Warren v. Sanders: Is it Even a Contest?

Elizabeth Warren has consigned Bernie Sanders to the dustbin. A recent national Fox News poll has her leading him 21% to 10%. To show you how much she’s surged and he’s collapsed, in March, Fox had him ahead of her 23% to 4%.

While national surveys get more attention, the race begins in Iowa. The results of the first caucus drive the narrative going forward. The most recent survey from Monmouth has Warren at 19%, Sanders at 9%.

This is a reversal from the April results which showed Sanders at 16% and Warren at 7%. Overall, the Iowa Democratic electorate far prefers Warren. Her Favorable/Unfavorable number is +62. This is the highest of any candidate. He’s at +25, lower than Amy Klobuchar, and needing a periscope to get near Harris, Biden, or Buttigieg.

In 2016, Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona was one of the few Democrats in D.C. to endorse Sanders over Hillary Clinton. On July 30, he endorsed Warren for 2020.

As of this morning, the betting site PredictIt has Warren at 31 cents on the dollar, Sanders 13. She’s the current favorite, leading Biden at 27. Bernie is just behind Kamala Harris and a little ahead of Andrew Yang (he’s popular on these sites) and Pete Buttigieg.

In the first quarter, Bernie raised way more money. In the second quarter, they were effectively equal. Unlike Biden and Buttigieg who have continued to do traditional fundraisers with wealthy donors and bundlers, Warren reached parity through small individual contributions.

Sanders had a veritable army in 2016, but they weren’t always efficient on the ground. This year, his official staff has unionized. Already, he’s facing negative press due to some of his own workers falling short of the hallowed $15 per hour level.

While Bernie deals with the dual realities of being known for supporting higher hourly wages and the intense grind of a presidential campaign, Warren has built the largest paid ground team of any candidate. Reportedly, there’s quality, not just quantity.

Others, like Mayor Pete, waited to have a large war chest before staffing up. Warren struck early and often. At the time, this was seen as potential suicide. Her early funding wasn’t going to support that type of spending. Not a problem now. In every presidential cycle, there’s a campaign that has a better read on the unique particulars of that contest than their opponent. Both dangers and opportunities.

It sure seems like that’s Team Warren this time. That will also matter if the race goes all the way to the convention. Every four years, pundits get all excited about the chance of a contested convention. So do I. One of these years it’s going to happen again.

The conditions are ideal. A lot of candidates. Several who may not have to drop out very quickly. Rules that distribute delegates in most primary or caucus states to every candidate who hits at least 15% support. A new rule that bans Democratic superdelegates from voting until a second convention ballot.

In such a situation, Warren has the advantage of being exciting to party activists, while being more acceptable to the party establishment than Sanders.

She’s the stronger debater, while he’s a very known entity. It’s not likely Bernie is going to magically change opinions with an unexpectedly great performance. The mainstream media, for whatever that’s presently worth, is treating her well, and is bored of him.

Warren isn’t young. She’s over 70. But she’s about the age Trump was when he got elected in 2016, and barely older than Ronald Reagan in 1980. Sanders is ancient. He was born three months before Pearl Harbor.

Game. Set. Match. Right?

Not so fast. Bernie made it through a full nomination campaign last time. Warren looks strong, but hasn’t faced the scrutiny of a front runner yet. Biden is still taking most of the arrows.

He’s leading her in New Hampshire. Polling in Nevada is always difficult. They’re close in South Carolina, with Sanders having the polling average advantage. Warren still hasn’t had a favorable survey in her home state of Massachusetts. An embarrassment there on Super Tuesday, could set her campaign back significantly.

There’s more. A lot more. Which we’re going to start looking at in depth over the next couple of weeks. It’s time for a real look at the strengths and weaknesses of the leading campaigns. We know who they are. Now we can think about odds, scenarios, and strategies.

First, we’ll start reviewing where Biden is and what historical precedents he has. It’s still his race to lose. The reason bettors are taking the field is because there’s no indication he can run the type of locked down, wire-to-wire campaign that would end the suspense.

Then we’ll dive way too deep into the relative merits of Warren and Sanders. It’s not a completely binary choice. Warren has significant overlap with Harris, while Sanders and Biden have more voters balancing them than you might think.

But a race that has both Warren and Sanders going all the way to the convention is very different than one where either is eliminated or marginalized fairly early in the process.

Once the Big Three are suitably overanalyzed, we’ll see how Harris or Buttigieg could get the nomination. If conditions (i.e. polling, fundraising, etc.) suggest we should look at them, other prospects can go under the microscope.

Until these pieces start showing up, remember this:

Warren has done very, very, very well in 2019, and exceeded expectations. Bernie is a very boring story now. That doesn’t mean she’s going to outlast him. The gap between them is smaller than it looks.

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