Elizabeth Warren had no sooner announced this week that she had formed a presidential exploratory committee, the first step toward launching her candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination, than some pundits began wondering whether she reminds voters too much of Hillary Clinton to win.
That might seem ridiculous, considering that each woman has represented opposite wings of her party in recent years. Ms. Warren, the Massachusetts senator, is a no-holds-barred progressive whose strident critique of capitalism and free trade puts her on the far-left of the U.S. political spectrum. Ms. Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, lost the last election in part because she was seen as too much of an establishment apologist for globalization and too hawkish on foreign policy.
Yet, beyond their policy differences, Ms. Warren, 69, and Ms. Clinton, 71, do share certain characteristics that lead many voters to consider them alike. They suffer from perceptions, sexist to be sure, that they are cold and aloof women who have developed a likeability deficit.
In November, Ms. Warren won a second Senate term by beating her Republican opponent by 24 percentage points. Yet her margin of victory was considered underwhelming given her state’s strong Democratic orientation and an overall swing to Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. Given those factors, Ms. Warren should have won by 39 points, a FiveThirtyEight analysis concluded. But the former Harvard law professor strikes a divisive pose even on her home turf.
In aiming to get voters to warm up to her, Ms. Warren conducted a Q&A on Instagram from her Boston kitchen on Dec. 31, during which she declared: “Hold on a second – I’m gonna get me a beer.” Her attempt at relatability came off as cringeworthy and contrived. After her release of DNA test results confirming her native-American ancestry, which sparked criticism she had taken President Donald Trump’s bait, the beer incident raised more questions about her political judgment.
As unfair as it seemed, Ms. Clinton discovered that she could not compete in the likeability sweepstakes against Barack Obama (who beat her in the 2008 Democratic race) or Bernie Sanders, whom she bested in the 2016 primaries even though he captured the hearts of Democratic activists.
Ms. Warren will have to accept that she cannot beat Mr. Sanders, former vice-president Joe Biden or Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke – all of whom have acknowledged they are considering running for the nomination – if the question comes down to with whom voters would most like to share a beer. She must instead persuade Democrats that she is the best candidate to win back working-class Americans who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016.
Indeed, it is not enough for Ms. Warren to rely on her appeal among progressive Democrats, especially if Mr. Sanders decides to run again. A devastating New York Times piece this week on the alleged climate of sexism that prevailed inside the 2016 Sanders campaign was a gift to Ms. Warren as she attempts to establish an early advantage over the Vermont senator.
Still, Ms. Warren needs to give Democrats a reason to get excited about her candidacy all on its own. She and Mr. Sanders are on the same page on many issues. Both favour a single-payer U.S. health-care system that would eliminate private insurance, and major campaign-finance reform.
Both Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders also suffer from weak appeal among African-American voters, a critical constituency that any Democratic nominee needs to mobilize to beat Mr. Trump. And with two African-American senators – Kamala Harris of California and Corey Booker of New Jersey – expected to run for the nomination, Ms. Warren may struggle to get traction among minority Democrats.
Despite her disadvantages, Ms. Warren should not be underestimated. If Democrats decide they need a candidate who can take on Mr. Trump in industrial states without turning off female voters as he does, she may just be their woman.
Like Mr. Trump, Ms. Warren is critical of trade deals that she says have “lifted the boats of the wealthy while leaving millions of working Americans to drown.” But unlike Mr. Trump, who has slashed regulations and cut taxes for the wealthy, Ms. Warren is no friend of big business. She would break up the big banks and corporations and raise taxes on the rich.
The central conceit of her campaign – that 21st-century capitalism is rigged against the working class – provides her with a message tailor-made for Rust Belt states that voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. And Democrats likely can’t win in 2020 without taking back states such as Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Could Elizabeth Warren be the economic populist to win them back?