A few months ago, when Elizabeth Warren was challenging Joe Biden at the top of national polls, leading in Iowa and sometimes New Hampshire, and the darling of betting markets, the question was how long Bernie Sanders would stick around as a spoiler. It didn’t look like he could win, but he’d have money to continue as long as he chose, and in 2016 he waited for the delegate count to make nomination impossible before conceding.
Looks like rumors of Bernie’s demise were greatly exaggerated. In retrospect, the turning point was his post-heart attack debate performance, followed by a crucial endorsement from AOC. Meanwhile, Warren was beginning to struggle with her wobbling position on Medicare for All. At this point, they’ve effectively traded places. We shouldn’t count Warren out, but Sanders is in a much better position.
When momentum switched, it was months before anyone would vote. Sanders had time to catch and surpass Warren. She attempted to create a moment in the last debate, leaking a story ahead of time about Sanders telling her a woman couldn’t beat Trump, and then seizing on the topic during the debate to mention the superior electoral record of the female candidates on stage. Then there was the post-debate contretemps, when the two previously friendly progressive icons snarled at each other in lieu of shaking hands.
We’ve got enough data now to say neither the debate, nor the immediate aftermath changed the relative standing of Sanders and Warren. And Iowa votes in one week.
While she remains in range, trailing by 4 in poll averages, and retaining a 16 percent chance of winning the caucus, those aren’t great odds. FiveThirtyEight is showing six polls taken in January. Though Warren isn’t always in fourth place, she is the only one of the top four not to have reached 20% in any of the surveys.
Perhaps worst, when some of the pollsters ask voters who they would chose among the top four (simulating a likely situation at a caucus precinct where Klobuchar, Yang, Steyer, et al wouldn’t have reached the 15% viability threshold), Warren is helped less than her opponents. She is running fourth in each of these scenarios.
Should Warren beat the odds and win, she’s immediately catapulted back to serious contention for the nomination. FiveThirtyEight recently estimated she has at least a 50% chance of gaining a delegate majority with a win, regardless of the order behind her. More favorable combinations push this higher, and there’s also a greater chance she wins a plurality.
She’s more likely to lose though. In a state where she led. Where the demographics are ideal for her. Where her very well respected organization and ground game is more useful than most anywhere else. If she finishes fourth, her nomination odds drop to below 5%. And that finish is statistically the most likely right now (though if you have a choice between picking her to finish fourth or all other results, choose the rest.)
If Warren withdrew after finishing fourth in Iowa, it would be way more surprising than the finish itself. That won’t happen. But she’s running fourth in New Hampshire too. There are a few possibilities here (assuming a previous Iowa loss):
After finishing a strong second or third in Iowa, Warren suddenly catches fire in New Hampshire and wins
Warren finishes a strong second or third in New Hampshire
New Hampshire marks Warren’s second straight fourth place finish
Warren shockingly finishes fifth or sixth as Klobuchar and/or Yang outperform expectations
If she wins New Hampshire, back to being a contender again. This is how the upper-single digit chances of her winning the nomination after finishing second or third in Iowa turn out for her. But this isn’t the most likely scenario. Neither is a fifth or sixth place finish, which would effectively end her candidacy. It wouldn’t matter if she dropped out yet or not, as only her most dedicated supporters would remain at this point.
The middle two outcomes are the more probable. Should she finish a strong second or third, Warren could claim momentum, and there would be no reason for her to consider exiting. That double fourth place finish is a problem though. This would mean she’d trailed Sanders in both of the first two contests. If you believe they have some overlapping voters (and they must have at least some), if she winds up fourth twice, he probably won twice. Let’s say that’s so.
Sanders has led Warren in most Nevada surveys. That’s before he’d have the momentum of winning (or at least finishing very strongly) in the first two states. He’s also leading her in South Carolina, though unlike Nevada, doesn’t look like a threat to win. In the few polls taken in 2020, Tom Steyer is actually running even with or ahead of Warren in both states.
It’s hard to create a reasonable scenario where Warren does better overall or compared to Sanders in Nevada/South Carolina than she did in Iowa/New Hampshire. So I think a 4th/4th in the first two states is lethal. Leading to being lucky to wind up in double digits in the next two states, and forcing an exit either right after Super Tuesday, or by the end of March, without having accumulated that many delegates.
By this point, the voters who are pretty good with either Warren or Sanders would have long since migrated to Bernie. Perhaps her extended presence might have cost him a state or two, but the delegate count wouldn’t be extremely different. You can even argue that Warren sticking around a little longer would keep the Democratic establishment from completely losing their mind about a Sanders nomination for an extra minute or three.
This only really gets interesting if Warren doesn’t win in Iowa or New Hampshire, but manages to place or show in both. Not winning, but still being somewhat viable. Think of Marco Rubio in 2016. Ted Cruz would tell you that Rubio’s insistence on sticking around prevented him from consolidating the anti-Trump vote (remember, there was such a thing in the GOP during the winter of 2016), and cost him the nomination.
You can see a parallel between that and Biden being able to win a lot of states because Warren pulled just enough voters from Sanders to make this possible. Cruz was willing to make Rubio his running mate to get him to drop out a little sooner. Marco wasn’t willing to play. Could the same scenario develop with Sanders and Warren? I don’t see why Bernie would object to running with her. Their views are closer than almost any of his other alternatives. AOC isn’t age eligible, if he were so tempted.
Part of Rubio’s reluctance was seeing Cruz as a direct peer, and not wanting to ride in the sidecar. It’s very easy to see Warren thinking similarly. Particularly if she believes it’s her duty to keep a female contender in the race as long as possible. Most Republican primaries after the first several contests are winner-take-all. Rubio wasn’t going to be able to accumulate enough delegates to make a difference had he continued forward.
Democrats only need to win 15% in a congressional district to start earning. I can see it being very tempting for Warren to persist in the race to the end, winning enough delegates to prevent anyone else from getting a majority, and then being able to gain platform concessions and/or the number two spot in return for her delegates. Though she’s more philosophically in line with Sanders, we don’t actually know whether she thinks he’d make a better general election candidate or president than Biden.
There’s one further obstacle on Warren’s road to being the big convention power broker. The same one that may have made Rubio regret passing on Ted’s offer of a big campaign adventure. Home State Blues. In the 2016 Florida GOP primary, Trump kicked Little Marco’s ass from Palm Beach to Panama City, more than doubling his vote.
Warren’s Massachusetts votes on March 3. And poll numbers haven’t been kind. She did lead Biden 33%/18% in a WBUR/MassINC survey taken in early October. However. That’s the only one she’s led in, and it was taken while she was near her peak. There are some candidates like Sanders and Biden who are safe in their home states no matter what. There are others like Rubio and Warren (and Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, etc.) who run a little ahead of their national numbers at home, but only really spike when they look like a winner.
If Warren strikes out in the early states, it’s a push for her to win at home. And if she doesn’t win at home, she’s not truly viable, even as a spoiler/delegate accumulator. My guess is she needs to be very competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire to make a real impact on the race. Perhaps not a win in either, but damn close to it. Probably twice.
Then, and only then, is Warren in a position where she’s neither the most likely nominee, nor doomed to irrelevance. And where it’s up to her for how long, and in what way, to persist.