The other argument Warren’s team advances is that candidates seen as polarizing can win presidential elections, though the assertion dodges the fundamental question at hand. Modern presidential elections demonstrate that some candidates viewed as too far outside the mainstream—like Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Donald Trump in 2016—can indeed prevail. Yet other ideologically driven presidential hopefuls, such as Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972, have suffered embarrassing defeats.
The relevant question isn’t whether an ideologically extreme nominee can win a presidential election. As I’ve written, Trump’s consistently weak approval ratings all but guarantee that any Democratic candidate will be competitive. The question is how costly choosing such a nominee will be. The threat that Warren poses to Democrats is that she could turn an easily winnable election into a dogfight.
Even if voters aren’t dwelling on policy specifics, their ideological perception of the candidates makes a huge difference. Democrats deliberately avoided invoking polarizing cultural issues when competing for swing districts last year—a strategy that allowed them to comfortably win back the House majority. The relative few who invoked a populist message like Warren’s lost winnable suburban seats.