You already may have noticed the establishment media, in the tradition of Gretchen Wieners, is trying really hard to make Elizabeth Warren happen. Her presidential campaign is being hailed not just as “ideas-first,” but with “nonstop ideas,” filled with “meaty policy prescriptions” (rival Cory Booker—a vegan—presumably prefers his policy meatless). Warren is the “woman with a plan” for everything, which is a prospect not creepy to Democrats.
Like most advertising, there is less than meets the eye to the pro-Warren media campaign. As Tim Carney observes, in case after case, Warren has merely slapped her name on policies others developed. New ethics rules for Supreme Court justices, requiring politicians to divulge their tax returns, taxpayer-funded abortions, college debt forgiveness, and a wealth tax are just a few of the examples.
Warren’s media boosters probably won’t give up anytime soon. Nationally, she has gained a few points in an aggregate of polling since Joe Biden entered the race. The movement is seen much more in her favorable ratings than in her topline support. Nevertheless, the new push has helped lift Warren above Bernie Sanders in one national poll and in a Monmouth poll of Nevada.
Overall, however, she still lags Sanders significantly. Tellingly, her favorable ratings are weak in her home state of Massachusetts. A new Suffolk poll reports her favorables and unfavorables split at 46 percent apiece. Older polling of neighboring New Hampshire placed Warren fourth in the presidential primary race, behind Pete Buttigieg. She doesn’t seem to be faring well with the voters closest to her.
A Chicago sports radio host once coined a term to describe situations where the national media was out of step with the locals: “out-of-town stupid.” When this sort of divergence happens, it’s worth asking why.
In this case, it may be that the establishment media is unhappy not only with the (relatively) moderate Biden as the front-runner but also with Sanders as his chief rival. This would, at the very least, explain the framing of Warren’s recent gains as Sanders’s loss, highlighting that poll respondents would be more disappointed if Biden or Sanders became the nominee.
There is any number of reasons why the establishment media would prefer Warren to Sanders as the chief rival to Biden. Like Biden, Sanders is an old, straight, white dude. Worse still, he does not indulge in left-wing identity politics. Sanders also lacks appeal to nonwhite voters as much as Biden does.
For all her central planning, Warren does not self-identify as a socialist like Bernie; the label remains unpopular. Moreover, Warren’s plans seem more realistic to the center-left, even if her core proposal of a wealth tax is being abandoned by other nations and is probably unconstitutional. The average voter tends not to be concerned with policy details, but Democratic activists and the establishment media still like to have their intelligence (or their credentials) flattered as Warren does.
Importantly, despite the wonkish image Warren and the media are selling, her attacks on President Trump and the Fox News Channel check the “populist” box Sanders had all to himself in 2016. Indeed, although they may never admit it publicly, the center-left establishment likely recognizes that a significant part of Bernie’s appeal in 2016 was simply that he was not Hillary Clinton. If the establishment has to tolerate some level of populism, they would prefer it come from a former Harvard law professor.
The problem for Warren’s media fan club is that “better than Bernie” is a low bar. Warren’s supporters can dismiss claims she is not particularly likable as sexist, but it is untrue (see: the latest coverage of Ted Cruz). The media’s power to convince people that someone is likable is limited.
Similarly, Warren seems to lack the sort of authenticity seen in Biden and Sanders (or in Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for that matter). The “Fauxcohontas” scandal may not be fatal in itself, but it feeds the impression that Warren—whom many forget was once a Republican—is never quite what she claims to be.
Some may dismiss likability and authenticity as intangibles or matters of style. Sadly, American politics has devolved to the point where voters treat the presidency is a personal relationship. Given the degree to which President Trump has dominated an ever-accelerating news cycle, voters may be even more attuned to the personality of the person who will be on their screens for the next four years.
Meanwhile, a battle between Warren and Sanders benefits Biden. As Philip Klein observes, in 2016, Trump’s rivals “figured they’d attack other candidates so that they could be in the leading position once Trump collapsed. This was likely a big mistake.” A repeat of this approach would allow Biden to focus on Trump, effectively priming people to see him as Democrats’ inevitable nominee. Indeed, it’s already happening:
Joe Biden has done something no other Democrat has been able to do in this race: Command attention from all cable networks, and have them stream his entire event live. pic.twitter.com/BnmCtwEHf5
— Matt Viser (@mviser) June 11, 2019
If the establishment media wants Warren to beat Sanders, they need to make it happen this year to consolidate opposition to Biden. But they may not be able to manufacture enough puffery to make “fetch” happen without giving away their game, at which point the effort likely would backfire.
The media would likely be better off focusing on Biden if they really want to defeat him. And as with Trump in 2016, they shouldn’t bet all their chips on Biden imploding.