It Worked for Barack Obama

Elizabeth Warren is imploring Democrats to choose inspiration over caution—just as an insurgent Illinois senator did against Hillary Clinton in 2007.

Elizabeth Warren waves to a crowd in front of an American flag.
Gretchen Ertl / Reuters

What Elizabeth Warren said Saturday at the New Hampshire Democratic state convention might have sounded faintly familiar. “I am not afraid,” she declared. “And for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid either.”

Consciously or not, Warren was echoing one of the most important lines of Barack Obama’s primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. “If we are really serious about winning this election, Democrats,” Obama declared at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on November 10, 2007, “we can’t live in fear of losing it.” That line became part of the message that won Obama the Iowa caucuses, and the Democratic nomination. And in the current primary campaign, it just might propel Warren to victory as well. Like Obama more than a decade ago, Warren is framing her insurgency against an establishment front-runner—in this case, Joe Biden—as a choice between conviction and caution. And in Democratic presidential primaries, conviction candidates with strong grassroots organizations often win.

When Obama delivered his Jefferson-Jackson speech, he was, by most accounts, well behind in his nomination battle. Clinton had led in Iowa virtually all year. She had out-raised him in the third quarter of 2007. In October, the New York Post had dubbed her the “inevitable nominee.” Even Obama himself, according to David Plouffe’s book The Audacity to Win, had told advisers days before the speech that “as things stand, I feel like we’ll … come up short.”

According to polls at the time, voters considered Clinton more electable than Obama, a point she highlighted in her own Jefferson-Jackson speech, when she promised, “I know what it’s going to take to win.” She also stressed her greater experience. “We must nominate a nominee who has been tested,” she told the Iowa crowd, “and elect a president who is ready to lead on day one.”

But many Democrats resented Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War. And at a debate on October 30, she had repeatedly refused to give a straight answer when asked whether undocumented immigrants should be able to get driver’s licenses. So when Obama took the stage at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, he exploited a sense among Iowa Democrats that Clinton lacked political courage, and that a vote for her would reflect their own lack of courage, too. “Not answering questions ’cause we are afraid our answers won’t be popular just won’t do,” he told the crowd. “Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt [Romney] or Rudy [Giuliani] might say about us just won’t do. If we are really serious about winning this election, Democrats, we can’t live in fear of losing it.”

The response was extraordinary. Obama, reported Time magazine, “has found his voice.” The Des Moines Register’s influential political reporter David Yepsen wrote that “should [Obama] come from behind to win the Iowa caucuses, Saturday’s dinner will be remembered as one of the turning points in his campaign.” By early December, according to Iowa polls, Obama had taken the lead.

There are obvious differences between Warren now and Obama then. Obama was more frequently attacked for his lack of experience; Warren is more often criticized for being ideologically extreme. Obama also enjoyed a greater reservoir of potential African American support. After he won Iowa, black voters moved to him en masse, which laid the foundation for his victories in the South. If Warren wins Iowa, she’s unlikely to benefit from the same decisive shift.

Still, there are enough similarities between Obama’s position in the fall of 2007 and Warren’s in the fall of 2019 to see why adopting his “Don’t be scared” message could work. Biden has an even longer record than Clinton of taking positions that make contemporary Democrats cringe. And, like her, he’s relying on Democrats’ belief that he can win a general election—and be a steady hand once in office—to overcome their lack of enthusiasm. In his speech to New Hampshire Democrats, Biden mentioned Donald Trump in his first sentence. “We cannot and I will not let this man be reelected president of the United States of America” was his biggest applause line. But despite this, according to The New York Times, Biden “received a polite though not raucous reception.”

In her remarks, Warren—like Obama in 2007—implored the crowd not to choose electability over inspiration. “There is a lot at stake, and people are scared,” she told the New Hampshire crowd. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re scared.” And, as with Obama, that appeal carries particular weight; one reason many Democrats consider Warren less electable is that she’s a woman, just as some Democrats in 2007 presumed Obama was less electable because he is black.

The bad news for Warren is that, so far, electability appears to be a larger concern for Democrats this year than in elections past. When Democrats in late 2007 contemplated losing the presidential election, they imagined a President McCain, Romney, or Giuliani. Today’s Democrats imagine something more terrifying: four more years of Trump.

The good news is that while voters often prefer candidates they deem more electable, they also deem electable the candidates they prefer. Which means perceptions of electability change. In the spring of 2007, when Clinton was leading Obama in the polls by a wide margin, voters declared her the most electable in a general election. By early 2008, once Obama had won Iowa, they had decided that he was the more electable. As voters embrace Warren, her electability numbers are rising, too. In June, according to polling by CBS News and YouGov, only 39 percent of the Democrats considering supporting Warren thought she could beat Trump. Now 55 percent do.

By telling Democrats not to be scared, Warren shrewdly bundles a range of issues on which Biden is vulnerable—from Iraq to busing to Anita Hill to bankruptcy—without having to mention them, or even Biden himself, by name. Like Obama, she’s betting that an old cliché—Democrats fall in love, while Republicans fall in line—is actually true. And in the past, it often has been. When FiveThirtyEight looked at the success rates of the presidential candidates who had garnered the most endorsements from elected officials 200 days before the Iowa caucuses—a proxy for front-runner status and establishment support—it found that such candidates had won six of the past seven Republican nominations but only three of the past seven Democratic ones.

The insurgents who win Democratic primaries—George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Obama—generally combine ideological inspiration with grassroots organization, while making enough inroads with the party establishment to make them appear less threatening. The insurgents who fail lack one of these ingredients: In 2000, Bill Bradley lacked a compelling message; in 2004, Howard Dean couldn’t effectively organize his supporters; in 2016, Bernie Sanders couldn’t legitimize his candidacy with establishment validators as Obama did when he won Ted Kennedy’s endorsement.

Warren doesn’t have those validators yet either. She still hasn’t won the endorsement of a single senator outside her home state. Although her organization appears impressive, it remains untested, and her message is still coming together. But on Saturday, she offered a glimpse of what it might be. In an era in which politics has become a secular religion, she is betting that passion will overcome political calculation. And judging by the reaction in New Hampshire—where Warren, according to the Times, “got the most enthusiastic response of the 19 candidates who appeared”—she may be right.