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2 October 2019

Is Elizabeth Warren now the Democratic primary frontrunner?

Trump’s attempted attack on Biden in Ukraine may have backfired, but Warren’s surefooted campaign has kept her steadily moving up through the pack.

By Nicky Woolf

Since the bombshell news that president Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodmyr Zelensky to illegally investigate Joe Biden dropped last week, causing the dam to finally break for House Democrats on the question of impeachment, it has been an open question what exactly it would do in the primary race.

True, the scandal framed former vice-president Joe Biden in direct opposition to the president as opposed to as one of a number of potential rivals. But there were potential downsides as well. 

The substance of the allegations behind the investigation Trump tried to pressure Zelensky into opening – that Biden, while vice-president, acted corruptly to intervene on behalf of his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company – is bunk. But still, as it played out the story did bring an uncomfortable focus on Hunter Biden and the slightly sketchy company, Burisma, with which he was involved.

The sons of presidents and vice-presidents often serve on the boards of companies, and there is absolutely no indication that Biden himself acted in any way untoward. But in the days afterwards it remained an open question as to whether the enormity of Trump’s clearly illegal act of pressuring Zelensky to investigate Biden would eclipse the spurious allegations Trump and his allies were making, or whether the whiff of scandal would infect its originally intended target as well.

On Wednesday, that question was answered by a new YouGov poll, conducted for the Economist between September 28 and October 1 – meaning the Ukraine story has had a chance to percolate through the primary electorate. The findings don’t look great for the former vice-president: the poll found that Biden’s support had dropped four percentage points, to 22 per cent, among likely voters.

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The poll showed a five percentage point gain for Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren up to 26 per cent support, a solid four points ahead of the former vice-president. True, this is just one poll. But the trend within the Democratic primary race is pretty clear.

Biden started the race as by far the frontrunner, with Bernie Sanders in second place, but the former found himself steadily losing ground and the latter has largely appeared to stall. Meanwhile, Warren’s trajectory has been that of a steady, consistent climb.

In part, this was to be expected. Biden and Bernie’s advantage of being the two best-known names was always going to dwindle as the primary electorate got to know the other candidates. Biden, as the frontrunner from the start, has spent the whole race so far with a target painted on his back. 

But while Biden has largely managed to fend off attacks – though California senator Kamala Harris did land some heavy blows early on – his debate performances have been lacklustre and his campaign has been clumsy, stumbling into quagmires on issues like segregation.

Warren, meanwhile, began the race with a big miss-step. In October 2018, after Trump attacked her for identifying as Native American on a college form, she took a DNA test and released the results – a move which only amplified the attack, and led her to have to apologise to Native American leaders. 

But since then she has run an almost-eerily surefooted and energetic campaign. Putting out a vast quantity of policy papers and plans, she has become widely known as the candidate with the most cohesive vision for the country, and she was the first of the candidates to call for Trump’s impeachment after the Mueller report was released.

While candidates like Harris or South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg rose and fell, Warren’s support has climbed steadily month-on-month. Starting at around six per cent support back in April, she passed the ten per cent mark in June and never dipped below it. By the end of September, she had doubled that figure. 

As of earlier this week, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling average, she is comfortably in second place and trailing Biden by only four points – and that number has not yet integrated the 2 Oct poll. Even worse for Biden, in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, the average has her leading the former vice-president by just under three points. One Iowa poll of likely caucus-goers showed her up by eight.

She has also begun turning out some staggeringly large crowds to her campaign events; 20,000 people attended a Warren rally in September in New York. No-one else in the field draws crowds like that. Trump doesn’t even draw crowds like that.

While of course there is nothing to Trump’s accusations of scandal against Biden – and, moreover, the way Trump attempted the attack might be what finally collapses his presidency – the net effect seems still to be that it has boosted Warren’s support and deepened Biden’s slump. That means that Warren, if things don’t change, is arguably the Democratic presidential frontrunner.