Coming out of the disastrous Iowa caucuses this week, media coverage of the Democratic presidential race turned back the clock almost a year: Suddenly everyone was again focused on “the B-Boys,” as Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan lamented last March: Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, with a fourth killer B, Mike Bloomberg, replacing the departed Beto O’Rourke. Since Monday night, there’s been breathless coverage of the race between Sanders and Buttigieg to see who, finally, comes out on top in Iowa, plus endless hand-wringing over Biden’s disastrous fourth-place showing, and whether that opens the door to the billionaire Bloomberg’s buying the nomination.
Iowa conventional wisdom says there are only “three tickets out” of the caucuses, and yet coverage has curiously overlooked the woman who got one of them: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. From the moment cable networks switched from her caucus night rally speech to Biden’s, Warren has been virtually erased. As the fight for first place continued into Thursday, I have watched cable news panels mention Warren only in passing, if at all (MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell had been one exception, featuring an interview with Warren Wednesday night, and then on Thursday night she was hosted by Chris Hayes).
This despite the fact that Warren clearly beat the Democratic front-runner, Biden, and outperformed her numbers in the final Des Moines Register poll (spiked because of one complaint—one—from a Buttigieg supporter who said she wasn’t asked about him by a pollster), which had Warren in second at 18 percent; with 97 percent of the results in, she finished at 20 percent, in third, with Sanders and Buttigieg effectively tied (though Sanders on Thursday declared victory, and he may ultimately be right). Despite being derided as a New England progressive who might not connect with heavily rural and suburban Iowa, she beat two rivals who were said to have the inside track with those voters—Biden and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who came in at a disappointing fifth place.
“From the beginning, all of the women in the race—Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Klobuchar, Warren—have known they were facing erasure,” says former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky, who switched her support from Harris to Warren after Harris left the race in December. “Elizabeth has known she has to just stay in there and keep fighting and just not quit.”
But since getting one of the “three tickets out” hasn’t earned her much of a bump, Warren will have a harder road ahead in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and the Super Tuesday states.
Finishing a distant fifth, Klobuchar did herself a big favor by jumping out on Monday night and claiming some sort of victory, in a speech networks took live and in full, in an absence of other clear news at that point. Biden, Warren and Sanders got less time; Buttigieg, who appeared last and claimed a victory he hadn’t been granted, actually got more.
“I really wish Elizabeth had gone out there first, like Amy did,” Dvorsky says ruefully.
Still, despite a brief media bounce, Klobuchar is unlikely to get much lift-off from her fifth-place finish. She badly needs a fundraising boost, but this probably won’t provide it. Biden, meanwhile, is fending off the notion that his campaign is effectively dead after coming in fourth. “His people argue Biden can lose Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, and win South Carolina and be fine,” former Hillary Clinton adviser Jennifer Palmieri told Vanity Fair Monday night. “Okay—don’t kid a kidder. I worked on the John Edwards campaign.” (Edwards finished in second place in Iowa in 2008 and never recovered.) Iowa political veterans told me Monday night that Biden is in serious fundraising trouble, and while he’s almost certain to continue on through South Carolina, losing in the three prior states could even diminish his South Carolina numbers, though no one expects him to lose there—at this point.
The conventional wisdom is that Buttigieg would be the “moderate” beneficiary if Biden and Klobuchar depart. That’s certainly possible. But for anyone concerned that the 38-year-old former South Bend mayor doesn’t have the experience to run the country, Warren might provide an alternative. “I think there’s a lane for her to run between Sanders and Buttigieg, if the race comes down to that,” says Dvorsky. Warren seemed to move to occupy that lane on Wednesday, with a striking new ad featuring Obama touting her role in establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In the ad, highlighting a 2010 press conference to announce the CFPB, Obama praises Warren as a “janitor’s daughter who has become one of the country’s fiercest advocates for the middle class” and created “a new independent agency standing up for consumers and middle-class families…. She’s done it while facing some very tough opposition,” Obama added. “Fortunately, she’s very tough.”
Biden and Bloomberg have also used the former president in their advertising; he remains neutral in the race.
With another strong ground game in New Hampshire, Warren continues to bank on a women-powered campaign, announcing a Sunday get-out-the-vote event in Concord with her all-female team of campaign co-chairs, Representatives Deb Haaland, Katie Porter, and Ayanna Pressley. Her campaign released this video starring Jane Fonda, Ashley Nicole Black, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Ashley Judd, along with Haaland, Porter, and Pressley (plus special male backers like activist Ady Barkan and singer Lance Bass).
But Warren got some press she didn’t need on Thursday in Politico, with a story that seven women of color on her Nevada staff left the campaign recently, citing concerns about disrespect and tokenism. The candidate quickly apologized. “I believe these women, completely and without reservation. And I apologize that they have had a bad experience on this campaign,” she told reporters; but it was not good news as she tries to expand her base with voters of color.
Still, after the divisiveness of Iowa, “Warren continues to make a cogent case for unity” that may resonate more loudly, Dvorsky says, in the days to come. Meanwhile, she worries about the unexpectedly low turnout at this year’s caucuses, roughly on par with 2016, despite there being at least five competitive candidates and another several with devoted Iowa backers still campaigning in the closing days. “Maybe people were just worn out after a year of campaigning here, but we’re going to need to do better than that to beat Trump in November.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Yvette Nicole Brown and Ashley Nicole Black. The text has been corrected.