HOUSTON — It’s impossible, stupid, and likely embarrassing to predict who is going to win the Democratic presidential primary.
But it’s already become clear who has shaped it: Elizabeth Warren.
Warren, the 70-year-old Massachusetts senator, has put her agenda for structural change at the center of the 2020 campaign, helping turn the party’s center into its right and its radical left into a plausible alternative. She’s set the standard for how you run a presidential campaign and watched her rivals — including the men who typically place ahead of her in the polls — imitate her tactics. She’s the focus of public panic on Wall Street and public attacks from the Democratic Party’s old guard. And as she ticks upward in public polling, she’s also benefiting from a remarkable consensus among the Democratic Party’s professional class, according to interviews with a dozen veterans of presidential politics this week, that she is on her way to becoming the candidate to beat.
In the days before Thursday’s debate here in Texas — a moment that marked the start of a tighter, more competitive fight for the Democratic nomination — Joe Biden and his allies telegraphed a series of new talking points, all seemingly aimed at Warren. That same day, a viral clip showed a CNBC panel voice genuine panic about a Warren presidency: “You talk to executives,” said host Jim Cramer, “they’re more fearful of her winning — I mean I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘Look! Uh, she’s gotta be stopped! She’s gotta be stopped!’” A Wall Street Journal editorial followed the next morning.
Onstage in Houston, Warren commanded the most speaking time alongside Biden, putting herself at the center of policy debates on health care while staying out of the most personal arguments between candidates. Her preparation for the third round of Democratic debates on Thursday, her aides have said, did not deviate much from the first and second rounds beyond one key difference: preparing for her opponents to turn their criticism in her direction.
“I know that the senator says that she’s for Bernie, well, I’m for Barack,” Biden said in the first answer of the night, in response to a question about whether Warren and Bernie Sanders are pushing too far left.
Warren, in her response, cut off the idea that she was out to undo Obama’s legacy. “We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America and committed this country to health care for every human being,” she said. “And now the question is, how best can we improve on it?”
It was a clear signal that if Warren has not climbed to the very top of the polls, she has cemented another kind of status. She’s the center of gravity around which, in ways large and small, this primary revolves and reacts. On the trail, Bernie Sanders, a candidate with his own brusque style of retail politics, has adopted her signature “selfie line,” waiting around events to pose for photos with as many people who ask. On the day of a CNN climate town hall, Cory Booker released a detailed policy plan on the issue — only to have the story steamrolled by coverage of Warren’s own climate plan later that morning. Her long list of policy proposals — part of a larger call for “big structural change” that she says was shaped by her childhood on the edge of the working class and her career studying bankruptcy law — became the frontrunner’s main pre-debate target this week: “We need more than just plans,” Joe Biden and his team of senior aides have said again and again.
Warren’s dominant position is all the more remarkable because of how badly it all seemed to get going just eight months ago.
Then, Warren had bumbled into the campaign with a cringe-inducing discussion of her Native American heritage. She had invested heavily in staffers in Iowa and New Hampshire without any clear path to sustaining such a large operation. She hadn’t raised as much money as other candidates, and was trailing in the polls. She lost her longtime finance director, Michael Pratt, over her decision to abstain from high-dollar fundraising in the primary. Reporters began to write her political obituary.
So what happened?
Eight months later — as other candidates dropped out (Kirsten Gillibrand), rebooted (Beto O’Rourke), shifted from Phase One to Phase Three (Pete Buttigieg) — Warren forced the rest of the Democratic Party into her orbit not by changing her tactics, but by doing more of the same.
“They’re doing it the hard way,” said Christina Reynolds, a former top Clinton aide who is now a vice president at EMILY’s List, a Democratic group that backs pro-choice women. “It’s not a gimmick. It is literally just, ‘I’m gonna meet people where they are.’ For her, it’s ‘I’m gonna stand in line and shake everybody’s hand. I’m gonna roll out every policy.’”
The core of Warren’s success has been in convincing many Democratic voters that the country needs sweeping, structural change. That point of view made her, just four years ago, an irritant to Barack Obama and his aides. Now it puts her in the center of the Democratic stage. It forced the nominal frontrunner, Joe Biden, to direct his first words in Thursday night’s debate to criticizing Warren.
“My distinguished friend, the senator on my left, has not indicated how she pays for it,” he said of her health care plan.
Biden may be right: Democratic primary voters may not buy Warren’s argument that Medicare for All will keep Americans’ access to doctors they like. If she, or Sanders, is the nominee, Trump will certainly test whether Americans buy it. Warren, whose campaign has released detailed policy plans on everything from public lands and the opioid crisis to Social Security, has yet to release her own health care plan beyond the Sanders bill she already cosponsored in 2017.
But there’s little question that Warren, if she’s not at the top of the polls, is at the top of Joe Biden’s mind.
At a briefing on Thursday in Houston, Biden’s top advisers laid out his strengths and defend his weaknesses. (“The biggest mistake we could make as a campaign would be to not let Joe Biden be Joe Biden. People love that he speaks candidly. They know that sometimes he’s gonna misstate a date or a name or a location.”) But many of their points in the hourlong session were aimed at the woman not in the room and her plans: The “big fault line” in the primary, they said, “is between those who are defending and building on the Obama record, and those who are attacking it.”
Did the team have any idea that one of his top supporters, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, would write an op-ed Thursday morning calling Warren a “hypocrite”?
“There was no coordination with the campaign,” they said.
Warren has also, to the surprise of the political class, set the standard for how you run a political campaign in 2019. She’s won the grudging respect of a group composed, largely, of people who have sparred with Warren as aides to her uneasy allies, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But the people at the heart of two decades of Democratic presidential campaigns expressed, in interviews this week, a remarkable consensus on Warren’s strength.
“She has run the smartest campaign, both tactically and strategically, and slowly, methodically projected herself into the top tier of candidates,” David Axelrod, Obama’s former top political adviser, said in an email.
“From a strategic perspective, she’s run the best campaign this year,” said John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair in 2016.
“Warren has run the best campaign of anyone in the field to date,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s White House communications director.
“If I could be any candidate right now, I would want to be her,” said former Clinton communications adviser Brian Fallon.
“If anything, Warren may risk peaking too early — which is a high-class problem,” said the former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala.
All say they’re struck by the steady rise of Warren’s campaign, the total lack of gimmickry that seems to fit an age that values the appearance of authenticity above all.
“The most notable thing about her campaign is that she seems totally unafraid to lose,” said Pfeiffer.