How Elizabeth Warren became a Democratic contender for president

In what was billed as her first on-stage debate showdown with front-runner Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren gave strong evidence why she's ascended to the top three in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Whether it was an exchange on health care, gun control or climate change, the Massachusetts senator spent the third Democratic debate returning to her core message: She knows what's broken in U.S. government, how to fix it and will lead the fight to get it done.

"As long as Washington is paying more attention to money than it is to our future, we can't make the changes we need to make," Warren said in response to a question on climate change.

The advertised fireworks of the first head-to-head match-up with former vice-president Biden didn't quite materialize. But they exchanged barbs over healthcare, and there was even a moment of admiration from Biden, when he agreed with Warren's stance on including environmental and union stakeholders in future trade talks.

Biden has maintained the lead throughout the race so far, but the 70-year-old Warren has engineered the largest rise in support, breaking through a crowded Democratic primary field.

Her move into the top three of contenders, alongside Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has come as other big names have remained stagnant in the polls. According to an average of major polls by RealClearPolitics, Warren was averaging seven percent support in March, but is now at 16.8 percent, passing California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke.

Warren has done the best job of positioning herself as the main alternative to Biden, said Basil Smikle, a former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party.

Jennifer King/Miami Herald/The Associated Press

"A good presidential candidate is a leader of a social and political movement, and that's what she's been able to craft for herself," Smikle said.

'Forward-looking, inspirational'

On Thursday night, Warren emphasized her beginnings as an elementary school special-needs teacher, while also attacking big business and big money in politics.

Campaign watchers say Warren's success is a combination of strict message discipline and campaign organization coupled with an aspirational campaign that strikes an emotional chord with voters and is a contrast to Biden's more cautious approach.

"It seems to me that the only time Democrats win is when we have a campaign that is a combination of forward-looking, inspirational and with tremendous grassroots support," said Christy Setzer, a spokesperson for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000.

Setzer said Warren has been ruthlessly efficient in sticking to a plan, from her promise to eschew big-dollar fundraisers to releasing multiple policy platforms to investing heavily in staff in early primary states like Iowa.

Warren appears to have overcome an initial misstep over her ancestry. After questions were raised about past claims that she had Native American heritage, Warren released a DNA test last October showing that she was 1/1024th Cherokee. After she was criticized by Indigenous groups who said that a DNA test does not automatically make someone a Native American, Warren apologized for the episode in April.

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The issue doesn't appear to have registered much with Democratic primary voters, and a day after the DNA test apology, Warren became the first major Democratic contender to support the impeachment of President Donald Trump. She's since fashioned herself as the candidate with a plan, releasing a series of progressive policy proposals, including a wealth tax, universal childcare, broader healthcare coverage and eliminating student debt.

Progressive appeal

Warren has some progressive appeal from years as a consumer advocate, but strategists say she can also tap into populist feelings, bolstered by her willingness to take on big business and the financial sector.

"I think anti-government populism is a defining feature of the Republican Party and anti-business populism is a defining feature of the Democratic Party. I think Warren probably embodies that sentiment more than Biden does," said Kyle Kondik, with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

While Warren shares a lot of the anti-establishment, progressive turf with Bernie Sanders, Smikle said she has done a better job of selling the same ideas while assuring the Democratic Party itself that she'll work with them, not against them.

Democratic strategist Craig Varoga thought Sanders remained a bit of a sideshow during Thursday's debate, which should benefit Warren, "because she has more room to grow than Biden does, and because of her potential appeal to Bernie voters."

Setzer said Warren's success so far includes connecting with non-partisan working-class voters who may have voted for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 but Trump in 2016.

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"Warren is talking about things like, 'Yeah, the system is not working for you. You are not wrong, the system is broken,' and I think she's able to connect with voters that might not be open to other Democrats running a more traditional campaign."

Without the spotlight that comes with being the front-runner, Varoga said Warren has received relatively little scrutiny or attack from other candidates.

The electability question

Warren's brand as the candidate with a plan is good, but it could hurt her with older voters who skew toward Biden, and are wary of how she'll deliver on those promises, said Smikle.

Rightly or wrongly, the strategists acknowledge that Warren is dogged by questions of "electability" — whether it's because she's a female candidate or because her positions are too far to the left of the political spectrum to appeal to moderates and independents in a general election. 

Republican strategist Jai Chabria, a former advisor to Ohio governor John Kasich, said voters who like Warren's populist impulses may be turned off by her progressive side, particularly her views on abortion and gun control.  

The electability test, however, may not come until well into primary season, when voters start thinking more strategically. This early in the primaries, Varoga said, voters are more focused on issues.

Chabria said Warren's challenge if she gains the Democratic nomination will be articulating a populist vision while combating Republican efforts to paint her as a socialist. The question comes down to whether Democrats believe a candidate with a very liberal policy platform is viable against Trump, Kondik said.

Setzer said the best answer to the question of electability is winning — something Warren, with her rise in popularity, has shown she has the potential to do. Setzer compares Warren's current status to that of Barack Obama in the 2008 primary — it took major wins on Super Tuesday to convince Democrats he was capable of beating Hillary Clinton and becoming president.

"If she's able to maintain that sort of level of high performance, I think that the electability number for her will only get stronger."