Elizabeth Warren Positions Herself as the Front-Runner

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If anyone held the belief that the fight for the 2020 presidential nomination isn’t fully engaged, Senator Elizabeth Warren just proved them wrong. 

On Monday, the Massachusetts Democrat used a campaign-style video to disclose a DNA test proving a very distant Native American ancestry. On the surface, Warren was fighting back against accusations that she improperly claimed that ethnic background. But this wasn’t principally a rebuttal of slurs that President Donald Trump and other Republicans are sure to keep making. What’s really going on is invisible-primary positioning, even though she made no mention of the 2020 race. Warren’s video does three things:

  • By setting up Trump as her main foil, Warren elevates herself to presidential stature. Of course, the president gave her the opening by using ethnic slurs against her. But others have leveled accusations, too; by focusing on Trump, the senator and her campaign team set her up as someone special, rather than just one in the crowd of semi-anonymous lawmakers, governors and mayors all maneuvering for the nomination.
  • Confronting Trump allows Warren to try to appeal to Democrats who are looking for a fighter to take on the president in 2020. Indeed, Warren’s skill at portraying herself as a tough combatant (but mostly with good humor, and without bitterness) is probably her strong suit in nomination politics. That was a quality many Democrats liked about Hillary Clinton during the last cycle. 
  • The video itself, despite it’s focus on ethnicity, is in the style of a convention biographic introduction film -- the kind that is played just before the nominee’s acceptance speech at the convention. Senators, even those seeking re-election (which Warren is doing at the moment), don’t do extended biographies that go back to their roots and feature interviews of their family members. Especially when, as in the case of Warren, those roots are in another state. (She was born in Oklahoma.) 

In any case,  the audience isn’t voters at this early stage. The video is intended for party actors -- the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, and party-aligned interest groups and the partisan press who pay close attention to politics and have the most say in nominations. 

For now, Warren’s goal has to be to convince as many party actors as possible that she is the legitimate front-runner, even though she’s still mostly unknown to most voters and therefore is just one of the pack in way-too-early polls. The more she can achieve any kind of prominence, the less party actors will encourage marginal candidates to stay in. Candidates during this phase are making the rounds of those active Democrats, hoping to win endorsements or at least signs of interest. If they mostly encounter people already committed to another aspirant, they may choose against moving on to a full-fledged declaration of candidacy. And each one who drops out is one more who can’t suddenly catch fire and suddenly move from obscure also-ran to serious contender.

It’s just a bonus if she successfully taunts Trump into responding, which would only enhance her credibility with Democrats. 

Although it certainly created a stir on Twitter, the DNA video is only the latest in a series of solid moves Warren has been making. The Washington Post’s Matt Viser reported on the advanced state of the Democrat’s campaign. She has staffers in all four of the early states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. And she has forged ties with 2018 candidates around the nation:

“I speak a lot to candidates who are running this year,” said David Axelrod, a top political adviser to former president Barack Obama. “She’s the first call they get after a primary. It’s not just the winners she’s calling, she’s calling the losers, too. … The scale is pretty impressive.”

“This is how you go about building relationships and acquiring chits for a future project. It’s very smart,” he added. “If you were advising someone who had the resources of someone who was going to run for president, this is what you would do.”

Warren isn’t alone; Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are making similar, but reportedly not as systematic or extensive, efforts. And several 2020 candidates have raised money or made appearances on behalf of contenders for the 2018 midterms. But Warren seems to have the most comprehensive effort so far. 

She has also done a good job of rolling out policy ideas, a step that allows would-be candidates to make specific appeals to various party groups while demonstrating that he or she is sufficiently serious to deserve support. 

Most of these efforts target party actors, but there’s also a secondary audience: The 20 or 25 other plausible nominees. On top of what they are hearing when they talk to insiders, the idea is that some will see how much Warren and a few of the others have done so far and conclude that it’s already too late to catch up. 

That doesn’t mean she’ll necessarily win, of course. Warren has weaknesses, and several other contenders bring their own strengths to the race. Her DNA video did get some pushback based on the notion that it was a distraction from the final weeks of the 2018 campaign. There’s obviously a long way to go, and we can expect plenty of surges and fades over the next 15 months in what will almost certainly remain an open competition at least until the Iowa caucuses. But while there’s no strong leader yet, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Warren is more likely to win the nomination than any other contender at this point. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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