Elizabeth Warren’s presence means there is no early front-runner.
Vox’s highly talented Matt Yglesias wrote a provocative and persuasive piece explaining why he believes Bernie Sanders stands as the Democrats’ 2020 front-runner. To be sure, Sanders has a lot going for him: The 2016 runner-up has established a national brand with high name ID, rabid supporters willing to donate and volunteer, and a continued foot in the political circuit as he tours the country holding rallies for like-minded politicians and in hopes of advancing his primary legislative goal, universal healthcare.
However, Sanders also suffers from lasting animosity churned up during the 2016 campaign. A number of Clinton supporters blame Sanders, at least in part, for Donald Trump’s upset victory. They chastise him for not leaving the primary in the early spring months and not working hard enough to prevent his supporters from either staying at home or casting a third-party ballot on election day. These critics hold some truth — Sanders should have eased himself from the national stage following Super Tuesday — but other points miss the mark. Regardless, tensions exist.
But on top of lasting 2016 anger, old-age (he’ll be 78 come 2020), and policy ideas still to the left of many Democrats, Sanders is not the 2020 front-runner for one simple reason: Elizabeth Warren.
Warren running would complicate matters for Sanders
Naturally, we don’t yet know whether Warren will run, but her actions show someone interested in running for president. She’s become a constant thorn in Trump’s side and has released a book and traveled the country promoting it. Her standing among Democrats remains quite favorable. From Warren’s actions stems “nevertheless, she persisted,” a ready-made slogan for Warren allies to promote a nascent candidacy.
Warren endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, but largely remained aloof of the primary. As such, she earned no hatred or ill-feelings from members of the competing camps. That would work to Warren’s benefit if Democratic primary voters hope to put 2016 behind them.
Building on that point, Warren could be seen as a compromise candidate. Warren’s considered more moderate than Bernie Sanders, though her congressional voting record actually places her to the left of the proclaimed democratic socialist. She appeals to the fervent Sanders supporters; more moderate Democrats would likely prefer her to Sanders and be willing to accept her as an alternate to more establishment Democrats such as Cory Booker or Kirsten Gillibrand.
If Warren runs, she would fracture the Sanders coalition while also putting pressure on moderates. Her lane would be that of compromise: Peal voters from the middle and wings. By nature, that would preclude any one candidate from becoming a front-runner as the ideological lanes would become blurred as the moderate, left, and compromise candidates draw similar numbers. Sanders would be especially hurt as the party’s left-wing does not yet claim a majority of primary voters — unity would be essential to mount a victorious campaign.
Without Warren, Sanders would be the front-runner
Should Warren choose not to run, Sanders would indeed be the front-runner. His lane would be clear from notable challengers. The logic also works the other way — if Sanders decide to forego another run, Warren would assume front-runner status, largely by virtue of name ID (Biden would pose another challenge, but his centrism would likely alienate too many voters despite his endearment to the party).
It should be no surprise that two years before the 2020 campaign enters its first leg we have no front-runner. Nor will we have one until early 2019 when Warren, Sanders, and others decide whether to jump into the race. Until then, jockeying will continue as party leaders try to establish their brand and win the invisible the primary.