Arnon Mishkin: Don’t count Elizabeth Warren out

With 24 announced candidates and the first vote in the Democratic nomination contest over seven months away, folks are nevertheless trying to draw conclusions and speculate on the outcome. This, even though the only certainty about the future remains uncertainty. Keep this in mind as folks (yes, even myself) laugh about the also-rans flailing around with minimal support in public polls.

For example, Elizabeth Warren.

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Poor Elizabeth Warren. With a national following based on her solid progressive positions, she seriously considered running in 2016, and was widely considered a front-runner this time around – but no one has had more challenges getting their campaign off the ground than the junior Senator from Massachusetts.

Just before her announcement – possibly in a bid to show she could stand up to President Donald Trump’s taunts and insults about her family mythology of Native American heritage – she took, and released, a DNA test that proved two things: that she does not have significant Native American heritage; and that her ability to compete at a presidential campaign level might be in question. How many stories did we read asking “who [what imbecile strategist] told her to take that stupid test?”

Then she entered the race. And soon after, the inside-baseball, smart-money stories started to appear suggesting she was having trouble raising sufficient funds to mount a national campaign. At the same time, other candidates showed dramatic “Day 1” fundraising hauls, even as the media started to speculate skeptically on their chances. Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, for instance, received over $6 million, while Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders raised close to $20 million in his first 40 days. Warren, meanwhile, had to transfer money from her Senate Campaign Account, and endured stories about her finance director resigning in a dispute over financial strategy.

Not a solid start.

But rather than wilt in the face of the negative publicity, Warren doubled down on her core “brand” – a long time law professor (read: Wonk) with a clear progressive streak (good fit for Democratic activists), and an earnestness that both comes across in her appearances and proves spoof-worthy for none other than Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon.

Warren continued to issue policy papers on everything from allowing employees to vote for corporate directors, to taxes on wealth, to opposition to Trump’s USMCA replacement for NAFTA, to student loans, to criminal justice reform. Her expression “I’ve got a plan for that, too” both summarizes her core brand appeal, and underscores a set of core efforts that translates into the kinds of policies that appeal to progressives in the Democratic party.

It has apparently yielded dividends. Thought to be flailing just a few weeks ago, she is now running third in the polling, behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders, with some polls suggesting she’s either tied or slightly ahead of Sanders.

And, as happens when folks stick with a campaign, she’s even got an apparently lucky break.

In the complicated DNC drawing for debate post positions, she got placed in the debate where she is the clear polling leader. While Biden, Sanders, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and California Senator Kamala Harris, will face off against each other on the second debate night, Warren will likely be the center of attention on Debate Night One, as she is the only truly top-tier candidate on that night. The line-up gives her another chance to highlight her progressive positions in a debate where the nearest (in the polling) competitors will be New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobucher, and O’Rourke.

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The Debate set-up is ideal for Warren. Her strategic need – right now – is merely to get people to decide that 'She's solid" and put her on their list of 'acceptable.' She has no strategic interest this early in getting folks to “compare” her to Biden, Harris, or others. In fact, it might hurt her at this stage, given questions some people have about Warren’s “electability.” Forcing a choice can come later in the Democratic marathon, after she gets people comfortable with her.

Looks like “Poor Elizabeth Warran” is turning into “Lucky Liz.

It’s a given that political fortunes change. And it’s a lesson that we in the media should not underestimate – the chance that one of the candidates currently polling around 1 percent may still figure out a way to break through in the clutter that is the Democratic campaign.

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