Elizabeth Warren needs a comeback. Does she have a plan for that?

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 55 days until the Iowa caucuses and 329 days until the 2020 election.

On Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren released her “Blue New Deal” ­— her plan, as she put it, to “rebuild our blue economy, protect and restore ocean habitat, and adapt in a climate changed world.”

Despite the seriousness of the issue, the rollout attracted little attention.

The same relative silence has greeted every plan Warren has unveiled in recent weeks: the one to “protect and empower renters”; the one to “fight back against white nationalist violence”; the one to “support and protect America’s 27 million part-time workers.”

The problem isn’t the plans themselves. As usual, they are thoroughly liberal and long on substance, and at an earlier moment in the campaign they might have thrilled progressives, reshaped the news cycle, boosted Warren’s poll numbers and forced her rivals to respond with policies of their own. Remember “I’ve got a plan for that” — the wonky motto and modus operandi that propelled her past a shaky campaign launch and into frontrunner position by summer’s end?  

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren holds a town hall event in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 25. (Photo: Scott Morgan/Reuters)

Well, that moment has passed: The one policy Warren resisted releasing — her plan to finance and transition to Medicare for All — wound up being the very thing that reversed her momentum. Now, with Iowa approaching, she finds herself in desperate need of a comeback.

The question is whether she has a plan for that.

It’s hard to overstate how precarious Warren’s position is. On Oct. 7, she was drawing the support of 26.6 percent of Democratic voters and had passed Joe Biden in the RealClearPolitics national polling average; at the same time, she was ahead in the Iowa average by 5 points and would soon lead in the New Hampshire average by 4. Today, according to new averages by FiveThirtyEight, she trails Biden and Bernie Sanders nationally and has fallen to fourth place in both Iowa and New Hampshire. If those results were to hold — Warren’s current averages in the first two voting states hover around 13 percent — she wouldn’t even win any delegates. The cutoff is 15 percent.

Warren with Elizabeth Sadowski, 6, of Concord, N.H., as she campaigns in Rochester, N.H. (Photo: Mary Schwalm/AP)

So how is Warren responding? With the first real shakeup of her campaign. After months of sticking to the same no-drama routine — the same stump speech, the same town-hall format, the same plan-a-week schedule, the same kid-glove approach to her Democratic rivals, the same resistance to chasing the media’s latest “shiny object” — Warren is finally making a few adjustments. According to a report Tuesday in the New York Times, she is “abandoning her above-the-fray approach and delivering her most forceful and direct criticism yet of her Democratic opponents”; “leaning into her role as the leading woman in the race”; and “overhaul[ing] the format of her town halls in pursuit of more organic moments to connect with voters.”

Most noticeable in recent days has been her sudden aggressiveness toward South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Last week, she challenged Buttigieg by name for the first time, demanding that he disclose the wealthy contributors gathering money for him, open his private fundraisers to the press and reveal the clients for whom he consulted while working at McKinsey. In response, Buttigieg insisted that Warren share her own corporate consulting history by releasing her taxes from more than a decade ago. (Both sides relented earlier this week.)

Meanwhile, Warren has increasingly sought to rally women to her side, buying dozens of Facebook ads featuring ex-candidates Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand and pledging to wear a pink Planned Parenthood scarf at her presidential inauguration.

“Tough women know how to get things done,” Warren said last week at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Boston.

Will any of Warren’s maneuvering work? To answer that, it’s worth considering why she plummeted in the polls — and what’s preventing her from regaining altitude. Medicare for All was the ostensible reason, but the real issue ran deeper: It was actually about so-called electability, and whether she has what it takes to defeat Donald Trump (which every poll says is priority No. 1 for Democrats).

Photo: Mary Schwalm/AP

When in the run-up to her campaign launch Warren responded to Trump’s “Pocahontas” taunts by taking and then publicizing a DNA test showing that she may have had a Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago — a decision that received widespread criticism — Democrats began to doubt her ability to compete next November. She slowly regained their trust and rose in the polls. But her evasive and awkward embrace of Medicare for All rekindled those old anxieties, and again made rank-and-file Democrats wary of taking a risk on a trailblazing female candidate with one of the most liberal platforms in U.S. history.

As a result, Warren is now being squeezed from both sides. Buttigieg is poaching white, college-educated voters less interested in ideology than in defeating Trump; Sanders is reconnecting with progressives who believe that the surest way to defeat Trump is ideological purity. As a result, a Warren comeback will require more than just accusing Buttigieg of being a corporate stooge (because his voters don’t require purity) or reminding progressives that she’s a woman (because ideology, not identity, is what’s driving Sanders’s resurgence). Instead, to come back, Warren will have to prove that Democrats’ recurring fears are wrong, and that she is, in fact, electable.  

Ultimately, there’s only one way to prove you can win: by winning. By all accounts, Warren has the biggest and best operation in Iowa. Her New Hampshire team is equally impressive. She’s developed into a prodigious grassroots fundraiser, and her staff in Boston is skilled at avoiding distractions and focusing on their longer-term goals. That discipline, and the perception it created of an expertly run campaign, is part of what powered Warren’s initial ascent.

Back in 2004 — the last time lots of evenly matched Democrats were vying to run against a despised Republican incumbent — Vermont Gov. Howard Dean climbed to the top of the polls with his passionate antiwar, anti-establishment approach. Then, at the very last minute, he collapsed in Iowa.

Warren is a similar kind of candidate, but with two months to go before the first votes are cast, she has plenty of time left to do the opposite: to capitalize on lowered expectations and work toward a surprisingly strong finish. If she succeeds, she will have earned one last shot at the nomination. If she doesn’t, Democrats are unlikely to give her another chance.

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