A new narrative to explain for the decline of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is emerging after her disappointing results in New Hampshire, where she finished in fourth. Warren, according to her campaign and supporters, is being erased by mainstream media outlets and cable news, the same outlets that last summer and fall covered her glowingly as she rose in the polls and released plan after ambitious plan. Instead of the coverage that Warren’s camp would rather receive, what we’re getting from the political press is obituary after obituary on her campaign, all asking the question, what happened?
Last week, in a fundraising email sent to her supporters, her campaign wrote, “Elizabeth hasn’t been getting the same kind of media coverage as candidates she outperformed,” noting that on the evening of the Iowa caucuses, CNN cut the broadcast of her speech short even as they “aired the speeches of other candidates she beat.” “We can’t count on the media to cover our campaign fairly, so we’re taking our case directly to voters,” the email concluded.
It’s a belief that has coalesced among her supporters. Recently, 46-year-old Matt Newton, a Warren supporter told the New York Times that her absence from the media narrative was gendered. “She’s a female candidate, and the media hasn’t taken her seriously,” Newton told the Times. “They give so much attention to the male candidates.” He wasn’t alone. On Monday, her supporters used the hashtag #PresidentWarren on Twitter, where many argued that she had been erased from news coverage. “Tell the corporate media we SEE HER,” one prominent Warren fan wrote. “[I]f CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, and CBS are going to pretend she isn’t still an important and viable candidate, the interwebs is going to do its darndest to remind them that she has policies that can be discussed,” wrote the Daily Kos in response.
There is some truth to the argument that cable news favors the horse race, and coverage isn’t kind to candidates who don’t fit into well-established political tropes. As the Times points out, Warren ranks third in cable news coverage since 2019, behind Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. In recent weeks, however, she’s fallen to fourth, behind Pete Buttigieg. Warren supporters aren’t wrong to call out cable news outlets for their obsessive short-term focus on who’s surging (or flailing) at the moment, which can both give a campaign a sense of momentum (see Klobmentum) and a fundraising boost, or a feeling that a candidate is dead in the water (see Biden). And there’s also some truth, as her supporters have suggested, that sexism has played a role in her campaign’s struggles, from coded concerns about her electability to commentary that she’s too “strident” and angry to the barrage of attacks she received from all sides when she finally—after pressure from both Biden and Buttigieg —released her healthcare proposal.
Yet I suspect the recent news coverage, as well as the gendered nature of the criticism leveled at Warren, have played less of a role than what should have been obvious from the start of her campaign: her lack of a clear lane in the crowded Democratic primary. Warren has lately attempted to pitch herself as the unity candidate, one who can appeal to all Democratic voters. In a memo sent to the press by her campaign manager Roger Lau on February 11, he argued that Warren is “the candidate with the highest potential ceiling of support and the one best positioned to unite the party and lead the Democratic ticket to defeat Donald Trump.” It’s a message that she and her surrogates like Julián Castro have been regularly putting out on the campaign trail.
But that message hasn’t exactly fallen on enthusiastic ears (and as Helaine Olen wrote in the Washington Post, “[I]t came across as both intellectually incoherent and a little bit, well, desperate,” given her focus on rooting out corruption from all sides of the political aisle.) Fervent supporters of Bernie Sanders, who is Warren’s closest ideological counterpart, will likely never switch their allegiance; they’re with him to the end and are uncompromising on the issue of Medicare for All. The college-educated white voters, and in particular women, whom Warren has always appealed to, have, at least in New Hampshire, decamped to more moderate candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Those who want the “big, structural change” Warren often talks about are flocking to Sanders; those whose primary goal is getting Trump out are favoring less progressive candidates.
Warren’s gender has clearly played a role in her candidacy, yet her recent decline in the polls isn’t a clear-cut example of a woman being erased from the narrative. What Warren’s campaign and her vocal supporters are right about is that it’s still too early to count Warren out, despite the many post-mortems that have already been written about her campaign. Warren started her campaign polling in the single digits and struggled with fundraising until her surge last year. In some ways, she’s back where she began. Warren may not have a clear path to victory (or even much of one at all), and I’m not convinced that her supporters complaining about her being erased, which can often be read as a sign that a campaign is on its last legs, helps her in the end. What might? Stressing her bread-and-butter message—calling out our corporate overlords and billionaires who assume they have the power to influence the choices available to the rest of us, including the one currently trying to glide into the White House on a trail of cold hard cash.
On Tuesday, she did just that, writing on Twitter, “It’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate. But at least now primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire.” Maybe it’s time for less unity, and more fighting.