Elizabeth Warren Is Not Doomed

Her good-enough fundraising total and admiration from pundits will keep her ensconced in the second tier for the foreseeable future.

Elizabeth Warren speaks during the We The People summit.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the We The People summit in D.C. on April 1.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced on Wednesday that her campaign had raised roughly $6 million during the first three months of 2019—a total that, like nearly everything at this point in the campaign, is largely a matter of perspective. It was middling compared with her rivals’ hauls, but a veritable bonanza when viewed through the lens of what were exceedingly low expectations. To use a technical political science term, then, Warren’s total was fine—enough to keep the lights on for the foreseeable future, but not enough to fundamentally change her current position in the second tier of credible candidates who are bunched up behind the favorites.

Fine, however, is all Warren needs right now. Despite the doomsaying about her relatively lackluster showing in the early polls, the reality is that there hasn’t been all that much movement to date for anyone other than Pete Buttigieg (and even then only if you squint). There’s Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders way out in front, and then there’s everyone else. Warren’s first-quarter total is unlikely to change that, but it should be enough to fend off the She’s doomed narrative that was threatening to take hold following a New York Times story late last month about her early fundraising struggles. That kind of perception can become a self-fulfilling prophecy—a rough first quarter would have dogged her on the trail while also giving her fans second thoughts about cutting a check to her campaign.

More importantly for Warren, her not-bad, not-great fundraising total will allow her to return to what she does best: rolling out bold new policy proposals that have increasingly won her praise from pundits, politicos, and political journalists, including myself.

The general mood of the media is impossible to quantify, but there’s been a noticeable burst of opinion writers at mainstream outlets singing her praises and rallying to her defense—in both direct and indirect ways, and often with research to back up their points. This week alone: The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart argued that Warren is suffering from the “double bind” dynamic that makes it difficult for female candidates to be seen as both competent and inspirational. The New York Times’ Jill Filipovic took issue with gendered campaign coverage more broadly, arguing that women like Warren are unfairly seen as “too young and inexperienced right up until they are branded too old and tedious.” And the Washington Post’s David Byler made the case that Warren still has plenty of time to break out—a piece that came just days after a news story in the same paper vouched for Warren’s policy chops.

There’s been a similar thing happening on Twitter as well, with journalists like Vox’s Matthew Yglesias singing her policy praises, the Post’s David Weigel touting her as an underrated campaigner, BuzzFeed’s Darren Sands noting her growing support among black women, and FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver dubbing her a “scrappy underdog who is slowly gaining momentum with high-information voters.” Twitter is not the real world, as this week’s saying goes, but it can serve as an early predictor of the coverage to come, which can have a bearing in the real world.

Warren’s slow start was due, in part, to her misguided decision to release her DNA ancestry results late last year, which then fed into the unhelpful discussion about her likability and electability, two questions that are at best silly and at worst unfair to any candidate who doesn’t look like past occupants of Oval Office. But there’s some limited evidence that Warren has already started to weather that storm by churning out one big policy proposal after another. According to Northeastern University’s Storybench project—which tracks the tone and content of a small subset of campaign coverage—the five most-read news outlets were fixated on the Cherokee ancestry controversy in their coverage of Warren in February, but devoted far more of their attention to her policy proposals in March.

That’s a trend that is likely to continue. Following her fundraising announcement, for instance, Warren unveiled an ambitious new plan Thursday to hike taxes on the largest, most profitable U.S. companies. “The proposal comes,” as Politico put it, “as Warren has established herself as the policy maven of the Democratic presidential primary.” Winning the Policy Primary won’t earn her any delegates, but neither will anything else between now and Iowa.