Liberal activists were begging for Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president last year. Instead, they got Sen. Bernard Sanders. Now, activists are back on the Warren train, saying she needs to take the leap in 2020.
Touring the country to promote her new book, “This Fight Is Our Fight,” Ms. Warren has the correct politics to be a major force within a Democratic Party that is tilting further leftward in a push toward economic-centered politics, activists said. What she needs now is commitment to being the leader rather than just the moral compass.
“One wanted it and one did not, but she’s now inheriting the progressive wing. And if she wants to be the leader, she’ll benefit,” said Michael Wilson, national director of Americans for Democratic Action, a leading liberal advocacy group.
Though she says she is focused on her Senate re-election bid next year, Ms. Warren is sending all the right signals for someone interested in the 2020 presidential race. She talks about the kind of message Democrats will need to win and about those pockets of the country where they might successfully counter President Trump’s economic populism.
“We have to take full responsibility for this. If Democrats are fighting for America’s working families, then it is up to us to make that clear,” she said on MSNBC this month.
“If we’re not fighting, then people have no reason to put faith in us. So the way I see this is we just have to get back in the fight. We have to live our values every single day.”
The first-term senator seemed to relish the attention in the last go-around, downplaying her interest in the presidency in interviews, only to reignite speculation a day later with a different answer.
“Draft Warren” movements continued deep into the campaign, but she took a pass and stayed out of the battle between Mr. Sanders and Hillary Clinton. She endorsed Mrs. Clinton in June, after the primaries were over and it was clear — barring a major surprise at the Democratic National Convention — that the former first lady would be the nominee.
But activists believed her heart was with the Sanders side of the party and say that set her up well to pick up the progressive baton.
“Sen. Warren is already there with Sen. Sanders on the left,” Mr. Wilson said. “She’s already been the leading voice.”
As proof, activists pointed to the crowds that Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren draw.
“When we convened hundreds of progressive state lawmakers at our postelection conference last year, no one had the crowd on their feet more than Sen. Warren,” said Nick Rathod, executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, a progressive group that works at the state legislative level. “Her message of leveling the playing field for working families resonates with Americans across the country — and the elected officials who represent them.”
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Democrats will spend the next few cycles sorting themselves out, but they need to build their conversation around the populist economic message that Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders are touting.
“I would argue that the only way Democrats can win in red and purple states is to lean in to the populist message of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders,” he said. “Nobody got bigger crowds in places like West Virginia, Ohio or Kentucky than Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.”
Ms. Warren seems to have put some distance between herself and former President Barack Obama, after word surfaced that he was charging $400,000 a speech, including one planned at Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald later this year.
Ms. Warren said she was troubled that Mr. Obama would be speaking to the financial group after calling such banks “fat cats” and passing the Dodd-Frank Act to regulate Wall Street in wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Boston-based Democratic Party strategist Scott Ferson called Ms. Warren “the rightful heir” to Mr. Sanders’ movement but questioned whether she will be able to consolidate those forces, particularly white men. This bloc gave difficulty to Mrs. Clinton last year but were avid supporters of Mr. Sanders.
“Would Bernie have beaten Trump? Could Warren drive those voters to the polls? I don’t know,” said Mr. Ferson. “She’s certainly most appealing in the Democratic primary.”
He did say, however, that Ms. Warren’s strategy has to be creating not just an economic message, but also a broad one that can pull in more people.
“Our economic job growth policy cannot be, ‘You’re in the wrong place; you should move,’” he said.
Messaging, he said, was where Mr. Trump had the Democrats beat: He had a simple economic message that voters understood.
“Those people listened and responded,” Mr. Ferson said.
Mr. Wilson agreed, saying people want economic independence, which may sound like a conservative idea but is one Democrats need to embrace in their own way.
“Economic independence, whether it comes from a free market or a society with much more of a safety net, connects people,” he said. “It opens up what people are able to understand about each other.”
“The challenge will be the connection part of it.”
The country hasn’t been kind to presidential candidates from Massachusetts. Gov. Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 election, Sen. John F. Kerry lost in 2004 and former Gov. Mitt Romney stumbled in 2012.
Some Republican Party strategists are hoping Democrats do turn to Ms. Warren in 2020.
They spotted a strategic move this year in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s actions earlier year when the Kentucky Republican had Ms. Warren reprimanded for violating rules of the Senate in reading a letter critical of Sen. Jeff Sessions. The letter, by the late Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was part of Democrats’ effort to derail Mr. Sessions’ nomination to be attorney general.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” Mr. McConnell said in explaining her punishment of being silenced for the rest of the Sessions debate.
His words became a rallying cry for Democrats, who quickly printed buttons and stickers proclaiming, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Mr. Trump has a nickname for Ms. Warren: “Pocahontas.” During her 2012 Senate campaign, Ms. Warren claimed to have American Indian heritage.
Ms. Warren and Mr. Trump do have one thing in common: Both rely heavily on social media to get their messages out and to troll their opponents.
“Elizabeth Warren is the Donald Trump of the left,” said Boston-based Republican strategist Patrick Griffin.
Mr. Griffin said Ms. Warren’s Twitter feed was saturated with vitriol and shameless intolerance that feeds her progressive base but doesn’t allow for conversations with those who disagree. He said it is this kind of extremism that would prevent Ms. Warren from a general election victory.
“Her biggest challenge is she can’t win in the general,” he said.
Democrats seem united by the idea that Mr. Trump needs to be called out on behavior they disagree with as part of what Mr. Green explained was “naming the villains.” But Mr. Ferson said the back-and-forth fights, especially within a party, isn’t helpful.
“I tend to think all this activity and reaction is what people don’t like about politics,” he said.