In the last two weeks, the gloves have come off and it’s starting to get ugly.
After a year of civilized debate and conversation, the last month before Iowa has become a battleground. It’s crunch time for campaigns — time to recapture the magic, or harness it for the first time. While polling boosts throughout the past year now look inconsequential, in the two weeks before Iowa, anything that gives a candidate more votes is the right move.
And with Elizabeth Warren, we saw the full picture of a candidate looking for that bounce.
Previously considered a co-front-runner with Joe Biden, Warren dropped in the polls amid criticism of her healthcare plan and never managed to regain that magic, while Bernie Sanders surged.
Last week, CNN dropped a bomb on the primary; they reported that Sanders, in a meeting with Warren before they launched their 2020 campaigns, told the Massachusetts Senator that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. The New York Times quickly confirmed the report.
First, let’s get the media analysis out of the way. With so much at stake and so little time — and with relatively little to lose — it doesn’t take a genius to realize that Warren’s campaign leaked this. It was meant to tear down Sanders and, along the way, prop up Warren.
And while Warren’s campaign fueled the news, it is likely that neither CNN or the Times would have reported this without confirmation from another source — i.e., a Sanders aide. Because these journalists understand the gravity of the moment and what Warren’s campaign has to gain from leaking this, they would have — or at least should have — made an effort to get a source outside of the Warren campaign to confirm the leak.
And from that perspective, I trust this report.
Now, to the question at hand: Who won this fight in the media?
At first, it looked even handed. Sanders didn’t give an inch, readily proclaiming that a woman could win the presidency and that he never said the opposite. Warren issued a statement confirming the report (a tactical error, but that’s a topic for another day), and was treated as trustworthy in the debate (a flub by CNN, but that’s also a topic for another day).
But looking at this situation more closely, Warren didn’t lose this exchange. To be clear, she didn’t win either. But Bernie Sanders lost.
Prior to this bombshell, Sanders was surging. He was being considered a serious contender and perhaps even a front-runner, including by the Des Moines Register, the all-important Iowa newspaper. His polling looked good and his policies even better. He was bulletproof.
But the Warren controversy managed to poke a hole in his armor. Not a significant one, but a hole nonetheless. While his policies and elect-ability argument wasn’t attacked, the stream of negative coverage of Sanders damaged him. Reports of surging crowd sizes show nothing more than peaked interest close to the primary.
I’m not talking about polling here; I’m talking about the media. The stream of stories singing Sanders’ praises has stopped, and the tide may be turning in the other direction. Just earlier this week, POLITICO published an article reporting resistance to Sanders among women in New Hampshire. The fact that Warren was able to stop that stream of positive stories — and potentially stop Sanders’ surge — means Sanders lost in the media.
But that doesn’t mean Warren won. She has come out of this better than Sanders, for sure, but still isn’t being treated with favor in the media. That could certainly change, after The New York Times editorial board endorsed her and Amy Klobuchar for president. But as things stand now, Warren has gained little personally from her attacks on Sanders. What she has gained is a weaker opponent.
In terms of winning support from more skeptical moderates, neither candidate won. The civil war on the far left has, without a doubt, at least accomplished one thing: more support for the moderates. And with just two weeks until Iowa, that helps Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden.
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