The Memo: Warren emerges as Biden's most dangerous rival

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenIn Washington, the road almost never taken Senate poised to battle over Biden's pick of big bank critic Treasury says more rental aid is reaching tenants, preventing evictions MORE is now the most serious rival to former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE for the Democratic nomination in 2020.

Several recent polls, both nationwide and in Iowa, have shown the Massachusetts senator in second place to Biden. Her performances at televised debates have won widespread praise. And her fundraising has been robust. She raised $19 million in the second quarter.

But if Warren is the one major candidate who is unquestionably on an upward trajectory, there are still significant questions about how she gets past Biden, who continues to lead by a sizable margin in most polls.


The former vice president is particularly popular with black voters, who are pivotal to success in a Democratic primary.

Among progressives, there are also worries about a split in the left-wing vote between Warren and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn Washington, the road almost never taken Don't let partisan politics impede Texas' economic recovery The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble MORE (I-Vt). Even if Warren emerges as the clear standard-bearer of the left in the months ahead, Sanders is not going anywhere. 

“The progressive voters have to coalesce at some point behind either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, because that way we can win,” said left-wing writer and activist Jonathan Tasini. “They can be the nominee if the forces marshal behind one of them. If they don’t, we certainly risk the splitting of that vote.”

Several polls in recent days have suggested that Warren is moving past Sanders, who has so far been unable to recapture the magic that made him a tough challenger to eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE in 2016.

A Monmouth University poll in Iowa released Thursday showed Warren with 19 percent support to Sanders’s 9 percent. Biden was leading the field with 28 percent. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTwo 'View' hosts test positive for coronavirus ahead of Harris interview Rep. Karen Bass to run for mayor of Los Angeles: report Biden taps big bank skeptic to for top regulatory post MORE (D-Calif.) was third with 11 percent support.

One national poll from The Economist and YouGov saw Warren trailing Biden by 6 points (16 percent to 22 percent) with Sanders in third on 13 percent.

A second national poll, from Quinnipiac University, had Warren 7 points clear of Sanders — 21 percent to his 14 percent — though she still trailed Biden by 11 points.

Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who worked for Sanders in 2016 but is not aligned with any candidate this cycle, acknowledged that Warren’s performances in the debates have helped her.

But he also asserted that the clarity and power of her pitch on the campaign trail were at the heart of her appeal.

“She has a very strong message,” Devine said, drawing a parallel with how a similar message from Sanders resonated in 2016. “The idea that someone is willing to fight for people, and against an economy that is rigged against them? That carries a lot of weight with Democratic primary voters — and with general election voters.”

Warren’s grasp of detail — an early slogan, including on her official merchandise, was “Warren has a plan for that” — has also been an asset, as has her willingness to insist that Democrats must dream big.

She delivered one of the most memorable moments of the debates in Detroit late last month when, in response to a centrist critique from former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Lobbying world Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis MORE (D-Md.), she shot back: “I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for.”

But if Warren has strong momentum, she also faces some high hurdles.

In The Economist’s national poll, Biden enjoyed more than double her support among black voters (33 percent to 13 percent) even while Warren was a single point ahead of him among white voters (20 percent to 19 percent).


In the Quinnipiac national poll, she was just 3 points adrift of him among white voters (30 percent to 27 percent) but was getting crushed with black voters (47 percent to 8 percent).

There has been some anecdotal evidence that Warren can forge a connection with black voters, especially women, when she gets to address diverse crowds in person. But that has yet to translate into concrete results in the polls.

The battle for African American support is further complicated by the fact that Sanders is showing more traction among nonwhites than he did four years ago, and two black senators — Harris and Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerTim Scott says police reform talks collapsed with Dems over funding Sunday shows preview: Pelosi announces date for infrastructure vote; administration defends immigration policies Democrats press Schumer on removing Confederate statues from Capitol MORE (D-N.J.) — are in the race this year.

There is also the question of whether the social media chatter about the contest fosters the impression that the party as a whole is more left-wing — and therefore more likely to select someone like Warren as its nominee — than is actually the case. 

Moderate Democrats vote in the primaries, too — and poll after poll have shown they are much more drawn to Biden than to Warren or Sanders. 

In the YouGov poll, Warren led Biden among Democrats who identified as liberal (22 percent to 18 percent) but trailed him badly among moderates (10 percent to his 33 percent).

A Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity but is not aligned with any 2020 candidate, pointed out another potential problem. Warren will at some point have to demonstrate that she can cut into Biden’s support.

“The good news for Warren is that she is rising in the polls and former Sanders voters are moving toward her,” the strategist said. “The bad news is, it’s not coming from Biden voters. As long as that stays the case — and Sanders stays in the race — then it’s hard to see how she gets over that hump.”

But several sources who spoke to The Hill cautioned against drawing too many conclusions this early in the race. 

Notably, there was a common consensus that if Warren were to win the Iowa caucuses — something that is plausible given the liberal lean of caucusgoers — that could reorder the race at a stroke.

“I could see her getting into a very competitive position,” Devine said, recalling how, when then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report Prosecutors face legal challenges over obstruction charge in Capitol riot cases Biden makes early gains eroding Trump's environmental legacy MORE (D-Ill.) won the caucuses in 2008 while Hillary Clinton trailed in third, “everything changed overnight.”

For now, Warren is in the hunt. And it’s game on.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE’s presidency.