The media is completely missing Elizabeth Warren's biggest strength

The media is completely missing Elizabeth Warren's biggest strength
Gage Skidmore

One would never know it by the post-Iowa media narrative of the Democratic race, but there is a fourth candidate in the top four coming out of Iowa. That candidate finished third, over-performing expectations and beating out the national front-runner. Wow! Who’s that?, you say. She’s a woman, tall and a touch lanky. She’s got a famous dog. Oh … right!


Seriously, the mainstream media counted Elizabeth Warren out before Iowa happened. Then when she claimed one of the three tickets heading out of Iowa, they counted her out again. The only stories I have seen for a solid four days now are about the jostling for first between Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders and then an onslaught of stories perseverating over whether Joe Biden can rise from the dead. Since the mainstream media won’t write a single thing about Warren, I’m going to because, while Warren isn’t getting the post-Iowa boost that Buttigieg and Sanders are, I still think she’s got the best chance of building a coalition that can appeal to the broadest range of voters.

Here’s why: Buttigieg is gaining in New Hampshire and might pull out a first or second place win there. But he’s still nowhere with people of color. He’s got a wall once he hits more diverse states, South Carolina, in particular. Could that change? Perhaps, but we haven’t seen any evidence of that yet and his efforts to broaden his appeal have fallen flat so far.

Bernie’s theory of the case has always been that he can beat Trump because he will motivate more people to the polls, including an army of youth and other nontraditional voters, to vote for his revolution, as he calls it. He has continually polled strongest among voters under 30 and, to his credit, across a range of demographics. He was well organized in Iowa and his campaign predicted turnout there would rival that of 2008, when Barack Obama drew a whole new generation of voters to the polls. "I will tell you this without a shadow of a doubt,” Sanders said, heading into Iowa, “If there is a large voter turnout—if working people and young people come out in large numbers—we will win and win big." Sanders campaign spokesperson Mike Casca told Politico, “If there's a huge voter turnout, you can turn off your TV—Bernie won.”

Unfortunately for Democrats as a party, turnout was nowhere near ‘08 levels (roughly 240,000 caucusers), rather it was closer to 2016 levels (roughly 170,000 caucusers). The record-level turnout that the Sanders camp hyped doesn’t seem to have materialized. Perhaps to Sanders’ credit, turnout among voters under 30 appears to have increased slightly from 2008 levels. The Sanders camp also put serious energy into increasing participation with nontraditional voters by organizing satellite caucuses, which the campaign argues could still help Sanders edge out Buttigieg in the state delegate equivalent count. But any way you slice it, turnout was underwhelming and perhaps even concerning given the necessity of beating Donald Trump.

What that suggests is that bringing more voters into the fold as Sanders aimed to do isn’t enough. On the other hand, nominating someone who alienates Democrats’ most loyal voting bloc, as Buttigieg seems to, could produce exactly the type of turnout problems in the Rust Belt states that hobbled Hillary Clinton in ’16, not to mention the fact that it would make expanding the map very difficult for Democrats.

And while Joe Biden on paper seems to be the perfect candidate to hit both of those notes, on the stump he has proven to be uninspiring, which is exactly why he finished fourth in Iowa. Once voters really start paying attention to Biden, he fails to make the conversion. That was true even though both he and Buttigieg had a wide open state for two weeks while Sanders, Warren, and Amy Klobuchar were all stuck in Washington at Trump’s impeachment trial. Buttigieg was able to capitalize on that advantage, Biden wasn’t and it’s telling.

So who, you ask, could put together a coalition that motivates progressives, working class voters, and people of color, while still drawing cross-over votes among never-Trumpers? Warren. While Warren did not dominate hardly any counties across Iowa, her numbers were strong enough among a wide variety of voters and regions of the state that she pulled off a third-place finish. The fact that Warren actually outperformed expectations in Iowa is a story that has been completely ignored. She also remains third in national polling and third in FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 forecast behind Sanders (who got the biggest bump) and Biden for securing a majority of delegates to win the nomination.

Warren still edges out Buttigieg in the forecast, albeit by a single percentage point. As Nate Silver put it, “The case for Warren is that she's in 3rd place, more or less, and the Top 2 candidates aren't that far ahead of the pack and have big vulnerabilities.” All of which is to say, her complete erasure from the political discussion is curious to say the least. But as Democrats continue their quest for a candidate who can beat Trump, they need one that doesn’t turn off voters in any direction while having the fire in their belly for a fight over the long haul. Unless and until voting patterns and polling suggests otherwise, Warren is that person.

Warren’s overall appeal was apparent in two pre-Iowa polls: one showing that given the choice of nominating a candidate through the wave of a magic wand, voters chose Warren over every other Democratic candidate, which was also true in June 2019; and the other showing that Warren would be the least likely candidate to alienate Democrats if she were to win the nomination.

It's not that I think Warren is the perfect candidate, no candidate is ever perfect, as the recent exit of several staffers of color in her Nevada campaign demonstrates. It's just that I believe she has the best path to pull from all the demographics Democrats need to beat Trump, which includes both motivating nontraditional voters and attracting votes from high-propensity voters who don’t necessarily identify as Democrats. We will need every single vote we can get and, at this point, Warren bridges those gaps better than any other candidate in the field.

But whether Warren gets through the next few contests where other candidates have advantages is still an open question. Buttigieg is already getting a sizable bump in New Hampshire polling and Sanders just proved that he’s a fundraising juggernaut with a $25 million haul in January alone. Warren’s chances will likely depend on perhaps outperforming in one of the next several contests with a first- or second-place finish and remaining viable through Super Tuesday. But if Warren really does have a chance, don’t expect the mainstream media to let you know.

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