If Elizabeth Warren Says No, What Is Progressives' Backup Plan?

Her fans don't want to talk about it, and that has some progressives nervous.

Elizabeth Warren's fans refuse to take no for an answer, but soon enough they'll almost certainly have to.

Pining for a Warren presidential run in 2016, progressive groups have gathered more than 100,000 signatures, recruited Obama campaign alums to back her, and pledged to raise $1 million. And on Wednesday, they're holding a kickoff event in the key early state of Iowa. But despite the infrastructure being built all around her, Warren continues to say no—and no, and no again—to the prospect of a presidential run.

So unless the Massachusetts Democrat is preparing a massive reversal, progressives will need a Plan B. But thus far, her backers seem unwilling to consider an alternative, and some within the movement believe the singular focus on Warren is jeopardizing their chance to make their mark in 2016.

One Democratic operative who works with progressive groups cautioned that the all-in-on-Warren approach could backfire should she opt not to run, saying an issue-based approach is far more likely to get progressive issues on the map among candidates who do look likely to run—namely Hillary Clinton, who has been the target of progressive ire in the past.

"The way a movement gains power is to focus on leveraging its principles more than uniting around any one individual candidate "¦ the questions of minimum wage and income inequality existed before and will exist after Elizabeth Warren," the strategist said. "After so many cycles of not taking the longer view, [progressives] are going to have to start at some point."

Ari Rabin-Havt, a progressive strategist who hosts a show on Sirius XM's Progress station, said that if Warren doesn't run, the "energy" from the "Draft Warren" movement, used the right way, could help her "shape the Democratic Party and shape legislation"—or, unharnessed, it could burn out or even help foster negative feelings from supporters whose hopes of a Warren bid were high. If the enthusiasm behind the draft movement "dissipates into nothing, or that energy becomes negative energy because people are disappointed, that's a negative use of that energy," he said.

Warren's loudest fans, however, refuse to talk about what they'll do if Warren does not run.

"That's not even what we're thinking about," said Erica Sagrans, campaign manager for the original draft group Ready for Warren, when asked about the possibility. "We just feel like this is the time [for her], especially these next few months, especially while no one is actually officially running yet."

Instead, they're looking for any sign that she'll join the fight. Charles Chamberlain, whose group Democracy for America officially joined the draft effort Wednesday, said progressive groups are working to show Warren that she has the support she'd need, as well as to improve chances she'll reconsider down the line: "We fully believe she can be brought into the race, and now is the time to make that happen."

That hope is hanging on thinning threads. The closest thing Warren fans have to an indication she's mulling the race is her verb tense when she answers 2016 questions: Warren often says she "is not running" for president, not that she "will not run," which gives her supporters hope that she's just playing coy in the meantime.

But progressives see signs that recent events may prompt Warren to reconsider. The senator vocally opposed the year-end spending package that rolled back two key progressive priorities: regulations on Wall Street and on campaign finance. But the package passed with plenty of Democratic support.

And the lack of other Democrats entering in the race continues to fuel progressives' hope.

Supporters maintain that's especially true as long as other Democrats put off any official campaign announcement for at least the next few months. Clinton, who'd be the favorite for the Democratic nomination, looks likely to wait until spring to launch her campaign; allies of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley say he too probably won't launch a campaign before then.

And there are plenty of Warren supporters who are ready to try. The draft movement now consists of three groups: Ready for Warren, MoveOn.org, and Democracy for America. MoveOn announced Monday that it had already gathered more than 111,000 signatures for its online petition, and the groups plan further kickoff events next month.

But all told, Warren has made no obvious moves toward a presidential bid or given any serious indication that she's interested. She's not visiting Iowa; she hasn't staffed up; and along with more than a dozen other female senators, she signed the 2013 letter urging Clinton to run.

Sirius XM's Rabin-Havt said the implication that Warren is saying "no" now but will say "yes" later creates an image of Warren that's at odds with what her supporters like most about her.

"I am tired of being told not to believe the words of politicians I believe in," he said, referring to the draft movement's suggestion that Warren's denials don't matter. "By saying she is parsing language and playing with words, you are turning her into your average politician."

On the issues alone, Warren is hardly the only pol in lockstep with progressives—but Warren has a singular appeal to her wing of the party because they say she's uniquely talented at articulating their issues, and supporters are hesitant to even name another pol who could or should step up if she chooses not to. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has said he's likely to run as a Democrat in the race, would seem like a good fit and is a strong supporter of many top progressive issues. Or there's Sherrod Brown, another senator who's been a vocal critic of Wall Street and also happens to hail from the general-election swing state of Ohio. Brown is getting no buzz among progressives at all and has not expressed interest in running; Sanders comes in as progressives' distant second when compared with Warren.

That means it's tough to tell where Warren backers will go in a Warren-less primary. Some could decide they're OK with Clinton; others might migrate to more left-leaning candidates like Sanders or O'Malley. Without Warren in the race, groups supporting her may also look to down-ballot races to build up the "Warren wing" instead.

Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee—the group that drafted Warren into the 2012 Senate race against Republican Scott Brown—said progressives' main goal is making sure their issues are front-and-center in the 2016 primary, no matter who the candidates are. The PCCC isn't directly involved with the draft-Warren efforts for 2016, but Green said it's an overall positive because even if the field doesn't include Warren, it will bring prominence to her agenda.

"If the net effect is that there are hundreds or thousands of rallies around the country showing visibly how much Americans agree with Elizabeth Warren's economic populist agenda, that serves the goal," he said. "What success will look like is multiple Democratic candidates campaigning in six months to see who can outdo each other and be more like Elizabeth Warren."

Still, the rock-star-level enthusiasm for Warren was on full display at RootsCamp, the conference of progressive activists that took place in D.C. last weekend. At a panel on "the Draft Warren movement," a full room of progressive activists and organizers cheered along as members of the draft campaign led them in the wave and chanted, "Run, Warren, run!" They posed for selfies with a cardboard cutout of Warren's face on the body of Hunger Games character Katniss Everdeen (because Warren, like the title of the second book in the dystopian fantasy series, is "catching fire").

"We feel like this moment was made for Elizabeth Warren," said Ben Wikler, MoveOn's Washington Director.

Conference attendees roamed the halls in "Run Liz Run" t-shirts, passing out postcards for supporters to send to Warren's Senate office, urging her to run. By contrast, Clinton memorabilia was nowhere to be seen—and one panel, focused on climate, was even titled "#HillaryProblems."

Chamberlain said the "Draft Warren" efforts will be beneficial to progressives whether Warren runs or not because the attention their efforts are getting now help bring attention to Warren's issues.

"Bottom line: I think what we're doing here is a win-win," Chamberlain said. "This is not just about Senator Warren—the more we build this movement, the more it becomes clear to all candidates running that this is where our party is at."