Is it conceivable that, in just over a year’s time, the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren could defeat Donald Trump to become America’s first female president? Yes. Here’s why.
Since the summer, Warren has surged. The former vice-president Joe Biden was far ahead of her in the polls in May: 41% to 8%. Today they are almost neck and neck — 28% to 26%, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Biden is floundering, his age showing, his reputation tainted by the tar baby that is Ukraine (not to mention China, where son Hunter has been equally imprudent). Bernie Sanders just had a heart attack. The California senator Kamala Harris is fading. No one else is close.
Significantly, Warren is also popular among Democrats who don’t — yet — name her as a first choice. A recent poll found that 75% of Democratic voters have a favourable impression of her, up from 53% in January. Among Democrats, she also has lowest disapproval rate of the main candidates — 11% to Biden’s 22%. Warren’s fundraising is also on fire. She passed a million donors in July, lending credibility to her pledge to run without corporate money.
This looks different from Sanders’s surge in 2016. Prediction markets never gave Sanders above a 20% chance of winning the nomination. In contrast, the online betting market PredictIt has Warren as the clear favourite, with a 46% chance of victory to Biden’s 22%. PredictIt also gives Warren a 33% chance of winning the presidency itself. Trump is on 40%.
What’s going on? The answer is that Warren has emerged as a very effective candidate. She exudes not just an energy that belies her age — 70 — but wit. Suppose, she was asked by a suspiciously well-groomed man in Los Angeles last week, a supporter approached her and said: “Senator, I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.” How would she respond?
“Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that,” Warren replied. “And I’m going to say: ‘Well, then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.’ [Waits for the laughter to subside] Assuming you can find one.” Hillary Clinton could never work a crowd like that.
True, Trump’s campaign team sees Warren as more beatable than Biden. That is precisely why it has gone after Biden so aggressively. “Sleepy Joe” is just the kind of candidate Trump has to worry about when it comes to the key swing voters in the key swing states (hint: not well-groomed Californians). The people who did not show up for Clinton in 2016 — white working-class “deplorables” who had voted for Barack Obama, as well as African-Americans — could easily opt for Biden over Trump.
By comparison, Warren is a perfect target for a populist campaign. Not only is she a former Harvard professor — a toxic affiliation in most of middle America. She also clearly exaggerated her Native American ancestry in order to advance her academic career. (She listed herself as belonging to a minority in the Association of American Law Schools legal directory from 1986 to 1995; changed her ethnicity from white to Native American at Pennsylvania University in 1989; and agreed to be listed as Native American when she taught at Harvard.) But a DNA test published last year revealed, embarrassingly, that Warren is no more than one-64th Native American.
What’s more, Warren is a candidate far to the left of Biden on a range of key policy issues. She supports a “Medicare for all” system that would replace private health insurance. She has proposed a 2% wealth tax on the very rich (those with fortunes above $50m, or £40m). And she wants to crack down on anticompetitive behaviour by the big banks, returning retail banking to community banks and credit unions.
Warren also has her own version of the green new deal. “On my first day as president,” she recently declared, “I will sign an executive order that puts a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases for drilling offshore and on public lands. And I will ban fracking — everywhere.” Oh, and let’s not forget big tech: she plans to break up Facebook.
So it will not be hard for Trump to run against Pocahontas the socialist. With the usual incumbent’s advantage and a favourable electoral college map, he ought to win. But I agree with PredictIt. This is going to be close.
The key variable will be the state of the economy — and this is where things get interesting. At some point, Wall Street is going to wake up to the implications of Warren’s rise. True, most of her programme could be enacted only if the Democrats won the Senate as well as the White House and proceeded to kill the filibuster. Is that impossible? No.
That means that four large sectors of the economy are in the firing line: the pharmaceutical industry, the banks, oil and gas and big tech. That is a pretty big chunk of the main stock market indices.
As investors digest the rising probability of a Warren presidency, I predict a Wall Street sell-off. Businesses in the targeted sectors are going to cut investment. And that, in turn, is going to lower growth. Three years ago, Trump ran on a promise to double the growth rate. But already the economy is projected by the International Monetary Fund to grow by just 1.9% next year. If it tips over into a recession, Trump is done.
Professor Ray Fair of Yale has a simple model for US elections that has a pretty good track record. If there is a recession in 2020, the model predicts a 49% vote share for the Democratic candidate. It’s hard to see how the electoral college could save Trump in that scenario. (Remember, the winner got less than 50% in four out of the past seven elections.)
In other words, if Warren establishes herself as the Democratic frontrunner, there is a real chance that Trump’s presidency could enter a doom loop. The better her chances become, the worse the stock market and the economy do, the better her chances become.
Meanwhile, make no mistake: Trump is in deeper trouble today than he ever was during Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Not only is the Ukraine scandal metastasising. It is also clearly typical of the way the president deals with his foreign counterparts — brazenly seeking personal commercial and political advantage from his conduct of foreign policy, even at the cost of undermining his own administration’s strategy.
His base will not desert him, and so the Republican-controlled Senate dare not turn against him. But independent voters are looking askance at Trump. And they are looking afresh at Warren. Can she beat him? Yes, she can.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford