In early February, we opined that Mike Bloomberg could be the Democrat with the best chance to take on Donald Trump this November. We based this on results from a poll of registered voters in the important battleground states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Bloomberg's constant media presence, moderate policy positions and enormous wealth seemed to be having an effect on voters in these key states.
We suggested that it was possible he would make the debate stage in mid-February, “just in time for him to make a strong Super Tuesday pitch to voters.” Unfortunately for the former New York mayor, he made the stage in Nevada and delivered one of the poorest debate performances in history. From the outset, Bloomberg was the target of nearly every Democrat on the stage. But it was Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who landed some of the most stinging blows and breathed new life into her campaign. Warren came out swinging not just in that debate but also in the one this week in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist polls like redlining and stop and frisk,” she said in Las Vegas. In Charleston, she added financial support for Republican Senate candidates to that list. Bloomberg can’t earn the trust of the core of the Democratic Party, she said, and money or not, that means “he is the riskiest candidate standing on this stage.”
Previews of Warren vs. Trump
Warren’s takedowns of the New York billionaire gave America a preview of how she might perform on a debate stage against another New York billionaire, President Trump.
The rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders as the front-runner has changed the dynamics of the Democrats’ race in considerable ways. Beating Trump has consistently emerged as the most important feature Democrats are looking for in their nominee, and questions persist as to whether Sanders is the best nominee to do so.
Beyond that, Sanders’ electability remains a key concern among Democrats. For instance, a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll of registered voters finds 67% have reservations about a socialist, and that includes 42% of Democrats. This is an alarming number that could drive some Democratic voters to stay home and increase turnout for Trump. The same poll shows very little unease about a woman (14% of voters and only 4% of Democrats).
Sanders’ front-runner status made him the main target in the South Carolina debate. Warren said she’d be a better president than him because she “digs into the details” and makes things happen. She criticized Sanders for not providing enough detail about how he plans to pay for his health care proposals while she dug in, did the work and was then trashed for it by the Sanders campaign. She concluded her salvo by saying: “Progressives have got one shot, and we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done.”
Conservative pundit Ann Coulter might have made the best case for Warren after hearing that. “Sen. Warren has convinced me that Bernie isn't that worrisome. He'll never get anything done," Coulter tweeted a half hour into the Charleston debate. "SHE'S the freak who will show up with 17 idiotic plans every day and keep everyone up until it gets done.”
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Coulter’s tweet was reminiscent of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proclamation about Warren on the Senate floor in 2017: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The phrase quickly went viral.
Warren's poll numbers had been in decline since she briefly led all Democrats last fall. However, her kerfuffle with Bloomberg could be paying dividends. In a national poll after the Las Vegas debate, she emerged in second place ahead of Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Additional polling suggests Warren could be a consensus choice among the crowded field of Democrats. She trails Sanders and Biden but has created some distance from Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Perhaps more important, she fares well among Democrats who say they are still considering voting for her and they would be least disappointed if Warren were to win the nomination. This suggests both an audience for Warren and the potential to attract voters looking for an alternative to Sanders or Biden.
A uniter, not a divider?
After the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Warren argued that she could unite the Democratic Party, but her case was largely ignored. After her debate performances, there’s reason to pay attention. With her support for "Medicare For All," college student loan forgiveness, free college tuition and universal pre-K, Warren has the progressive bona fides to satisfy Sanders voters.
Warren could also resonate with moderates, particularly women. She does not identify as a socialist looking to tear down the capitalist system. Instead, Warren focuses on fighting corruption and making the system work for those beyond the top 1%. Women could also be drawn to her compassionate message surrounding kitchen-table issues like health care, gun control and education.
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Just 2.5% of pledged delegates have been awarded. Although Sanders has done surprisingly well, the crowded field and the Democrats’ use of proportional representation rules to award delegates mean it will be much more difficult for him to win a majority of delegates before the Democratic National Convention.
This fact is not lost upon closer observers of American politics, or the candidates themselves. Only Sanders says the candidate holding a plurality of delegates should be awarded the nomination. All the other Democrats suggested that they would follow party rules requiring a majority — rules that were changed largely in response to critiques Sanders leveled after the 2016 election.
Warren’s attacks on Bloomberg provide a final opportunity to resurrect her campaign. And it only took standing next to a New York billionaire to do it. Surely she’d like to recreate that scene this fall.
Robert Alexander, director of the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University, is author of "Representation and the Electoral College." Lauren Copeland is an assistant professor and associate director of the Community Research Institute at Baldwin Wallace University. Follow them on Twitter: @onuprof and @laurencopeland0
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Elizabeth Warren is back in contention and could be Democratic unifier