Warren Manifests an Opportunity

Pete Buttigieg finished ahead of Elizabeth Warren in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. He has more than three times as many delegates. He’s gone. Amy Klobuchar got double the support Warren did in New Hampshire, a state bordering Massachusetts, not Minnesota. Klobuchar was favored to win her home state tomorrow, Warren is not. Amy is done. Tom Steyer has a bottomless bank account, finished ahead of Warren in South Carolina, and has outperformed her among voters of color. He quit before South Carolina finished counting.

While it was time for Steyer to turn back in to a pumpkin, and Mayor Pete and Klobuchar both made smart strategic decisions, it’s telling that they’re all gone while Warren persists. I’ll admit, as recently as Saturday afternoon, I didn’t see a path for her. She’s not likely to win a single state. She was at extreme risk of being embarrassed at home (still possible.) Despite any and all evidence or results, Warren continued insisting she would both stay in the race and be a potential consensus nominee. Even if she loses Massachusetts.

Candidates say all sorts of things. Usually they’re bluffing. Klobuchar was “focused on Super Tuesday.” Buttigieg was going to “shock the world” with all of his Super Tuesday delegates. They’re both endorsing Joe Biden in Dallas tonight. When they run out of money and/or they run out of real hope, they exit. Each 2020 ex-candidate, except for future third party participant Tulsi Gabbard, has done this. None have continued once it was clear they couldn’t make a positive impact toward their goals.

What a difference a couple days and a couple departures can make. There’s a more than decent chance Elizabeth Warren is the most important person in the Democratic nomination contest.

I think this is where you ask how.

According to our friends at FiveThirtyEight, there’s a 2 in 3 chance no candidate gets a delegate majority before the convention. Biden and Bernie Sanders each have a 1 in 6 shot at getting a majority. There’s almost a 1 in 3 chance for each getting a plurality, but not a majority. If you’re wondering about Mike Bloomberg, don’t. At least not yet. He’s got a 1 in 1000 chance of a delegate majority, and a very slim chance at a plurality.

This is a two person race, where the most likely outcome is neither avoids a mess. It’s also more likely there’s a narrow separation between the two than a significant one. I’d assumed if Bernie got at least 42-44% of the delegates, it would be damn near impossible for the party to stop him. But if he and Biden are both in the low-mid 40s, it’s a whole different story. Neither would want to step aside. Understandably so. Each would have some sort of bulletproof argument. One would say they had more popular votes. The other would say they won more states, or more diverse states, or more swing states.

The establishment would clearly prefer Biden. But also fear the Bernie Bros staying home in November. About 12% of 2016 Sanders primary voters decided not to vote for Hillary Clinton. So if a second ballot super delegate would rather dive into a swimming pool filled with double-edged razor blades than watch Donald Trump win again because Bernie voters stayed home, or moderate suburbanites held their nose and chose Trump as the lesser of two extreme evils, what to do?

Warren says pick her. Her favorability ratings among Democratic voters are very similar to the two favorites. After they spend the next few months slamming each other, she could be more popular. In September, her combined first and second place support exceeded either of them. At the moment, her poll numbers against Trump are a little worse than Biden/Bernie, but again, let’s see what three months of carnage does.

Bloomberg is a tough sell as a compromise candidate. His favorability ratings are abysmal compared to the other three. If you’re not picking Warren because she’s a proven primary loser, than unless preferences change very quickly, Bloomberg would be a problem too. He’s likely an even harder sell to Berners than Biden. It’s very dangerous to choose a candidate who didn’t even run. They’d enter the race cold, without proper vetting. Hillary 3.0 is not an option. Biden would go over more easily to Team Sanders. Candidates who didn’t even make it to Iowa are out.

If Biden and Sanders are both still in decent health, I don’t see how Warren actually vaults over the two people who actually won most/all of the primaries and caucuses. But she has another play, and it’s a very strong one.

On Saturday, Warren was going to struggle to pick up Super Tuesday delegates. She was sitting on the wrong side of the 15% line in most states, even most congressional districts (the majority of delegates are assigned by district.) But she had a lot of overlap with both Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Their voters who are strongly anti-Bernie will mostly flock to Biden. This is going to help Biden immensely. They won’t all go there. Even with the endorsements.

Some voters are determined to vote for a woman. Klobuchar was another option. Especially for relative moderates. They both did very well with older, educated, white voters. Buttigieg was strong with somewhat liberal white voters of every age and income. Even if Warren only picks up 2 to 3% in the average state, it would more than double her Super Tuesday delegate haul. It may well be enough for her to win Massachusetts.

If we’re comparing the 2020 Democrats to the 2016 Republicans (and I think we should), Bernie is Trump, Biden is Ted Cruz, Bloomberg is Marco Rubio, and Warren is John Kasich. On Super Tuesday, Cruz and Rubio were pretty evenly matched (slight advantage Cruz.) Trump benefitted. Tomorrow, it looks like Biden will run ahead of Bloomberg by enough to win more states than Cruz did.

I’m not sure if Bloomberg will drop out after tomorrow, or wait until Florida votes on 3/17 and exit exactly when Rubio did. Assuming Warren is staying the course (and she will), that leaves us a field of three candidates. Kasich only won his home state of Ohio, and finished third most of the time. But he almost always cleared 15% once the field was reduced.

The key difference is delegate allocation. Republicans have a number of winner-take-all contests as the primary season progresses. Trump would not have earned a pre-convention delegate majority under the Democrats’ rules. And if Cruz had run a little further ahead of Rubio under these rules, the gap between him and Trump would have been narrow. And Kasich would have found himself in the exact position Warren is aiming for.

We can’t know whether Warren would prefer a Nominee Sanders or a Nominee Biden. Ideologically she’s closer to Bernie, but you can see her feeling crowded out in a Sanders administration. Does Bernie seem like a great delegator to you? It’s not a stretch at all for me to imagine Warren being more interested in what kind of deal she can cut than who it’s negotiated with. Both front-runners are too old to serve until January 2029. Their running mate is the de facto 2024 favorite the minute they get selected.

Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s team talked to ex-President Ford about joining the ticket in the number two spot. Ford had a lot of demands, like controlling domestic policy. He wanted to serve as a co-president of sorts. Reagan’s people told him to pound sand, George H.W. Bush got picked, and history wound up very differently. Reagan was able to say no thanks because he’d already clinched the nomination and Ford held zero delegates.

But let’s assume Warren holds just enough delegates to put either Biden or Bernie over the top. The party would be happy to have her join either ticket. And she’d serve as a huge concession to the left if Biden were to win. That’s negotiating power in excess of what any third place finisher in my memory has had. She’d be the most powerful Veep in American history (no, Dick Cheney didn’t really run everything.)

Perhaps this scenario doesn’t happen. Though her continuing would make it very, very hard for the others to get a delegate majority. Worst case, in continuing for a bit longer, she builds more of a foundation for 2024. Klobuchar and Buttigieg legitimately fear a Sanders nomination. So does Bloomberg. By being ok with Bernie winning, and perhaps more ok with him losing than people think, Warren possesses leverage none of the other serious candidates have.

And she’s gonna use it. Mitch McConnell was correct about her. Once again, nevertheless, she persisted. Much to her everlasting benefit.

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