Watch Out for Elizabeth Warren

Politics & Ideas: Democratic voters should consider a recent survey that shows Warren’s weakness against Trump if she gains the nomination in 2020. Image: Cheryl Senter/Associated Press

It is time to take seriously the possibility that Sen. Elizabeth Warren could end up as the Democratic presidential nominee. She has moved into a virtual tie with former Vice President Joe Biden in the average of recent national surveys. She leads him narrowly in Iowa, trails by a small margin in New Hampshire, and has moved within striking distance in Nevada. If she does this well in the first three contests, Mr. Biden’s South Carolina firewall could prove less than impregnable. For those who believe in the wisdom of crowds, the betting markets give Ms. Warren a roughly 50% chance of winning the nomination, compared with less than 20% for Mr. Biden.

Other factors have shifted the dynamic of the race in Ms. Warren’s favor. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s candidacy was flagging before his heart attack, which is bound to intensify doubts about the wisdom of nominating a man who will turn 79 next September. And although no publicly available evidence connects Mr. Biden’s central role in the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy with his son’s position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Democrats quietly fret that the Ukraine-focused impeachment inquiry into President Trump will create a false but damaging equivalence between the two men.

Meanwhile, Ms. Warren sails along, unscathed and gaining strength. She has earned her success with a well-organized, focused and energetic campaign. For those who believe politics should be a battle of ideas, she is a dream come true. She has turned a blizzard of position papers (“plans,” in her parlance) into an effective mark of political identity. And she can be tough in debates, especially in the clinches.

Nevertheless, Democrats would be well-advised to inspect the goods carefully before making the purchase. In every general-election survey I’ve seen, including those conducted well after the events that triggered the impeachment inquiry became public, Mr. Biden matches up better against Mr. Trump than Ms. Warren does. The most recent national poll shows Mr. Biden defeating Mr. Trump 51% to 44% while Ms. Warren can manage only a two-point margin, 48% to 46%. Democrats should recognize these numbers, which are identical to the shares of the popular vote that Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump received in 2016.

As Democrats were reminded three years ago, presidential elections are won in the Electoral College. Here again, Mr. Biden enjoys the advantage over Ms. Warren. Although the existing state surveys are imperfect and sometimes dated, they show the former vice president leading the president outside the margin of error in eight key swing states. By contrast, Ms. Warren trails the president in five of the eight. She does six points worse in Michigan than Mr. Biden; seven points worse in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa; and eight worse in North Carolina.

The reasons for caution about Ms. Warren’s candidacy extend to her positions on key issues. She strongly favors Medicare for All, but the American people reject a program that abolishes private health insurance by a margin of 56% to 41%. By 62% to 36% they oppose extending health insurance to immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally, another measure in her plan. She has endorsed Juli├ín Castro’s proposal to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, a move that 66% reject. She favors abolishing the death penalty and the Electoral College, two more proposals strong majorities oppose.

Ms. Warren also has endorsed a national ban on fracking, a stance that plays better in solidly Democratic coastal states than in the interior of the country. It is hard to imagine Texas will shift from red to blue to back a presidential candidate who wants to eliminate drilling for natural gas.

In Pennsylvania, state statistics show the natural-gas industry supports 80,000 jobs, most in areas of the state that have been devastated by the decline of traditional mining and manufacturing. These are the regions that generated a tidal wave of nearly 300,000 new votes for Mr. Trump in 2016, enabling him to overcome the longstanding Democratic edge in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Beyond these specifics, a larger question looms: Are the American people discontented enough with current conditions to embrace a candidate who unabashedly favors expansive and expensive federal programs in every sector of America’s economy and society? Will they believe that a candidate who advocates raising taxes on the wealthy and large corporations by many trillions of dollars over the next decade will leave the middle class untouched?

Ms. Warren is betting that the country is ready for structural change far more radical than anything Barack Obama dared propose. During the next nine months, Democrats will have to decide whether this is a gamble worth taking.

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