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Where Elizabeth Warren’s New Votes Are Coming From

Elizabeth Warren is up in the polls lately. Where is her new support coming from? A look at the polls shows she is drawing from Biden's supporters and perhaps from undecided and lower-ranked candidates — but not Bernie Sanders's supporters.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks via Skype at the United Food and Commercial Workers' 2020 presidential candidate forum on October 13, 2019 in Altoona, Iowa. Scott Olson / Getty

Media coverage of the 2016 primaries almost always ignored the influence that name recognition had on the Clinton and Sanders coalitions. This time around, Sanders has enjoyed the advantages of high name recognition — including outsize support from the diverse and relatively low-income Democratic base. As I noted back in August, the media has mostly met this shift with awkward silence.

That is likely to change in the near future. As Elizabeth Warren has gained steam, she has drawn in a larger share of the base — which means that she is gaining support among relatively poor voters and BIPOC. More than anything, this shift just means the normalization of a coalition that, before, was disproportionately wealthy and white; but that is not, of course, how the media will cover it. The Sanders campaign should probably expect the 2016 narrative of the white male “Bernie Bro” to make its belated return, with not a moment’s reflection in the media on how contingent these demographic coalitions actually are.


One argument for Sanders (among many) has highlighted the support he has drawn in polls from relatively poor and marginalized voters as evidence of a bottom-up movement of the powerless against the powerful. I have never been fond of this argument, simply because in the United States, the powerless are pretty disengaged from electoral politicsto say nothing of party primaries. And while the Sanders campaign has fought mightily to overcome this widespread pacification, I don’t think this is the sort of trend one reverses in an election or two.

For this reason, I think the “movement” argument has always been suspect. The difference in the Sanders campaign is to be found, first, in his ideological suspicion of capitalism (to be contrasted with Warren’s faith in markets); second, in the policy that emerges from that ideology (for example, in his unique approach to climate change); and third, in his adversarial relationship with the rich and powerful (who remain much more hostile towards him than Warren).


On that last note: one set of numbers that has not significantly changed for Sanders is his opposition among the wealthy. Consider for example three recent national polls, which some have pointed to as evidence of Sanders’s changing coalition: in all three, Sanders still trails significantly behind Biden and Warren among wealthier voters:

I suspect that this divide is unlikely to change anytime soon.