The latest round of polling shows Elizabeth Warren gaining ground in the presidential race, but she still faces some critical obstacles to winning the Democratic nomination. She’s dominating among white progressive voters and, relatedly, is building support among white college-educated Democrats. But she continues to lag among working-class voters and has demonstrated minimal appeal to African-Americans.
Unless she builds appeal outside her core constituencies, it will be challenging for her to pull ahead of front-running Joe Biden, who has built his own beachhead of support among moderates, working-class whites, and African-American voters.
Let’s take a look at the data. The latest Quinnipiac poll finds Biden leading Warren by 11 points, 32 to 21 percent. Warren dominates among the most liberal voters with 40 percent of the vote, doubling Bernie Sanders’s total; Biden is a distant third among these progressives, with 19 percent. She’s also moved into the lead among white college-educated Democrats, leading Biden 28 to 25 percent.
Biden is even more dominant among his core supporters, however. He’s winning 47 percent of African-American voters, 43 percent of moderates, and 38 percent of white Democrats without a college degree.
The pattern is similar in the critical Iowa caucuses. A new Monmouth poll of likely Iowa caucus participants shows Biden leading Warren in the state, 28 to 19 percent. Among noncollege voters, Biden holds a comfortable 19-point lead over Warren (32-13). But Warren is narrowly ahead of Biden among college-educated voters (26-23).
The problem for Warren is that Biden’s strongest groups are typically the ones who determine the winner of Democratic presidential primaries. Most nominees forge an establishment-friendly coalition of black voters and working-class whites to win. Barack Obama was the exception to the rule, winning Iowa with strong support from college-educated whites, which gave him enormous credibility in the black community to prevail in South Carolina and beyond.
But the nomination is near-impossible to win by relying on the white progressive base alone. And that’s the position Warren finds herself in. She’s gotten momentum by peeling off progressive voters who once aligned with Sanders. But outside her comfort zone, she’s still lagging far behind.
Furthermore, there’s a lot more competition for the most liberal voters. Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg are competing for the same slice of progressive voters—and even Beto O’Rourke is touting his liberal bona fides. Biden, meanwhile, is dominant among moderates because few of the leading candidates want to compete in that ideological lane.
Warren is boxed in, dependent on forces outside of her control to prevail. Perhaps Biden stumbles on the campaign trail. Maybe Harris or Cory Booker catches fire and chips away at Biden’s support in the African-American community. (The Quinnipiac poll shows both lagging badly, winning just 1 percent among black voters.) It’s possible that moderates such as Amy Klobuchar and Steve Bullock go after Biden aggressively, denting his support with his own base.
But Warren would have to defy history to win with just her white progressive base. If she emerges as Biden’s final rival for the nomination, it’s the best possible scenario for the front-runner. Unlike Harris or Booker, she’ll have trouble persuading black voters to choose her over Obama’s vice president. And because she’s defined herself as the most progressive candidate in the race, it’ll be hard for her to pivot back to the middle to persuade anyone who disagrees with her ambitious agenda.