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The Democrats' Faute de Mieux Front-Runner

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Friday, October 11, 2019

Is Elizabeth Warren the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination? You can make a strong argument that the answer is yes. You can also argue that she is, at most, a default front-runner and a problematic general election nominee.

And you might reasonably conclude that both arguments taken together tell you some interesting things about the current state of the Democratic Party -- the world's oldest political party.

Now, I'm certainly not arguing with my Washington Examiner colleague Byron York, who wrote last week that Joe Biden is no longer the Democratic front-runner. Since then, Biden's lead over Warren in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls has shrunk to 0.2%. On June 21, it was 20%.

Warren's admirers attribute her sharp poll rise over the last three weeks to her energetic campaigning, ranging from smiling for countless selfies to insisting "I have a plan for that" on countless issues. But she's also benefited from the problems of her opponents.

The Democrats' case for impeachment inevitably highlights Biden's son's $50,000-a-month contract with a Ukrainian natural gas company while Vice President Biden was in charge of Ukraine policy. Bernie Sanders, 78, had a heart attack Oct. 1. Kamala Harris' habit of sloppily taking stands she can't sustain has lowered her numbers from 15% to 5%. Pete Buttigieg's chipper articulateness has helped him raise millions, but his support peaked at 8% in May and June. Beto O'Rourke and Cory Booker, the only other candidates ever above 5%, are now hovering around 2%.

That leaves Warren as, at most, the front-runner faute de mieux -- and one who seems to have taken some lessons from the president she obviously detests, Donald Trump.

1. Don't back down on even the diciest stands.

Her claim of Native American ancestry and her statement that she lost her teaching job because she was "visibly pregnant" don't seem well founded. And her insistence that the Ferguson cop committed "murder" is contradicted by the Obama Justice Department's thorough investigation of that tragedy.

2. Take what many consider unpopular stands on issues.

Like many Democrats, Warren seems to have concluded that if a rule-breaking candidate like Trump can be elected president, then none of the old political rules apply anymore.

So, Warren has endorsed Medicare for All and eliminating private health insurance. She has said she'd ban fracking for oil and natural gas. She has supported decriminalizing illegal border crossing, providing health care for illegals who get across and paying reparations to the descendants of slaves. She has ignored warnings by, among others, MSNBC's Steve Kornacki that such proposals are hugely unpopular and could be great fodder for Trump campaign ads.

Warren obviously hopes that her calls for federal overseeing of large corporations and her call for a 2% wealth tax on multimillionaires will resonate with nonaffluent Trump voters. But those voters seem more concerned with elites' political correctness than convinced that Warren's proposal with send their way any money somehow mulcted from corporations. Oh, and the wealth tax is probably unconstitutional and, judging from European experience, mostly uncollectible.

Among Democratic primary voters, Warren has been scoring best with white college graduates -- the core anti-Trump constituency -- while lagging far behind among blacks and non-college whites. As Washington Post analyst David Byler tweeted, Warren's current constituency "looks like media + their neighbors," and she "matches an upscale idea of who POTUS should be." Even as she easily won reelection in Massachusetts last year, she ran well behind Hillary Clinton in "beer Democrat" constituencies.

All of which is not to say that Warren is a sure loser. Any Democratic nominee has a serious chance of beating Trump. But it says something interesting about the Democratic Party that its current three leading candidates are in their 70s and all are from overwhelmingly Democratic states (though Biden's Delaware was competitive before 2000).

Democratic activists seem to like it that way, as indicated by their fundraising. The party's contributors, surely tilted toward white college grads, seem to prefer the unusual over the conventional. Sanders and Warren, with their leftist platforms, led June-September fundraising, with about $25 million. Buttigieg outraised Biden. Andrew Yang outraised Booker and nearly outraised Harris. Marianne Williamson outraised Michael Bennet.

As for the faute de mieux front-runner, the latest IBD/TIPP poll shows Warren leading Trump 48 to 46% -- exactly the same popular vote lead Hillary Clinton had four years ago. Maybe there's an opening for some other candidate.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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