot initiatives promoting voting rights and health care expansion.)
But there was one race that was broadly overlooked, both for the tight results and California’s slow ballot-counting process. Over a week after voters went to the polls in her Orange County district, Democrat Katie Porter was declared the winner of the state’s 45th House seat. Months earlier, the UC Irvine professor and Warren protege (she studied under Warren at Harvard) surprised pundits by pulling out a second-place finish in the district’s “jungle primary,” which earned her a spot on the ballot in November next to incumbent GOP Rep. Mimi Walters.
“Walters is all but certain to defeat the Elizabeth Warren-baked Democratic second place finisher, Katie Porter, whose policy agenda focused on single payer health care is out of step with her traditionally right-leaning district,” Douglas Schoen wrote in the Hill after the primary. He wasn’t alone. Porter’s win was widely interpreted as the case where the left pushed the party too far and it would end in failure. Five months later, Porter had secured a four-point victory.
Of course, one result isn’t a bellwether of how Warren’s presidential campaign will fair. Nevertheless, there are a lot of factors worth considering.
In Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown was reelected convincingly in a state that Trump carried by eight points in 2016. On the same day, that electorate voted against Richard Cordray, the Warren-endorsed candidate for governor who had succeeded Warren in her role as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
So 2018 was truly a mixed bag for Warren.
What does it all mean? At this point, Warren’s ideas, policies, and reputation don’t make her unelectable. Her progressive views on trade and organized labor could help her in the Rust Belt states that decided the fate of the 2016 election, and more left-leaning ideas like single-payer health care and increased wages don’t hurt in the wealthy suburbs that have steadily trended toward the Democratic Party.
But they don’t make her an exceptional candidate either. Her star power did little, if anything, to help Cordray, and her own results in Mass show a potential drift from centrism to Trumpism.
Patrick Cochran is an independent journalist covering politics and grassroots activism.