photo by Gage Skidmore
When the Democrats held an open casting call for this year’s presidential pageant, Sen. Elizabeth Warren auditioned for the role of fresh, whip-smart progressive heroine who would take down dastardly Donald Trump.
Instead, she got to play the role that former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie originated four years ago in the Republicans’ version of this show: the ham-handed goon who, while going nowhere fast, takes down another candidate.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, humiliated Sen. Marco Rubio in the televised GOP debate three days before the 2016 presidential primary in New Hampshire. It did not help Christie, whose own campaign was gasping after a poor showing in Iowa. The New Jerseyan finished sixth in New Hampshire and soon exited the race. But his attack blunted a strong start by Rubio, who finished ahead of Christie but behind Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Rubio followed Christie out of the race when Trump defeated him soundly in his home state of Florida a few weeks later.
After lagging well behind the leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire, Warren took direct aim at Bloomberg at her first opportunity, which was the televised debate that preceded the Nevada caucuses last month. She was quick, ruthless and effective in savaging the mega-billionaire former mayor. Warren highlighted Bloomberg’s past remarks about women, his massive self-financed advertising campaign, and his decision to sit out the first four primaries and caucuses to focus on this week’s Super Tuesday primaries in 14 states and one U.S. territory. Even as she pledged to support whomever the Democrats nominate against Trump, she vowed to see to it that it would not be Bloomberg.
She achieved her goal yesterday. Bloomberg withdrew from the race after a disappointing Super Tuesday showing, in which he failed to gain even a plurality in any of the states that voted. (He won only the territory of American Samoa.) While Bloomberg’s own shortcomings as a candidate were important contributors, it seems clear that Warren’s attacks played a big role in his failure.
Having initially concluded that former Vice President Joe Biden could not succeed, Bloomberg sought to coalesce relatively centrist Democrats around his own candidacy to stop Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” from leading the party’s ticket. Bloomberg’s decision to skip last Saturday’s South Carolina primary was a sound one. He was destined to do poorly among the African American voters who dominate the Democratic electorate there. Neither Bloomberg nor his other centrist rivals at the time, however, expected Biden to perform especially well there either. In reality, Biden powered to a crushing victory.
For Super Tuesday, Bloomberg had to rely on college-educated older and middle-aged white Democrats to counter Biden’s dominance among African Americans and Sanders’ strength with Hispanic Democrats and Democrats under age 30. In particular, Bloomberg needed to win votes from women. Female voters who are repelled by Trump and who could be attracted to Bloomberg’s ability to spend whatever it might take to win in November were a key part of his potential path forward.
Warren’s attacks likely succeeded in driving women away from Bloomberg – but they did not succeed in driving enough of them to her. Instead, most of them went to Biden. Endorsements from former rivals Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, after the South Carolina results forced them from the race, also gave Biden a boost.
Warren was reportedly reconsidering her campaign yesterday after failing to finish any better than third in any Super Tuesday race – including her own state of Massachusetts, which Biden carried. Almost anyone involved in American politics could have saved her the trouble. Warren’s candidacy died on Tuesday night after a lingering, painful decline. There is no way she can raise the money or support it would take to carry her campaign further, particularly given the huge staff and massive overhead she has accumulated. She can take a little comfort in the fact that while Bloomberg could afford to spend the way she wanted to spend, it did not do him any good.
Four years ago, whatever benefit Christie might have hoped to get from his backbench sniping at Rubio proved illusory. I suspect Warren’s attack on Bloomberg will as well. I wrote at the time that Christie’s knifing of Rubio served the interests of Bush, the party favorite, who might have rewarded Christie with an attorney general nomination had he won in November. But Bush was an ineffective candidate, so there was no juice in that fruit. Christie later transferred his allegiance to Trump, but he came up empty in the post-election job lottery there, too.
Warren probably figured that removing Bloomberg would at least benefit Sanders, her ideological fellow traveler, even if it did not resuscitate her own campaign. But ironically, weakening Bloomberg likely helped Biden outperform even his own highest expectations on Tuesday. Back at the Nevada debate, Warren could not have guessed that Klobuchar and Buttigieg would be promoting Biden rather than themselves by this point. So she couldn’t know that she was in effect taking down Biden’s last centrist rival.
By midday yesterday, it would have likely been clear even to Warren that her own continued candidacy would only siphon votes from Sanders and benefit Biden. Some of her party’s elite would not mind that. They see a Biden-led ticket as a better bet for Democrats at all levels than one topped by Sanders. But her own ideological base would likely see such a decision as her ego getting in the way of their movement. It was another reason for her to pull out sooner rather than later, and in any event ahead of next week’s round of primaries.
As I wrote four years ago, a lot of hockey teams carry an “enforcer” to rough up their opponents and protect their stars. The job gets you some time on the ice, but it does not draw the spotlight or earn you much applause.