Surging In The Polls, Elizabeth Warren Sets Her Sights On California's Primary

The Massachusetts senator is picking up steam in the Golden State as home-state Sen. Kamala Harris' polling numbers tumble.

SAN DIEGO ― A new poll confirms that a tight three-way race is developing in California’s key Democratic presidential primary, with one candidate showing impressive momentum: Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

A survey released Thursday by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Warren the choice of 23% of likely primary voters, with former Vice President Joe Biden at 22% and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at 21%. When the Democratic race was first taking shape in the spring, a Quinnipiac Poll had shown Warren in single digits in the Golden State, far behind Biden, Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Indeed, as Warren’s support has surged in California ― as it has nationally ― the prospects for Harris in her home state have taken a hit, again reflecting national trends. Perhaps the new poll’s most striking finding is that Harris trailed well behind the pack with just 8% support, another sign of trouble for her struggling campaign.

“Warren may well be a beneficiary of Harris’ collapse,” said veteran California Democratic strategist Garry South. “Since her very impressive debut (as a White House candidate) in Oakland in January, Harris has done little in California to solidify whatever support may have been potentially there for her.”

Voters like Cindy Henderson, an author who showed up to hear Warren speak Thursday as the candidate made her first campaign stop in San Diego, give a glimpse into the race’s current dynamics.

“I was actually a Kamala fan,” Henderson said. “Just something in the last two or three months, I’m just kind of dropping off [on her]. I think she’s not quite ready. I just don’t think there’s much depth yet. The more I hear and watch what Elizabeth does, it’s just like, OK, she’s a rock star. I’m loving her message.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren at her outdoor rally Thursday in San Diego.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren at her outdoor rally Thursday in San Diego.
Mike Blake / Reuters

Warren drew about 8,500 people for her rally in downtown San Diego. (A rally for Sanders was attended by an estimated 6,400 people at the same venue in May).

Like most of Warren’s audiences, her Thursday crowd was predominantly white ― which aligns with how her support breaks down in public opinion surveys, as well. A UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released in late September showed her leading the California race with 29%, with Biden at 21% and Sanders at 20%. But Warren trailed both of those two with Latino voters.

Warren mostly stuck to her populist stump speech on Thursday, laying out her plans to take on Washington corruption, special interests and big corporations. She appeared to choke up at one point as she recalled the family struggles that marked her childhood in Oklahoma, including the time her mother lost her job. The story is a big hit with many voters, who cite it when discussing the candidate.

At one point, after discussing her plan to break up big tech companies, Warren called out Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who told employees in recently leaked audio the company would “go to the mat” to defeat her efforts.

“And yes, Mark Zuckerberg, I’m looking at you,” she said, to cheers and applause from the audience.

The true contours of the Democratic battle will emerge in February when the narrative-driving nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina take place. But right around the corner comes primaries in 14 states on March 3, Super Tuesday. And California is the day’s dominant contest, with 416 convention delegates allotted.

That’s why so many of the main Democratic contenders are paying frequent visits to the state to meet with voters ― as well as well-heeled donors. Also, early mail-in voting begins a month before the actual primary date. And conquering California presents unique challenges for a politician: its population is decidedly more diverse than that in the earlier-voting states, campaign ads are far more expensive than in those other locales and gaining media attention is difficult.

In terms of having the money to compete, Warren and Sanders are well-primed as the race enters the final stretch before primary season. Warren raised $24.6 million in the third quarter, her campaign told supporters in an email Friday, and has $25.7 million cash on hand. Sanders, hospitalized earlier this week in Nevada because of a blocked artery, raised $25.3 million from July to September (his campaign didn’t release a cash-on-hand figure).

Their figures are especially impressive because both candidates have opted against holding fundraisers focused on big-dollar donors during the primary campaign.

Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, reported a lackluster $15.2 million raised over the past three months, far less than his second-quarter haul of $21.5 million. He could be in trouble if his fundraising continues to taper off.

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee announced raising a combined $125 million in the third quarter, a record-setting haul. His war chest will only grow as Democrats spend several months ― and maybe more, in the case of a lengthy primary battle ― determining their nominee.

Warren dismissed Trump’s haul on Thursday, telling reporters she didn’t think “scooping up a bunch of money from rich people and buying a bunch of TV ads” is “how democracy works anymore.” She added: “I think it’s going to be about going out and building a grassroots movement.”

Given Warren’s steady rise in the primary race, the Oct. 15 Democratic debate in Westerville, Ohio, looms particularly large for her. As the frontrunner in several of the race’s most recent national polls, she’ll likely have a bigger target on her back.

The struggling status of Sen. Kamala Harris' presidential bid is reflected in the latest poll gauging support in the March 3 Democratic primary in her home state of California.
The struggling status of Sen. Kamala Harris' presidential bid is reflected in the latest poll gauging support in the March 3 Democratic primary in her home state of California.
Steve Marcus / Reuters

Even as Warren received enthusiastic backing at her San Diego rally, interviews with some of the undecided voters at it underscored some of the doubts she still most overcome.

Corinne Lytle-Bonine, an environmental consultant who voted for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, acknowledged she was giving Warren a strong look this time around.

“Having the nomination be another old white man is a hard pill to swallow when it feels like women have been the ones really carrying the Democrats through 2018,” Lytle-Bonine said.

She added that “I think Warren has some establishment credentials that Bernie doesn’t, and may make her more electable in the general election.”

Still, Lytle-Bonine questioned why Warren has been hesitant to acknowledge whether the middle class would see a tax hike if, as president, she would push into law “Medicare-for-All” government health care plan Sanders has introduced and that she supports. Several of Warren’s rivals have criticized her for repeatedly dodging the question; she’s brushed off the attacks as unfair Republican framing.

“I wish that she would” directly deal with that issue, Lytle-Bonine said. “I guess I don’t know what is holding her back. I don’t think it’s a hard answer to say ‘Yes, we’ll raise taxes, however, all of your out-of-pocket expenses (for health care) go away.’”

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