What Elizabeth Warren staying in the race means for Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden

Sen. Elizabeth Warren seems like she’s going to persist her way to the convention — and that could have some important implications for how the 2020 Democratic primary plays out.

Moderates appear to be rallying around former Vice President Joe Biden. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out and endorsed him in an attempt to consolidate the anti-Sen. Bernie Sanders coalition. That’s potentially a problem for the left.

“Moderates consolidating their support around Biden and progressives remaining still a little bit more divided between Warren and Sanders is not an ideal situation,” said Julian NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at the progressive think tank Data for Progress.

Pressure is mounting on Warren to drop out as well, but so far, she seems to be determined to stick with it. Warren’s campaign rolled out a lengthy memo over the weekend about her plans to continue on throughout the spring and summer.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar participate in the 55th anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday, on March 1, 2020 in Selma, Alabama.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

What Warren deciding to stay in the race means isn’t as clear-cut as you might think — voters aren’t super-ideological, and Sanders isn’t all of her supporters’ second choice nor are all the Buttigieg and Klobuchar backers going to go to Biden.

“Possibly the biggest beneficiary of Pete and Amy suspending their campaigns is Elizabeth Warren,” said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs Warren. “She, in general, was people’s first or second choice, but she was also particularly Amy and Pete [voters] second choice.”

Warren spent the closing weeks of the campaign casting herself as the unity candidate that can bring together the progressive and moderate wings of the party.

She’s finally getting the race she wanted, and she’s not stopping now. At least not yet.

What Warren is doing

Warren’s strategy appears to hinge on a brokered Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee this summer.

“As the dust settles after March 3, the reality of this race will be clear: No candidate will likely have a path to the majority of delegates needed to win an outright claim to the Democratic nomination,” her campaign manager Roger Lau wrote in a recent memo. “In the road to the nomination, the Wisconsin primary is halftime, and the convention in Milwaukee is the final play.”

Warren being one of the last candidates left standing is exactly the scenario her campaign envisioned. The fact it happened the day before Super Tuesday could be even better. As the top woman candidate in the race, pollsters are waiting to see if more women voters back Warren.

“She has the ability to potentially find a path where she consolidates and gets women across the country to support her,” said Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos.

Warren’s ability to do well on Super Tuesday hinges on doing well in delegate-rich states like California, Colorado, and Washington. She doesn’t even necessarily have to win — she just has to clear the 15 percent threshold and get a significant enough amount of delegates to deny either Sanders or Biden the nomination outright.

Warren’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

“We believe that Super Tuesday will greatly winnow this field and it will become clear that only a few candidates will have a viable path to the Democratic nomination — and Elizabeth Warren will be one of them,” Lau said in his memo.

Many believe that Warren staying in the race will help Joe Biden’s chances of getting the nomination.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A symbol of this strategy plays out in her home state of Massachusetts, which votes Tuesday and contains a not-insignificant amount of 91 delegates. A Saturday Suffolk University/The Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll found Warren in a statistical tie with Sanders, and an earlier WBUR poll found Sanders eight points ahead of Warren (a necessary caveat with these polls is that Klobuchar and Buttigieg have since dropped out, which could change the numbers significantly).

If she can essentially split the delegates in Massachusetts with Sanders, plus pick up some in Colorado, California, and Washington state, that makes Warren a player in a brokered convention scenario. These are all states with large numbers of college-educated white voters, which is a key demographic for her.

Though she has potential to do well with women, one of Warren’s consistent problems in her past Senate races in Massachusetts is winning over men. While she has high favorability ratings among women, it’s much lower among men — especially independent men in her home state. Warren has underperformed with independent men in her past 2012 and 2018 Senate races, and the demographic is continuing to be problematic for her.

“Warren would win the Massachusetts primary [on Tuesday] if only women were voting,” Paleologos said. “She was tied for fourth place in her home state among men. The problem is Sanders really has demographics in Massachusetts that are strong and uncontested.”

That could also spell trouble for her strategy in other states as well, especially running against Sanders and Biden.

Some progressives are heavily hinting Warren should drop out

Still, Warren and Sanders are close enough ideologically that many think Warren staying in helps Biden. She does this in two ways, said Dave Wasserman, editor of the Cook Political Report. “First, more of Warren’s support would go to Sanders than Biden. Second, if she hits the 15 percent threshold in California and other states, it limits Sanders’s delegate haul in places where he’d otherwise romp,” he said.

That is causing some handwringing from some prominent progressives who endorsed Sanders. Without mentioning Warren’s name, political director of youth climate group the Sunrise Movement Evan Weber tweeted, “Corporate Democrats are consolidating, what’s our strategy?”

“The Warren campaign has clearly invested a lot into Super Tuesday. … So I don’t think it would make sense for her to drop out before Super Tuesday, and I don’t think she will,” Weber told Vox in an interview. “But at the same time, it is clear the establishment of the Democratic Party is increasingly getting scared about the chances of a progressive nomination — in particular a Sanders nomination — and seem to be consolidating their support around either Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg.”

While Weber and others aren’t yet openly calling for Warren to drop out, progressive activists want to make sure Warren and Sanders sharpen their attacks on Biden and Bloomberg, not each other.

“Sen. Warren has been an ally of the progressive movement throughout her entire career,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, in a statement to Vox. “But I hope she stops attacking Sen. Sanders and publicly commits to give her delegates to him if he has more votes to ensure a progressive wins the nomination. I’d say the same to Bernie.”

After referring to each other as “friends” for much of the 2020 primary, Warren and Sanders had a very public rift in January after Warren confirmed a report that Sanders told her in a 2018 meeting he believed a woman couldn’t win in 2020. Progressive groups that have endorsed both Warren and Sanders have been trying to keep tensions down and channels of communication open. But at least one progressive leader openly wondered whether Warren would endorse Sanders if she dropped out.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren confronts Sen. Bernie Sanders after the January 14 debate in Des Moines, Iowa. Warren said to Sanders, “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”
Scott Olson/Getty Images

“I think there would be concern if she didn’t continue that there might not be an endorsement at all,” said Larry Cohen, board chairman for Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution. “The nature of these campaigns turns it into the campaign as an end. … It’s not an end, it facilitates change in the country.”

Some establishment types who are worried about whether Sanders is “electable” might prefer a race without her in it, too. If they think Biden is the best one to take on democratic socialist from Vermont and figure that at least some of her support will go to him, they don’t want her muddling the race, either. “The mainstream is convinced that a Sanders nomination tanks the presidency and their potential to pick up the Senate,” said Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist at the Niskanen Center. “I would guess that they are putting a lot of pressure on her, too.”

Many Warren supporters would go to Sanders, but not all of them. According to Morning Consult, Sanders is the second choice for 40 percent of Warren backers, but Biden and Buttigieg would pick up 16 percent of her supporters, and Klobuchar 12 percent. With Buttigieg and Klobuchar out of the race, Biden could very well be their next choice.

Green says Warren remaining in the race is actually staving off the potential flow of some of her supporters to Biden.

“If she were out, some of her supporters would flow to Biden, so Bernie people are shooting themselves in the foot on multiple fronts by urging Warren to get out,” Green said. “They should want her to [be] a magnet for Amy and Pete supporters, so they don’t flow to Biden.”

Did Warren get a fair shake?

Warren is objectively the most competent candidate in the 2020 race. She has a unique and impressive résumé, is a talented campaigner, and her pages upon pages of plans have set much of the direction of the primary. And at least for a while, voters were taking notice in 2019 when she began to rise in the polls.

If and when she drops out of the 2020 contest, there will certainly be a lot of questions about what happened and why she was unable to really get sustainable traction among voters. And, inevitably, the role of misogyny and how it plays into what people think is “electable” is a factor as well.

If Sen. Elizabeth Warren drops out many of her supporters could potentially flow to support Joe Biden.
David Becker/Getty Images

“Elizabeth Warren has obviously stood for many of the right causes and gotten a lot of amazing things done throughout her career. It’s also fair to say that some of the attacks on her from both moderates and the left were quite unfair,” NoiseCat said. “It’s also, at the same time, hard to say that she didn’t get a shot.”

Just from an aesthetic perspective, it will seem like Biden is surging, whatever the actual votes are. Sanders could use an endorsement to give his campaign a bit of a boost, at least narrative-wise, and Warren could do that.

Of course, Warren’s job is to focus on herself, not to save Sanders or Biden. Becoming the sensible third option is the race she wanted to run. The question now is if voters don’t move to her, how long does she stay in? Though her base was never as big as Sanders’, she articulated a clear vision, and many of her followers genuinely believe in it.

“There could be significant underlying feeling among people who are pretty engaged in politics, particularly young leftists, that she played a role in undermining Bernie’s path to the nomination,” NoiseCat said. “And I think that would be really unfortunate.”