Why Elizabeth Warren’s Attack on Bernie Backfired

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a Get Out the Caucus rally in Indianola, Iowa, February 2, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

There’s a strong argument to be made that suggesting Sanders is a sexist liar was never going to end well for her.

Des Moines, Iowa — The closing themes of the Democratic candidates who apparently finished in the top three in Iowa’s caucuses were neatly distilled by the chants of college students who gathered to caucus at Drake University field house on Monday night.

The students for Bernie Sanders chanted, “Not me, us! Not me, us!” underlining the Sanders campaign’s message of socialist solidarity.

The students for Pete Buttigieg chanted, “I-O-W-A! Mayor Pete all the way!” highlighting the extent to which Buttigieg’s campaign is built on his burgeoning cult of personality.

The students for Elizabeth Warren chanted, “It’s time! It’s time! It’s time for a woman in the White House!” making clear that Warren’s campaign was about identity.

It wasn’t always that way for Warren. She started out as the candidate of “big, structural change” who had a plan for everything. Then Buttigieg whacked her at the October Democratic debate for not having a plan to pay for Medicare for All. This forced her to release a proposal that drew intense criticism. She then retreated and promised not to push for Medicare for All until the third year of her first term. By the end of November, half of her supporters had abandoned her.

When the January Democratic debate rolled around, Warren tried out a new closing line of attack against Bernie Sanders: identity politics. She suggested he had committed a sexist sin by privately telling her a woman couldn’t win the White House — an allegation he denied, noting that he’d recruited her to run in the 2015 Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Clinton. Her hot-mic moment after the debate drew national coverage. “I think you called me a liar on national TV,” she told Sanders. Then the race was drowned out by impeachment.

How did the attack on Sanders work out for Warren? While we don’t have final results from Iowa, partial results show she finished behind Sanders and Buttigieg. With 62 percent of precincts reporting, Buttigieg and Sanders are battling for first place, while Warren is a distant third at 18.3 percent, just a bit ahead of Biden at 15.6 percent. Elsewhere, the polls show that Sanders’s lead over Warren has only grown since the January 14 debate: He entered that clash running five points ahead of her in the RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire polls; by Monday, February 3, that lead had been stretched to twelve points. In the same time period, his advantage over her in the RCP average of national polls increased by six points.

There is a good argument to be made that suggesting Sanders is a sexist liar was never going to end well for Warren. One of Sanders’s greatest strengths among Democrats is that they see him as someone who “tells it like it is.” One of Warren’s greatest weaknesses is her trouble with telling the straight truth. What’s more, she was not primarily competing with Sanders for Boomer feminists but for young Democratic voters, who polls suggest care more about authenticity and a left-wing policy agenda than about identity.

Due to the colossally botched caucus process, which has delayed the release of results and prevented any candidate from credibly claiming momentum, Warren’s campaign isn’t quite dead yet, and it won’t be even if she does indeed end up finishing third in the Hawkeye State. But Sanders appears to be in control of the progressive lane of the Democratic primary, and Warren has not yet inspired much confidence that she knows how to beat him.

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