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Can Warren Beat Trump?

AWalter Head
October 23, 2019

Chat with almost any political professional in and around Washington, and you find something of a consensus building on the following:

  1. Elizabeth Warren is going to be the nominee.
  2. She's going to have a hard time beating Trump.

Last week, I spent time looking at the first point. Today, I want to walk through the second.

The easiest case to make against Warren is that she's too liberal, too coastal, and too polarizing to win the former "Blue Wall" midwestern states needed to capture the Electoral College. Moreover, Democrats' biggest political successes since 2016 have come in suburban America, where former GOP voters, so turned off by Trump's personality and policies, have been voting for Democrats. Successful suburban Democrats, however, spent 2018 de-emphasizing the kinds of 'big, structural change' that Warren espouses, like Medicare for All, elimination of student debt/free college and the break up of big banks and big tech. The fact that she has a "plan" to pay for all of her programs by simply asking super-rich people to pay more in taxes (her so-called Ultra-Millionaires Tax) and proudly calls herself a capitalist, isn't going to stop Republicans from labeling her as a 'socialist'. And, that socialist label will have staying power, especially when she is advocating for the complete elimination of private health insurance. Furthermore, it seems that almost everyone in this town has a story about someone they know who is anti-Trump, but just can't stomach the idea of voting for Warren.

Even so, the antipathy for Trump in and around suburban America is as strong as ever. It's also likely that many of those who say they hate Trump, but can't vote for Warren are getting more attention than is warranted. These voters are the most politically engaged at this point, and as such, are getting into the Twitter feeds, conversations, and cocktail party chatter of those of us who cover politics. The race is going to be won or lost among those voters who are less informed and less invested in following the day-to-day strategic conversations about the 2020 campaign. It's easy to see how Trump and GOP demonize Warren, but it's way too soon to know how all swing voters are going to react to these attacks.

It is also unfair to assume that she will wilt under Trump's attacks. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Warren has a clear and consistent message and a compelling narrative. She is disciplined and tough to knock off kilter or off message. She doesn't act/sound like a poll-tested politician. There's also no one better to be able to make the anti-corruption message than a woman who has literally spent her entire career studying and advocating for geting the corrupting influence out of money in politics. Of course, her decision to identify as "Native American" on her employment forms earlier in her career can be used to undercut her authenticity narrative. What we don't know, however, is if the "Pocohantas" baiting done by President Trump is already baked into the cake. In other words, despite Warren's messy attempt at clearing up the controversy with a widely-criticized DNA test, she has gotten the issue in her rear mirror. Voters either think it's a strike against her or not. There's not much more that Trump can say to change that.

There's also a theory that while she may not appeal to the Never-Trump suburban-voters, she can expand the Democratic coalition to include those Hillary Clinton didn't: voters of color and younger voters. But, at this point, Warren hasn't been able to make inroads with younger or voters of color in the Democratic primary. Sanders is still running strongest among the 18-34-year-old set, while Biden retains a solid hold among African-American voters. This isn't to say that as the primary goes forward, she can't pick up these voters. But, she doesn't have a natural or organic affinity with these voters today. Also, the results of 2017-2018 debunked the theory that only the most progressive or disruptive candidates can inspire turnout among younger or voters of color. In 2018, turnout among all groups surged, regardless of the type of Democrat on the ballot. The single best turnout operation for Democrats is the presence of Donald Trump in the White House.

What about winning over those midwestern Obama-Trump voters with her anti-corruption, populist economic message? After all, many of those voters said they were drawn to Trump because of his similar promises on these issues. In theory, that makes a lot of sense if you believe that Trump's success with these voters was all about economic anxiety and not cultural/social anxiety. At least three political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck and Michael Tesler, argue that race, not economic populism, was the main driver in the 2016 election. In their analysis of that election, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, they write: "attitudes concerning race, ethnicity, and religion were more strongly related to how Americans voted in 2016 than in recent elections. By contrast, the apparent impact of economic anxiety was much smaller and not particularly distinctive compared to earlier elections. This activation of racial attitudes helped Trump more than Clinton."

And, in 2020, it will help Trump again. Warren will want to go toe-to-toe with Trump on economic inequality and corporate corruption. Trump wants the fight to be about 'open borders' and 'socialism' and 'gun grabbing.' Remember how effectively Trump lambasted Hillary Clinton for saying she wanted to put "a lot of coal mines and coal miners" out of business? Just imagine how Warren's call to "ban all fracking" is going to play in western Pennsylvania.

The other big question mark hanging over all of this analysis is for where Trump sits in November 2020. The closer he is to the low-end of his approval rating trading range (35-40 percent), the easier it is to make the case that almost any Democrat can win. The closer he is to the higher end (43-46 percent), the stronger the case for Trump. Warren becomes more of a risk the less-risky he looks. At this point, however, from his rage tweets over impeachment, to his disjointed policy on Syria, to his ill-advised decision to try and host an international conference at his own hotel, President Trump is doing everything possible to look like the more dangerous pick.

Image Credit: Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP