One big story after the first two Democratic primary elections is the fast fade of former Vice President Joe Biden, who came in fourth in Iowa and a dismal fifth in New Hampshire. But one other prominent candidate is quickly losing altitude as well: Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Last fall, Warren was more popular than Bernie Sanders and a solid second behind Biden. Her rallies drew thousands and her plans for everything forced competing candidates to plan up. But Warren landed third in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire, a particularly lousy showing given that she’s from the neighboring state of Massachusetts. Her odds of winning the Democratic nomination are now in the low single digits.
What happened? Three things: First, Warren backtracked on Medicare for all, the proposed giant health care plan that would eliminate private insurance. As she took a leadership position last fall, critics began to pester Warren to explain how she’d pay for the massively costly program. She finally did explain how—through a new wealth tax on millionaires—but she also low-balled the cost, coming in around $1 trillion less per year than independent estimates. That made it look like Warren was waffling and perhaps mulling other tax hikes, on regular folks, that she wasn’t bothering to mention.
Then, last November, she changed her mind, sort of. Warren announced a new “transition” plan that would start out like the “public option” Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobhuchar favor, and become Medicare for all after a couple of years, as everybody saw how great the public option was. This was far too clever, and it made Warren the only Democrat pandering to both the center and the left. She ended up stranded between the two factions on one of the topics that matters most to Democrats. Lost points for waffling.
Second, there have been cracks in Warren’s authenticity that competing candidates have adroitly exposed. As a presidential candidate, Warren brands herself a champion of the little guy, firmly opposed to corporate fundraising and the pernicious influence of lobbyists. But she’s a recent convert to this cause. Warren accepted and even sought large donations as a senator, leading to charges of hypocrisy. This may have reminded some voters of Warren’s claim of Cherokee heritage and the ridiculous DNA test that supposedly proved it. Warren later apologized to Native Americans for claiming to be one of them, possibly the most embarrassing episode of her public life.
Finally, Warren has characterized the economy in gloomy terms that just don’t ring true to a lot of voters at a time of record-low unemployment, rising wages and booming stock values. She warns of a “coming economic crash” and says “warning lights are flashing.” In the Feb. 7 Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Warren reiterated her frequent claim that “we’ve got a government right now that works great for those at the top... just not for the rest of us.” Yet Gallup recently recorded record-high levels of optimism about Americans’ personal financial situation, and consumer confidence is at or near record highs as well. Warren is basically telling voters they should feel worse than they do. Not an uplifting message.
The Democratic race is still wide open, and Warren’s campaign isn’t dead. Bernie Sanders is the leading vote-getter so far, but he’s not winning anywhere near a majority of delegates, which is what’s needed to clinch the nomination. Another candidate could still surge in the March 3 Super Tuesday contests. It’s also possible no nominee will win the nomination outright, leading to a contested convention over the summer in which Warren could be a contender. But she’d have to go the distance first, and Warren is now losing air dangerously close to the ground.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.