Des Moines, Iowa—There’s a terrific video of Elizabeth Warren getting the word on Saturday that the next morning’s edition of The Des Moines Register would feature a glowing endorsement of her candidacy. The senator from Massachusetts can be seen jumping and dancing for joy. Rightly so. Every candidate who holds hope of finishing well in the February 3 Iowa caucuses wanted the backing of the state’s largest newspaper, and Warren got it.
Warren and her aides will put this one to good use, because they recognize that endorsements matter. Despite what DC pundits and New York media analysts imagine, candidates and voters take them seriously. That does not mean endorsements swing every election. Iowans will remind you that the Register has a record of backing quite a few losers in the caucuses. But that’s because the Register has over the past three decades taken risks in making endorsements, often backing candidates who are not at the top of the polls.
The Register, which maintains one of the most thoughtful newspaper editorial sections in the country, uses its endorsements to make the case for looking anew at a favored contender—and that has boosted a number of its picks over the years into more serious competitors as caucus day approaches.
But the Warren campaign got more than a boost from the editorial board. It got a theory for how to frame the campaign going forward—a theory summed up by the statement that “[Warren’s] ideas aren’t radical. They are right.” Unlike The New York Times’ dual endorsement of Warren and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, which did neither candidate any good, the Register’s editorial outlines an argument for Warren that she and her campaign should take to heart.
Looking beyond the petty squabbling of the moment, the editors begin with a set of big-picture questions—“Who would make the best president at this point in the country’s history? At a time when the economic deck has become so stacked against working Americans that the gap between rich and poor is the highest in more than 50 years? At a time when a generation of war has stressed military families and sapped the treasury?”—and conclude that Warren would be “the best leader for these times.”
The Register sees Warren as a unique contender who speaks of big, bold structural change, but who is in the mainstream of contemporary American politics. “The senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts is not the radical some perceive her to be,” it insists. “She was a registered Republican until 1996. She is a capitalist. ‘I love what markets can do,’ she said. ‘They are what make us rich, they are what create opportunity.’ But she wants fair markets, with rules and accountability. She wants a government that works for people, not one corrupted by cash.”
This, the paper reasons, is what distinguishes Warren from the other candidates—including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, with whom she is frequently compared. Warren and Sanders agree on many issues. They have worked together over the years, and they have—apart from a recent dust-up over who said what about whether a woman can be elected president—worked well with each other on the 2020 campaign trail. If one of them is nominated, they will team up for the fight to dislodge Donald Trump. But Sanders and Warren are making distinct bids with distinct appeals.
The Register acknowledges this with editorials that are as stark in their rejection of Sanders as they are in their embrace of Warren. While the paper notes that Sanders has “benefited the nation by focusing attention on an economy increasingly rigged to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the worker,” it dismisses him as “a self-identified democratic socialist, someone who has set himself apart from the Democratic Party during his congressional career, let alone breaking bread with Republicans, could he build the consensus needed to govern? He has routinely opposed trade agreements supported by Iowa’s farmers and manufacturers. His rhetoric is so anti-interventionist that one wonders whether he would recognize times when military action is justified as a deterrent.”
Frankly, I think the Register’s bleak assessment of Sanders is wrong on multiple counts. For one thing, I am certain that the Trump campaign will label any Democratic rival, including centrist front-runner Joe Biden, as a “socialist.” I am equally certain that the anti-war stance taken by Sanders is a strength—and I think it should be pointed out that he has always distinguished between taking necessary steps to protect the United States and military adventurism. I believe that his steady record of opposing trade deals helps more than it hurts. And the fact is that he has worked with Republicans on plenty of issues as a member of the House and Senate.
But the basic premise that Sanders and Warren are running different campaigns is accurate. That’s especially true in Iowa, where polls show Sanders taking the lead as he locks in a substantial level of support for his outsider bid—especially among young voters. Warren, on the other hand, has seen her poll numbers slide, to such an extent that a Christian Science Monitor headline on Monday asked, “Is Elizabeth Warren losing momentum ahead of Iowa caucuses?”
For Warren, this is a moment in which she has to make the strongest possible case for herself. She is not in a race against any one candidate; she is in a race to secure a solid finish in a critical early contest. It is not likely that she will dislodge a significant number of Sanders backers. But that does not mean that she lacks room to build support on caucus night. In Iowa, her closing message must draw in undecided voters, and wavering backers of other candidates, including former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
The Register’s rejection of Buttigieg and Klobuchar, both of whom got high marks from the editorial board, offers Warren one of her strongest arguments. The paper chose to back the Massachusetts senator because its editors believe she is positioned to mount a particularly effective challenge to Trump. “Warren’s competence, respect for others and status as the nation’s first female president would,” the editors explain, “be a fitting response to the ignorance, sexism and xenophobia of the Trump Oval Office.”
That’s not a message that only the Register is delivering this week. It was highlighted Monday in the rollout by three Warren-aligned groups—the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the Working Families Party, and Black Womxn For—of a list of more than 3,000 progressive elected officials, economists, and activists who are backing the senator.
Among the endorsers was economist Dean Baker, who said, “We are fortunate to have two outstanding progressive candidates, but Senator Warren will likely have the better prospects in the election and will be better able to govern as president. Warren was able to navigate around the opposition from some Democrats and from the Republican Congress to get the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created, and to ensure that it would have real power to protect people from the financial industry. She has demonstrated the necessary skills to overcome opposition from what is almost certain to be a Congress hostile to progressive reforms.” Lancaster County (Nebraska) Public Defender Joe Nigro added, “I endorsed Elizabeth Warren because [she] could be the FDR of this era.”
The FDR comparison is one that makes sense for Warren, as it lends perspective to a message that the Register highlighted when it echoed New Deal language to declare, “She believes government should actively work to prevent and respond to abusive practices that jeopardize individuals and the country’s economy.” As she seeks to renew and extend her candidacy, these are the connections that Elizabeth Warren has the potential to make.