After driving more than 500 miles around Iowa over three days this past weekend and listening to almost 20 candidates, the two strongest impressions I received were just how fragile Joe Biden’s front-runner status is, and how Elizabeth Warren's ascendancy continues to be underestimated.
Granted, you didn’t need to drive around Iowa to get the first impression, but it still came through. Democratic voters' level of affection for the affable Biden and the goodwill he earned from being President Obama’s wingman for eight years are not to be dismissed, nor is the experience and knowledge he gathered over 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president. Biden just exudes decency at a time when many believe that commodity is in short supply.
But all of those strengths and five dollars will get him a cup of coffee at Starbucks. What made—and has kept him—the front-runner for the Democratic nomination is the perception that he’s electable in November 2020. For the sizable constituency in the Democratic Party who view nothing as more important than defeating President Trump, electability is everything. It's tough to hate or even dislike the guy. While not terribly exciting, his center-left positioning makes it hard to pigeonhole him as outside the political mainstream. Further, he relates well to working-class whites, particularly those in the industrial states who defected to Trump in 2016. If the goal is to keep the election a simple referendum on Donald Trump, Biden or someone like him would seem to be just the thing.
The question is how that aura of electability stands up if Biden continues to experience relapses of his chronic foot-in-mouth disease. A bit of that isn’t a problem—it’s almost endearing—but too much, too often, calls into question whether it might cost him a general election. That would knock the underpinnings of his candidacy out from beneath him.
A half-dozen other Democrats are grouped into the center-left position that Biden has dominated—Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, and Amy Klobuchar. All are quite capable and few swing voters would find any of them offensive, but they all have waited in vain so far to see if Biden collapses. He occupies the high ground that they badly need.
At the other end of the party, in the progressive or left lane, you find Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. My sense before heading out to Iowa was that Warren was gradually eclipsing Sanders, but I was not prepared to see just how quickly that was happening. Sure, Sanders has a strong core that will never abandon him, but those in the second and third concentric circles of intensity and enthusiasm for him are fleeing to Warren.
To listen to Warren is not to be overwhelmed by Harvard liberalism. It is much more of a pure populist message, albeit one articulated in a very intelligent fashion. On the stump Friday at a town hall in Fort Dodge, her walkup music was Dolly Parton’s anthem to working-class women “9 to 5,” which fit nicely into her personal narrative of growing up poor in Oklahoma. Warren effectively weaves her family’s personal struggle into a platform of structural changes in the economy, railing against big banks, drug companies, private-prison operators, lobbyists, and companies running all over their “customers, employees, and communities.” She vows to “attack political corruption head on,” strengthen antitrust laws and labor unions, and institute a 2 percent wealth tax on assets over $50 million to fund her ambitious programs.
The speech was more of a refined Huey Long than a rehash of Michael Dukakis. In terms of scope, with all of what Warren is proposing, it makes Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal seem modest by comparison. Someone else can decide how much of it is practical and feasible, but she delivers an effective and even compelling message that connects with her audiences in a deeply personal way. Warren’s candidacy can be summed up in one phrase: “Go big or go home.” For those Democrats who have long been frustrated by moderation and incrementalism, you will find none of that in Warren.
The question is whether this ends up being a two-person race between Biden (or a center-left stand-in for Biden) and progressive, most likely Warren. Or whether there will be a third lane, featuring a candidate such as Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, or Kamala Harris?
O’Rourke seemed to have the hot hand first, coming off his impressive Senate bid in Texas. Once he is back on the trail after the last funerals from the tragic shooting in El Paso, will that translate into renewed interest and traction? Buttigieg projects an intellect and ability to explain in layman’s terms fairly complicated issues and thoughts but doesn’t seem to have the passion that some of the others have. Part of what seems to plague Buttigieg is the question of whether a gay candidate can actually win, a sentiment shared by even many who are passionate supporters of LGBT issues. In some ways it was reminiscent of what Barack Obama faced prior to winning the Iowa caucus; that is, the skepticism over whether he could win in overwhelmingly white constituencies. Until he did it, many questioned whether it could be done. Harris has the passion but not really a compelling message or agenda, and has stumbled on health care. Booker combines moral authority, passion, and effective campaigning, but for whatever reason, he hasn’t really caught on yet.
There is no guarantee that a candidate in this middle, hybrid column makes it to the finals—indeed a candidate would have to elbow their way into a slot. But if misgivings about Biden’s gaffes and Warren’s agenda continue to grow, there would seem to be room for one of these people to make a move.