Red, white, and blue boater hats dotted the crowd. “Elizabeth Warren for President,” they read. Several attendees waited to unfold banners with her picture and block letters, “Run Liz Run.” Blue signs were branded: “I’m from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party.” The activists began to gather about 90 minutes earlier, packing the conference hall, waiting for their woman. Then she was introduced. The crowd cheered and whistled. Banners were spread. She raised her right arm and hollered “whooo,” smiling, waving, alternating arms. They chanted: “Run, Liz, Run! Run, Liz, Run!”
“Sit down, sit down,” she whispered into the microphone. They chanted on. She raised her voice, “Come on, let’s get started, sit down, sit down,” clapping her hands once. And the young Democrats quieted. So she eased into her firebrand. “The game is rigged,” she said, patting her fist. “And the rich and powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much.” She crossed her arms and leaned her elbows on the podium and her tone became conversant. “So the way I see this. We can whine about it, we can whimper about it.” She paused and hinted a smile. “Or we can fight back. I’m fighting back! Are you ready to fight back on this?” And they cheered and chanted: “Run, Liz, Run! Run Liz, Run!”
Welcome to the draft-Warren well, it’s too nascent to be a movement. The organization that handed out thousands of those plastic boaters, “Ready for Warren,” was three days old that July day. Its volunteers had brought the banners, passed around a few hundred signs and numerous stickers, and lined a carpeted hallway with the paraphernalia of a presidential campaign that does not exist. Yet exist? Likely not? Warren insists not. But the hopeful hang on to “yet.” The other signage, heralding Warren Democrats, was courtesy of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. So were the hoodies, the t-shirts, and the bumper stickers. The crowd was not in Detroit for Warren. They had come for the Netroots Nation conference. A litany of progressive pols did, too. Even Vice President Biden spoke. But it was Warren who roused them.
“It felt like a campaign rally,” said Erica Sagrans, the campaign manager for the unofficial campaign, “Ready for Warren.” “People were really pumped up. It was electric.” The media agreed. Outlets wrote of the “liberal superstar” and “celebrity.” The New York Times declared, in a sentence resonant of Democratic primaries of old, “Progressives like—or at least tolerate—Mrs. Clinton (and think she can win). But they love Ms. Warren (even if they are not sure she can).”
Yet, even for a news cycle, the Clinton consensus sustained. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza declared that same day: “Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.” That may be true. But lower in the column, Cillizza noted something equally true of Warren. “The Massachusetts Senator is the only person who could credibly mount a challenge to Clinton,” he wrote. “But she’s not going to do it.” Because, while the Beltway loves a good game of will-he, won’t-she, the political class is largely convinced Warren will not run. And even if she did, few believe any Democrat can defeat Clinton.
There Hillary was on the cover of The New Republic beside one word: “Inevitable.” NPR headlined, “Hillary Clinton, The Inevitable? Sure Seems Like It.” Earlier this year, Time magazine placed her on the cover and asked, “Can anyone stop Hillary?” It was meant to be a rhetorical question.
Of course, in 2008, the inevitable proved evitable. Clinton is better positioned this cycle. She consistently leads other potential Democratic candidates in polls by over 50 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics average. In the 2008 primary race, Clinton’s largest lead rarely reached 30 points in that same average. Early polls are not predictive. But sizeable leads help corral donors and party leaders, as well as dissuade those who also want to be president.
This lead may say less about Hillary, however, than her unrealized opposition. Today, more Democrats are behind her. But they are not more excited about her. CNN polling finds that this cycle, as in 2007, four in 10 Democrats say they would be enthusiastic if Clinton were their nominee. That means a majority would not.
This is how Gary Hart sees it. The former senator, the man who came closer than most movement candidates to defeating the establishment choice of his day, stressed in an interview that “frontrunner is a function name recognition.” When one notes Clinton’s commanding position in the polls, he emphasized how little other candidates are known. A significant minority of “Democrats want someone else,” he said.
And many activists think they found someone else. A thousand supporters raucously cheered her at an Oregon hotel. In Kentucky, the “overwhelming” crowd stretched at least three blocks. It was standing room only inside a ballroom in West Virginia. They had come to see her, the woman who could be president. And her name is not Hillary.
It is Warren, not Clinton, who has proven a “powerhouse” on this year’s campaign trail. Yet however popular Warren is, however often her name is floated as a potential candidate, the Clinton consensus endures.
After that day in Detroit, a Slate headline read: “The movement to elect Elizabeth Warren president is make believe.” Of course, that’s news to people like Sagrans. Her group’s website, ready4warren.com, launched in mid July. She said volunteers have “grown exponentially” since. That, “grassroots donations are flowing in steadily.” The group is still forming its fundraising apparatus, including a finance committee. She recently held a conference call with about 100 volunteers. She flies into Iowa today for the state fair, a hive of presidential glad-handing. A priority, she added, is to organize volunteer staff in Iowa and New Hampshire.
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