Here’s how Warren can still beat Sanders and win it all

Elizabeth Warren has a problem. Its name is Bernie Sanders.

In case you couldn’t tell, the oft-mentioned and surprisingly durable “nonaggression pact” between the two progressive heavyweights appears to have collapsed in the final days before the pivotal Iowa caucuses.

First the Sanders camp distributed a script instructing its volunteers to deride Warren as an upper-crust candidate incapable of expanding the Democratic base. Then Warren accused Sanders in a fundraising email of “sending his volunteers out to trash me.” Then CNN reported late Monday that Sanders once told Warren that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency. Sanders denied the charge, calling it “ludicrous” and insisting that “staff who weren't in the room are lying about what happened.” Warren said otherwise. “Among the topics that came up was what would happened if Democrats nominated a female candidate,” she recalled in a statement. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” The predictable firestorm — Was Sanders was being sexist? Is Warren smearing him unfairly? How will this affect the primary? — is still raging on Twitter.

Perhaps Warren and Sanders will patch things up at Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Des Moines. Perhaps not. Either way, the eleventh-hour hostilities reflect a key dynamic that a few conciliatory words won’t change: If Warren doesn’t defeat Sanders in Iowa, her path to the nomination will narrow greatly; long-term, there’s likely only enough room in the race for one major progressive alternative to moderate pacesetter Joe Biden. But if Warren does beat Bernie in Iowa, she could still win it all.

Here’s how that could happen.

In recent days, much of the media spotlight has shined on Sanders, and with good reason. The gold-standard Des Moines Register poll, released Friday, showed Sanders leading in Iowa for the first time, with 20 percent of likely caucusgoers naming him as their first choice for president. Nationally he has been in second place since Thanksgiving, and he is roughly tied for first in polling averages of IowaNew Hampshire and Nevada. He’s secured key progressive endorsements and raised more money than any other Democrat. Some experts have even called him “the frontrunner.”

Yet Warren has also gotten some good news lately (even if that good news has gotten less attention). And it’s the kind of good news that suggests a candidate who’s already come back before — most famously after she flubbed that whole Native American DNA test gambit — might be able to come back again.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., attends a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Dirksen Building titled 'Foreign Cyber Threats to the United States,' featuring testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and others, January 5, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Armed Services Committee members (L-R) Sen. Martin Heinrich (D - NM), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) talk during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs testified to the committee about cyber threats to the United States and fielded questions about effects of Russian government hacking on the 2016 presidential election.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) (L) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arrive for a hearing with the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Agency chief in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs testified to the committee about cyber threats to the United States and fielded questions about effects of Russian government hacking on the 2016 presidential election.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), speaks to and meets New England voters during a rally at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday October 24, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Mark Wahlberg, Former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Boston Police Commissioner Billy Evans, Former Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz, Dun 'Danny' Meng, Jessica Downes, Patrick Downes, Senator Elizabeth Warren, director Peter Berg and Harvard Law professor Bruce Mann pose on the red carpet at the 'Patriots Day' screening at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on December 14, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

(Photo by Natasha Moustache/WireImage)

Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), speaks to and meets New England voters during a rally at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday October 24, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Former Red Sox player David Ortiz talks with Senator Elizabeth Warren at the 'Patriots Day' screening at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on December 14, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

(Photo by Natasha Moustache/WireImage)

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren hold a rally at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH on Oct. 24, 2016.

(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at a Manchester 'New Hampshire Together' Canvass Launch event in Manchester, NH on Sept. 24, 2016.

(Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren speaks onstage at EMILY's List Breaking Through 2016 at the Democratic National Convention at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

(Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images For EMILY's List)

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, holds up copies of Wells Fargo earnings call transcripts as she questions John Stumpf, chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo, as he testifies about the unauthorized opening of accounts by Wells Fargo during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 20, 2016.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) along with members of the Democratic Women of the Senate acknowledge the crowd on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.

(Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) delivers remarks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III welcomes Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on stage on Day 1 of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 25, 2016.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks to and meets Ohio voters during a rally at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio on Monday, June 27, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airing live, Thursday July 21, 2016 in New York. With guest Elizabeth Warren .

(Photo by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arrives in the Capitol for the on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) meets with Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (L), chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court, April 14, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Garland continued to place visits to Senate members after he was nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, listens as Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. Yellen offered a subtle change to her outlook from less than a week ago, saying she and her colleagues were on watch for whether, rather than when, the U.S. economy would show clear signs of improvement.

(Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., greets guests during a rally on the east lawn of the Capitol to urge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to hold a vote on the 'Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act,' March 9, 2016. The legislation would provide a one time payment to seniors, veterans and other SSI recipients who will not get a cost-of-living adjustment this year.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators Bob Corker (L) and Elizabeth Warren (R) speak before a Senate Banking Committee on the semiannual monetary report to Congress hearing in Washington, USA on February 11, 2016.

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), talks with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) in the House chamber prior to President Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013.

(REUTERS/Charles Dharapak/Pool)

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Take the famously accurate DMR poll. The Register’s previous survey, conducted in November, showed Pete Buttigieg leading the field at 25 percent; in its latest survey, Buttigieg has dropped nine points to 16 percent. That means Warren, at 17 percent, is now ahead of Buttigieg and Joe Biden (who trails both of them at 15 percent).

The margins are close, but if you dig deeper into the DMR data, you’ll see that Warren may be in even better shape than those topline numbers indicate. That’s because the Iowa caucuses aren’t one big election; they’re actually 1,679 smaller elections, one in each precinct. And there’s a twist: whenever a candidate doesn’t reach the state’s 15 percent “viability threshold” on the first round of balloting in a particular precinct, their supporters have to disband and "realign" with another candidate (or go home). If the Register’s numbers are right, only Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Biden would currently meet the threshold statewide; the other 19 percent of likely caucusgoers who preferred a lower-polling candidate would have to realign in the room.

That means second choices are crucial. And guess who’s currently Iowa’s top second-choice pick, according to the Register poll? Warren. Her 16 percent on that measure edges out Buttigieg (15 percent), Biden (12 percent) and, most importantly, Sanders (12 percent), giving her the highest combined first-and-second-choice score in the field (33 percent). Warren’s net favorability rating (+46 percent) is also higher than Buttigieg’s (+44 percent), Sanders’ (+37 percent) and Biden’s (+29 percent). It’s quite possible, then, to imagine a scenario in which Sanders leads on the first ballot and Warren overtakes him after realignment. In fact, the Register’s pollsters have already calculated that Warren would gain a point if Cory Booker’s supporters were reallocated after his decision Monday to drop out — and Sanders wouldn’t gain at all.

If Warren were to win Iowa — or, at a minimum, finish ahead of her main progressive rival — she would likely benefit from the element of surprise; Sanders’s surge has raised expectations for his performance while lowering them for Warren. That boost would then breathe new life into Warren’s campaign in New Hampshire and elsewhere, giving her at least a shot at the nomination. 

All of this, of course, is speculative — a theory will only bear out if Warren’s team actually capitalizes on the opportunity in Iowa. Yet there’s reason to think they may be making the right moves in the final phase of the campaign. Organization is more important in Iowa than anywhere else. It’s what gets your supporters to come out and caucus for hours in a school gymnasium on a cold February weeknight; it’s what helps them persuade other candidates’ supporters to jump ship during realignment. And by most accounts, Warren has the biggest, broadest and most embedded ground game in the state — with more resources devoted to far-flung rural precincts, where you can win delegates with fewer raw votes.

Then there’s Warren’s closing argument to consider. For a year, the policy-centric Massachusetts senator spoke almost exclusively about “big structural change” and how she has “a plan for that.” She still does. But recently she has placed less emphasis on how she will govern and more emphasis on how she can win.

“We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016, and we can’t have a repeat of that,” Warren warned in response to the story about the Sanders script. “Democrats need to unite our party and that means pulling in all parts of the Democratic coalition.”

Meanwhile, she has taken to revisiting her 2012 Senate victory over Scott Brown on the stump. “I will be the only person on that debate stage… who has beaten a popular incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years,” she said Monday on Pod Save America, an influential progressive podcast. “He had about a 65 percent approval rating… He just beat a very qualified woman. … But I got in that race. I started out way down, I just kept fighting, and I ended up beating him by seven-and-a-half points.”

In one sense, both of these arguments are intended to defuse Warren’s greatest weakness: voters’ fear, rekindled by her awkward embrace of Medicare for All, that she can’t beat Trump. But they are also implicit contrasts with Sanders, who was, you’ll recall, a participant in the “factionalism” of 2016 and has never defeated a “popular incumbent Republican” himself. Warren isn’t just saying she’s electable. She’s saying she’s more electable than Sanders.

Whether the strategy works remains to be seen. But one other DMR data point seems relevant. Warren has the support of 19 percent of those who say they caucused for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 20 percent of those who say they caucused for Sanders. No other top-tier candidate can claim such a small gap: not Buttigieg (18/13), not Biden (24/2) and certainly not Sanders (44/4).  And when a recent Economist/YouGov survey asked Democratic primary voters about candidates whose nominations would disappoint them, Warren came in last, with 11 percent.

In other words, there’s some evidence that Warren is, in fact, best-positioned to unify the Democratic Party. We’ll find out Feb. 3 whether Iowans agree.

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