Just How Much Will AOC’s Endorsement Be Worth?

It depends on whether Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren gets it.

Photo illustration of Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW, and Mark Makela/Getty Images.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not appear onstage together Monday night when they took their turns at the mic roughly 45 minutes apart during the rally for the Green New Deal, nor did either mention the other by name. But merely being present in the same auditorium at roughly the same time was enough to spark chatter. Sanders, according to the original headline of a Politico article published right before he delivered his speech, is in “hot pursuit” of AOC’s endorsement. So too, according to the report, is Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Ocasio-Cortez and her team have repeatedly said that she’s in no hurry to make an endorsement—a level of patience that is also being practiced by most elected Democrats at the moment. Still, whenever the topic has come up, AOC’s responses have suggested that it is indeed a two-horse race as far as she is concerned. “What I would like to see in a presidential candidate is one that has a coherent worldview and logic from which all these policy proposals are coming forward,” she told CNN last week. “I think Sen. Sanders has that. I also think Sen. Warren has that.”

Sanders would appear to be the more natural choice for Ocasio-Cortez. She worked as an organizer for his 2016 presidential campaign and appeared alongside him on the 2018 midterm stump (albeit only after she had stunned then-Rep. Joe Crowley in her own New York primary). Both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez proudly wear the democratic socialist label and share a general worldview. And just last week, the pair teamed up to unveil legislation to cap credit card interest rates, a rollout that included a nearly half-hour-long livestream of the two discussing the topic in a congressional office. And while there was plenty of spatial and temporal distance between the two at Monday’s Sunrise Movement event, there was far less rhetorical separation. Both spoke of the climate crisis as the existential threat it is, and both called for a political revolution.

No one should be surprised if Ocasio-Cortez ultimately throws her support behind Sanders, but it’s too soon to rule out Warren. She and AOC met privately in March and then traded public praise the following month—Warren’s via a glowing blurb in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People feature and Ocasio-Cortez’s by way of an effusive thank-you note on Twitter. The Queens lawmaker has also applauded Warren’s plan to break up tech giants like Facebook and Amazon, and has likewise signed on to a handful of bills the senator has authored, including efforts to combat opioid abuse and to provide additional disaster relief to Puerto Rico. In addition, Ocasio-Cortez’s team tells me that while the congresswoman “has not had the opportunity” to attend an event with Warren just yet, she “looks forward to doing so in the future.”

So just how much would an AOC endorsement be worth? It all depends on which of the two White House hopefuls manages to land it. Missing out on the high-profile endorsement would probably hurt Sanders more than landing it would help, whereas Warren likely has more to gain from securing Ocasio-Cortez’s support, in large part because it would come as a surprise, if not exactly a shock.

Sanders doesn’t exactly need a boost with progressive activists camped out furthest on the left, many of whom have already pledged their allegiance to him. Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement would, however, provide the 76-year-old some needed cover against one of the bigger knocks against him from liberal and progressive Democrats—namely, that he’s an old white man out of place in the most diverse primary field in history. (If elected, Sanders would make history as the first Jewish president, though he considers himself “not particularly religious” and rarely talks about that part of his identity on the stump.) Fairly or not, AOC has become the face of the historically diverse class of Democrats who won House seats in the last midterms. She speaks approvingly of the number of women in the 2020 race and of the “power of identity.” By endorsing Sanders, she’d be signaling to her supporters that his decades-long progressive track record trumps identity.

For Warren, meanwhile, an AOC seal of approval would help her to make the case that she’s not just as progressive as Sanders, but more progressive than him. Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement would effectively dismiss as a matter of semantics the differences between a man who calls himself a democratic socialist and a woman who calls herself a “capitalist to the bones.” That could go a long way toward shoring up Warren’s base. It also might convince those members of the Democratic establishment who are afraid of Sanders that Warren may be their best option as a candidate who they can live with and can still keep progressives engaged in the general election.

Although AOC’s endorsement has the potential to tip the scales in the mini-primary between Sanders and Warren, that’s not to say she has the power to play Democratic kingmaker in 2020. She may represent where her party is heading, but she is clearly to the left of where much of it is today. Roughly half the party self-identifies as either “conservative” or “moderate,” and Sanders and Warren—by far the two most progressive candidates in the 2020 field—currently combine for only about 25 percent support in national polls. (That’s about 15 percentage points less than Joe Biden gets by himself.) The so-called progressive lane in the primary, meanwhile, may be even narrower than that. Roughly one-third of those who currently pick Sanders as their top choice, for instance, name Biden as their second, suggesting a significant slice of Bernie fans are less concerned with ideological purity than their chosen candidate. Assuming the former vice president’s early strength is not a mirage—and there’s good reason to suspect it’s not—it will take more than just progressives teaming up to take him down.

Still, an AOC endorsement would be a start. It would bring with it a flurry of media coverage and provide an effective surrogate. As crucially, it will also give the endorsee a crucial weapon against Biden, should he still be in front at that time. While Sanders and Warren have started to train their fire on the front-runner, AOC would have far more leeway to go all out on the attack without concern for the circular-firing-squad complaints the candidates are trying to avoid. She also appears willing and almost eager to play that role. At the end of last week’s CNN interview, for instance, Ocasio-Cortez dodged a question about whether she’d ever consider endorsing Biden and then, as if to underscore that point, quickly walked away.

She took a less restrained shot at the former veep from the stage on Monday, alluding to last week’s news that Biden planned to stake out a “middle ground” on climate action. “I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to come back today and say we need a ‘middle-of-the-road’ approach to save our lives,” Ocasio-Cortez said to cheers. It’s clear a sizable slice of the Democratic electorate feels the same way. Making that slice big enough to deny Biden the nomination may require voters to rally around a single alternative. AOC can’t make that happen, but she can point the way.