Warren works to calm rising electability fears pre-Iowa

The question has shot to the forefront in the final stretch before Iowa as she falls behind in surveys to national front-runner Joe Biden and an ascendant Bernie Sanders.

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By Sahil Kapur

Elizabeth Warren and her surrogates are working to calm growing fears about her perceived ability to defeat President Donald Trump as she falls behind in surveys to national front-runner Joe Biden and an ascendant Bernie Sanders in the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses.

Warren's dip in national and early-state polls comes as she loses ground gained in the fall on the question of "electability," a major factor for Democratic primary voters.

A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday found that just 7 percent of Democrats believe Warren has the best chance to defeat Trump, down from 21 percent in October. Sanders was viewed by 19 percent of Democrats as the most electable, up from 7 percent in October. Biden led both with 44 percent, steady since he launched his campaign in April.

Hosting a tele-town hall with Iowans on Tuesday evening, Warren was asked by a supporter what the main point backers should use to encourage others to caucus for her. She quickly evoked electability.

“'She’s our best chance to win,'” Warren told the supporter to say of her. “'She knows how to fight, she knows how to win, she’s the only one who’s beaten an incumbent Republican in the last 30 years,'” she said, referring to her victory over Sen. Scott Brown in 2012.

“He was very well liked and very telegenic," Warren said of Brown — "two things Donald Trump is not.”

Hours earlier, prominent Warren surrogates hosted a conference call with reporters centered on bolstering her electability case. Some said a woman is likeliest to inspire people and contended that swing voters want bold ideas and not Wall Street-friendly centrists.

“This election is about turnout,” said Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., arguing that to attract key voters in Michigan who sat out the 2016 election, "you have to have a bold economic vision about how you’re going to take on the corruption in Washington, and she speaks to that better than anyone else.”

“The way to beat Donald Trump is with a lot of authenticity and a super-strong economic message, a bold message that zooms in on people's pain,” he said.

Two new Warren ads in Iowa make the case that she can win. One, called "Why She Will Beat Him," contrasts her humble beginnings with Trump's lavish inheritance; the other, called "Betsy," features supportive testimonials from her family members, some of whom are Republicans.

The new focus comes at a difficult time for Warren. She has been stuck in Washington as a juror for Trump’s impeachment trial just when she needs to be on the campaign trail, forced to reach voters instead through virtual town halls, television interviews and surrogates, including former HUD secretary and presidential candidate Julián Castro in Iowa and the actress Ashley Judd in New Hampshire.

Hosting a meet-and-greet for Warren on Tuesday in Ankeny, Castro lowered expectations by telling NBC News that "she'll do well here." Asked if Warren needs to win the state, he replied: "I don’t think so. I don't think there's any one state that is a must win" because Warren was organized for the long haul.

This month, Warren landed in a spat with Sanders just as she was starting to pitch herself as a bridge between warring Democratic factions. Underpinning it was a dispute between the two progressives about whether Sanders told Warren in a private 2018 meeting that he didn’t believe a woman could get elected in 2020. His denial during a recent debate was followed by a tense hot-mic moment where she accused him of calling her a liar.

Quinnipiac University polling analyst Tim Malloy said the timing of Warren’s drop in the polls suggests that it may be driven by concerns about her ability to win and her "Medicare for All" plan.

“First and foremost — ahead of policies, economy, health care — if you sat down a lot of Democrats right now, they would say we need someone that could beat Donald Trump,” Malloy said.

But there’s one bright spot for Warren: She is the clear favorite “second choice” among Democratic voters according to five recent surveys, including two Iowa polls by Monmouth and the New York Times/Siena. The others were a New Hampshire poll by CNN/University of New Hampshire and two national polls by the Washington Post/ABC and Quinnipiac.

That puts her in a precarious position heading into the Iowa caucuses on Monday: She’s well positioned to capitalize if another candidate slips or quits. But she also risks middling finishes in early states that could push her out of contention by March.

On the Tuesday call, some Warren surrogates made the positive case for her position.

“The second-place phenomenon, at least in Iowa, is not a bad thing at all,” said Iowa state Sen. Zach Wahls. “When it comes to the second-order effect, if she can finish top two in Iowa, top three, it’ll give people cause for reconsideration. It’ll send a really positive message.”

Sahil Kapur reported from New York, and Ali Vitali from Ankeny, Iowa.

Ali Vitali contributed.