As Warren rises, debate over her ability to beat Trump intensifies

It’s the subject of frequent barroom arguments, online debates, and even internal strategy sessions of congressional campaigns.

Everyone in politics — Republicans and Democrats alike — is asking the same pressing question: Just how electable is Elizabeth Warren against President Donald Trump?

As Warren rises to the top of the Democratic presidential primary, it’s a question operatives from both parties are increasingly asking with more urgency. And the answers often surprise.

“The idea Elizabeth Warren is unelectable has followed her her whole career,” said Colin Reed, a veteran GOP strategist who worked against Warren when she was a first-time Senate candidate in 2012. “And she has overcome it each time.”

“I don’t know if anyone views with her the same level of wariness I do,” Reed added. “But people are definitely watching her rise and taking notice.”

Reed’s view isn’t unique, even within the GOP, while some Democrats are far more skeptical.

Indeed, Warren’s electability has become something of a Rorschach test for political operatives. Some see an uber-liberal senator from Massachusetts with a weak electoral track record, while others see the Democratic Party’s most talented campaigner who can tap into the country’s populist energy like few others.

That striking ambivalence within the political community, in fact, can sometimes also exist within the same operative. One Democratic strategist, for example, said he was impressed by the effectiveness of Warren’s campaign and dismissed most of the concerns about her perceived electoral weaknesses, adding that he might vote for her in the primary.

But, a moment later, the same strategist acknowledged that her support for single-payer health care scared the “shit” out of him.

“Look, she’d be the total package if not for Medicare for All,” said the Democratic strategist, who like many interviewed for this story, requested anonymity to speak candidly. “If there was a Medicare option, I think everybody would be ready to get their saddles and be ready to go.”

Debates about electability aren’t new, of course, especially among Democratic voters, many of whom consider a candidate’s ability to defeat Trump a top priority. But among campaign strategists, the debate is different.

For one, none of those interviewed for this story volunteered that they thought Warren’s gender would be a hindrance to winning the White House — unlike some voters.

Concerns over Warren’s admission that she once identified as Native American, a controversy cited frequently by Trump, have also lessened. One Democratic pollster estimated that in recent focus groups he’s seen, just one out of every 10 participants will mention the heritage controversy — compared to about three in 10 earlier in the year.

Still, some anti-Trump operatives said they worried Warren’s appeal was concentrated among white liberal voters who were always going to vote for the Democratic nominee. Her ability to inspire African-American voters, for example, a group she has yet to win over in large numbers in the primary, remains unclear.

And even if the big crowds who show up to her rallies are generally a good sign for her candidacy in the primary, those voters are not necessarily the kind she’d need to win a battleground state like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin in a general election.

“The question is, are any of those people Obama-Trump voters?” said Tim Miller, a longtime Republican operative who opposes Trump.

“There are other candidates that I think would certainly be stronger and certainly be weaker,” he continued. “And for her, I’m unclear at this point.”

Most Democrats who spoke positively of Warren were quick to add that they had a far different view of her electability at the start of the race, when they saw her as more of a Harvard professor than a charismatic campaigner. That began to change as the primary has worn on, thanks to the senator’s ability to combine her humble upbringing with detailed policy plans.

“I think a lot of Democrats — myself included, frankly — underestimated Warren’s ability to generate broad-based appeal,” said Jesse Lehrich, a Democratic strategist who worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “They have run an incredibly disciplined and deliberate campaign, and it’s remarkable how much Warren has improved as a communicator since her first Senate race.”

That growing appreciation for her talent, Democrats say, is part of the reason her candidacy fosters such a electability debate. Other leading candidates like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are also the subject of heated arguments over electability.

Republicans and Democratic operatives also wonder what Warren’s message would look like in a general election, suggesting her criticism of Trump could be tailored to appeal to a large audience of swing voters — especially if it centers on the president’s alleged corruption.

Still, others warn that if Warren reverses course in the general election and begins holding high-dollar fundraisers, the resulting political fallout will be severe. Warren is skipping the traditional fundraising circuit during the primary but has said she won’t “unilaterally disarm” against Trump in a general election.

Warren leads Trump in nearly every poll of a hypothetical matchup between the two, though her advantage much smaller than Biden’s. Pollsters say down-ballot House and Senate campaigns have begun testing Warren’s standing in their district on their own, as they begin to assess the political climate ahead of their own election next year. (The pollsters added that congressional candidates are also testing other frontrunners like Biden.)

For many Democrats, Warren’s strengths and weaknesses as a candidate are so striking that it would be easy to take either side in an argument. Some even suggest her candidacy has opened an inter-generational split within the party over what a successful candidate looks like.

“We wouldn’t be Democrats if we didn’t live in our anxieties,” said one Democratic strategist. “I think for the older generation, who remember [Michael] Dukakis, they see Warren and worry about her policies turning off who she needs to win. For the younger generation, coming off Hillary [Clinton], they see Biden and worry about his personality not activating who he needs to win.”

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.