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Elizabeth Warren Becomes the First Candidate to Go on the Offensive

On February 16, Elizabeth Warren, wearing a bright pink shawl, appeared on stage in a high school gymnasium with wooden bleachers in Lawrenceville, Georgia. It was her first visit to the state as a 2020 candidate and she was asked by an audience member if she would pledge not to go negative on the wide field of other Democrats hoping to unseat President Trump. According to New York Times reporter Astead Herndon, who was in the audience, the Massachusetts senator responded quickly, saying "I'm not here to attack Democrats. That ain't gonna happen.”

But less than a week later, on February 21, Warren’s team pushed a fundraising email that was worded to hunt the entire field. That email drew a wedge between Warren and her competitors in the party. It read “out of all of the candidates, Elizabeth's probably never going to raise the most money.” The message added “she's not taking any contributions from PACs or federal lobbyists, and she's not spending her time cozying up to wealthy donors who can write big checks. You can't say that about all the other candidates in this race.” The imagining positioned the nameless Democratic candidate in a smoky backroom glad-handing with the devil for a campaign contribution.

In a presidential primary campaign, the decision to “go negative” is one of the most consequential moves a candidate can make. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s team wrestled constantly with the decision to “go negative” on Bernie Sanders as the Vermont senator criss-crossed the early primary states and built his revolution. And the Clinton team managed to hold out until the primary race was threatening to become an upset. It’s a decision that once made, cannot be unmade. And the unspoken message of Elizabeth Warren’s early presidential campaign is one of an attack on the field.

It’s not the scorched earth of President Trump in the crowded 2016 Republican field, but her negative rhetoric isn’t lost on the other campaigns, who have almost entirely stayed away from that shift.

In a conversation about Warren’s February 21 email, a senior aide to another candidate told Playboy, “this is disappointing. In 2015, Bernie attacked Hillary for routine stuff candidates do like this, and his supporters used it to paint her as untrustworthy or insufficiently progressive. Warren shouldn't make that same mistake, especially after committing not to attack fellow Democrats, if she wants Democrats to be well-positioned to beat Trump in 2020.”
Warren should have been one of the front-runners in 2020, she has a dominating presence on Capitol Hill and even a motto—she persisted—given to her by Mitch McConnell.

Michael Starr Hopkins, a spokesperson for John Delaney’s 2020 campaign told me, “we saw that Warren went negative almost immediately after she entered the race and she’s entitled to run the type of race that she wants to run but we’re focused on the issues and bringing the country back together.”

Warren’s attacks intensified on February 25, when she sent an email to supporters that made no mistake, she’s “going negative.” In that email, she told potential donors “the Democratic primary is the time when we get to make choices—and make a difference. Democrats deserve a chance to choose a nominee whose time is not for sale to people who can write big checks.”

Accompanying the fundraising email was a series of tweets in which Warren quoted the email (which was also published as a blog post). She wrote on Twitter, “there are some Democrats who are so deeply afraid of losing to Donald Trump that they don’t want to risk saying or doing anything different at all.” A source familiar with a third campaign called the new messaging “truly insufferable."

On the campaign trail, Warren has mostly stayed positive. The only exception was a passive stab at the field during a recent Iowa appearance when she told a crowd “I don’t come to talk to people in Iowa about structural change without having some ideas.” A Boston Globe reporter who was in the audience tweeted out the line.

But a campaign's email activity is how they shape the message that puts money into the war chest that they use to fund their race. It’s why we talk about the size of email lists so much in Washington. In 2016, Ted Cruz charged then-candidate Donald Trump $51,000 for a single email sent to his entire list. Bernie Sanders has a famously massive list that is the envy of the Democratic party. A well-placed and well-worded email can pull in big cash.

The senator is trailing Joe Biden, who hasn’t even entered the race, by 20 points, and she’s behind Bernie Sanders by almost 10.
It’s also a way to market-test a line of rhetoric. If donors respond with their wallets to the language in a certain email, it means that it’s working. And it means that when the lights above the debate stage focus onto the candidate, that’s the line of attack they are likely to fire.

Warren should have been one of the front-runners in 2020, she has a dominating presence on Capitol Hill and even a motto—she persisted—given to her by Mitch McConnell. She has plastered those words onto t-shirts and bumper stickers, and they feel authentic because they spurred from an authentic moment. In 2016, Warren’s endorsement was a golden apple, and when she eventually backed Hillary Clinton that June, it felt like a knife in the back for Sanders’ supporters. On March 1, she dodged a question about that endorsement, telling an Iowa crowd “we can’t go back and re-litigate 2016—we just can’t.” In that appearance, she also said “I’m not here to attack Democrats.”

But the campaign started losing ground after she took President Trump’s bait and published the results of a DNA test. Then there was the cringing Instagram video of her sipping a Michelob Ultra in her kitchen and the line hold on a sec, I’m gonna get me a beer, like a college freshman eager to be seen nursing watery booze. It was a minor imaging flop but was amplified in the political press and fueled the conversation about whether Warren was “likable” enough to win. In Washington, there is an absurd play to position the candidate as somebody you could have a beer with. And Elizabeth Warren failed that test.

Maybe it’s not surprising that Warren decided to “go negative” so soon. She needed to make up ground, and she’s not leading any of the major polls. The senator is trailing Joe Biden, who hasn’t even entered the race, by 20 points, and she’s behind Bernie Sanders by almost 10. Kamala Harris is polling in third place.

With the Democratic primary field expected to widen before it thins, each candidate will be trying to separate themselves from the pack. But the decision to “go negative” has already been made by at least one camp and that decision is understood by the others as a Rubicon crossed.

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Alex Thomas
Alex Thomas
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