Over the weekend, a minor conflict broke out between the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, longtime friends who have, until now, seemed to operate under an unspoken nonaggression pact.
It started when Politico reported on a script that Sanders volunteers had been given to persuade voters leaning toward other candidates. Warren backers, the script said, are “highly educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that she’s “bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”
Attacking another candidates’ supporters rather than her record is kind of obnoxious, but as far as political combat goes, it was pretty mild. The reason it caused a small uproar is that in much of the Democratic Party, there’s tremendous resentment of Sanders left over from 2016. Many believe he weakened Hillary Clinton by dragging out the primary — at one point even threatening a contested convention — and then only half heartedly rallying his fans behind her when it was over. Warren alluded to this anger in a fundraising email keyed to the Politico article that said, “We can’t afford to repeat the factionalism of the 2016 primary.”
She’s right, and she may be the only person who can save us from it.
I’ve hesitated to write too much about the Democratic primary because I have a conflict of interest — my husband is consulting for Warren’s campaign. Besides, while it seems obvious to me that of all the candidates Warren would be the best president, I go back and forth over who would be the strongest nominee against Donald Trump.
On Monday, CNN reported that, during a private conversation at Warren’s apartment in 2018, Sanders told Warren that he didn’t think a woman could win the presidency in 2020. (Sanders disputed this, saying that he argued only that Trump “is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.”) It’s infuriating, but I’ve spoken to more than a few women who share such doubts.
In my darkest moments, so do I. Trying to game out electability is often fruitless — on paper John McCain seemed more electable than Barack Obama, and Clinton seemed more electable than Trump — but given the existential urgency of defeating the president, it’s still an ever-present concern.
So I’m not going to argue that Warren has the best chance of winning in 2020; I have no idea who does. What I will argue is that she has the best chance of bringing the Democratic Party together. Warren’s increasingly explicit argument that she is the unity candidate is correct.
She excites the middle-aged women who dominate the Resistance as well as the young people Democrats need to turn out en masse. She shares Sanders’ economic populism, but as a registered Democrat who has worked within the party — including in the Obama administration — she’s cultivated more good will inside it. (See how quick Julián Castro was to team up with her after ending his own candidacy.)
Both state and national polls often show her with the highest favorability rating among Democrats of any of the candidates. When a recent Economist/YouGov survey asked Democratic primary voters about candidates whose nominations would disappoint them, Warren was last, with 11%.
Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’ press secretary, dismissed arguments for Warren’s broad acceptability, writing on Twitter, “Warren has plenty to recommend her, but nominating the candidate who people don’t feel so strongly about one way or the other is not how you beat a man as galvanizing as Trump.” But the claim that people don’t feel strongly about Warren is just wrong.
She’s drawn huge crowds throughout the race, and people wait in line for hours to have their picture taken with her. Warren has almost 1 million individual donors, which is a bit less than Sanders’ 1.2 million, but impressive when you consider that Sanders had a previous presidential campaign in which to build up his donor list. I’ve heard from many people that they’ve never felt as passionate about a candidate as they do about her.
Sanders may have even more intense devotees — it’s one of his great strengths as a candidate. But there are also a lot of Democrats who detest him. Joe Biden, too, faces significant internal opposition — in the YouGov poll, 21% of Democratic primary voters said they’d be disappointed if he were the nominee, including 40% of those ages 18 to 29.
With Biden and Sanders atop many polls, I fear that if the race comes down to the two of them, it will become vicious and destructive, because each has so many supporters who view the other as unacceptable. We could even, God forbid, face the sort of contested convention we avoided in 2016.
Obviously, the nomination is going to be bitterly fought no matter who comes out on top in the February contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. But backers of opposing candidates would be quicker to reconcile themselves to Warren than to any of the other front-runners. A Warren candidacy would not force centrist Democrats to make their peace with socialism nor ask young socialists to jettison their dreams of egalitarian economic transformation.
The better she does next month, the more hope there is that Democrats will be able to fight Trump rather than one another.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times