The punditocracy decided Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wasn’t electable. The conventional wisdom said it was impossible for a mayor of a mid-sized Midwest city to compete for the presidential nomination, even if he was also a Rhodes Scholar and an Afghanistan war veteran. Hillary Clinton had too many policies, so Warren wasn’t going to win over voters with substance. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was utterly unknown to the vast majority of primary voters, so he couldn’t compete with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., whose name ID was practically 100%.
All of this was gibberish (as a few of us suggested), but now that we see an Iowa poll (albeit, ridiculously early so it is not predictive but rather descriptive of this moment in the race) in which former vice president Joe Biden is at a respectable 24%, and Sanders is in the midteens in a state he should be dominating (he got 49.6% in the 2016 Iowa caucuses), and worse, in a statistical tie with Warren (15%) and Buttigieg (14%).
Let me suggest four reasons Warren and Buttigieg are surging while Sanders is drifting down in the back and almost everyone else (but California Sen. Kamala Harris, who clocks in with 7%) is virtually invisible.
First, after 2½ years of listening to an ignorant — a proudly ignorant — president who plays to the lowest common denominator and has zero grasp of policy, Democrats (who take governing seriously) were just waiting for a supersmart, articulate, knowledgeable and informed candidate (or two). Warren has not only policies for virtually every issue but also a command of the facts that her policies aim to address. Buttigieg, his opponents claim, doesn’t have too many in-depth policies, but he has positions on just about everything, can speak fluently (in Norwegian, no less) about issues of the day and sounds very much like a brainy Rhodes Scholar.
Second, both Warren and Buttigieg have found a way to talk about faith, something the left hasn’t done for years. They defend Christian faith insofar as it inspires one to greet the stranger, care for the sick, tend to the elderly, etc. Warren loves to recite Matthew 25:31-40; Buttigieg expresses the same sentiment. (“When I think about where most of Scripture points me, it is toward defending the poor, and the immigrant, and the stranger, and the prisoner, and the outcast, and those who are left behind by the way society works,” he says. “And what we have now is this exaltation of wealth and power, almost for its own sake, that in my reading of Scripture couldn’t be more contrary to the message of Christianity.”) After watching a cruel, racist bully in the White House become the focus of the evangelical right’s adulation (verging on idolatry), Democrats are delighted to recapture the moral high ground.
Third, Warren and Buttigieg are not gloom-and-doom candidates. Buttigieg’s preternatural calm is soothing and reassuring; Warren’s peppiness and conviction that fundamental changes can be made (We can do this!) provide a relief from the cloud of Trump that has hung over our politics. Buttigieg promises to “change the channel” (please, take the remote!), and Warren bubbles with excitement as she describes her latest policy designed to level the playing field for average Americans. These are audaciously optimistic candidates.
Finally, better than most other candidates, they’ve used free media to their advantage. For a while, Buttigieg seemed to be on every cable TV show and at every town hall. Warren won’t go on Fox News, but she will go almost anywhere else and sign autographs and take pictures until the last person leaves. Not only do they maximize their audience by opening themselves up to questions, but they also convey confidence and energy in doing so.
In some respects, the success of Warren and Buttigieg shouldn’t surprise us. Optimism, confidence, a can-do attitude and bold value statements traditionally have worked well for candidates (e.g., Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama). And good candidates who are their own best messengers tend to beat weaker candidates who either shrink from the press or provide mushy, equivocating answers. Somewhere, the late Sen. John McCain — the originator of the Straight Talk Express — is smiling.