Did Sanders Tell Warren a Woman Couldn’t Win?

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speak during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I’m your humble host and editor Ezekiel Kweku, and this evening I’m talking with Gabriel Debenedetti about the recent allegation – originally levied by anonymous sources, but later supported by a statement by Elizabeth Warren – that Sanders told Warren a woman couldn’t win in 2020.

Ezekiel: So the long-awaited direct conflict between Warren and Sanders has finally come, in the form of a story that Sanders told Warren, in a private meeting, that he didn’t think a woman could win the nomination. First question I think that’s on most people’s minds is: did this come from Warren, and if so, why this, and why now?

Gabe: That first question is the one everyone’s trying to figure out, and I’ll just start by saying outright: I have seen no evidence that Warren actively put this story out. Her team doesn’t seem thrilled with this storyline, and her on-the-record statement tonight addresses the question directly, whereas if she wanted to escalate this further she could have remained silent until tomorrow night and had this all out on the debate stage. Either way, it’s out now, just after an atypically tense weekend between the two camps. It’s very clear a bunch of staffers on both sides were ready for some of this to break out.

Ezekiel: Yeah, I think any sort of informal non-aggression pact between the two was doomed – a new national poll out from Quinnipiac said that Warren was the first choice for the majority of Sanders voters and vice versa. Given Biden’s lead in the polls… it seems like some conflict was inevitable. What do you think the immediate ramifications are going to be? I’m thinking of the debate stage, obviously, but more generally in the road to the beginning of people actually casting ballots?

Gabe: It depends on a few things. Voters who are very tuned into this might pick sides and double down on one of the two candidates (some might be disgusted by the alleged comments, others skeptical of Warren after Sanders denied saying it), and others might be turned off by the fight and go a different direction altogether. But with Iowa such a tossup, it’s really hard to tell. That’s the other reason it would be hard to see this as a clearly directed leak by any one campaign: none of the likely fallout is extremely obviously beneficial for any one person. All that said, I think it’s possible to think conflict was inevitable and to be surprised by the way it’s happened. If Sanders wanted to ratchet up the heat on Warren, he could easily be attacking her on healthcare, for example.

But like you said, I think Biden (and Buttigieg) will be perfectly happy to have the two other candidates who are competing for a huge chunk of votes engaged in this kind of really uncomfortable fight right now.

Ezekiel: I agree with you that it’s hard to game out what the reaction among voters will be, which is maybe one reason to believe that Warren’s camp didn’t do it – but one counter-argument is that Warren might ok a risky move like this if she’s desperate. Before the weekend, would you have characterized them as desperate, or if not desperate, unsatisfied with their place in the race?

Gabe: No, not desperate. Iowa looks effectively like a four-way tie, no matter how many stories about Sanders’ surge ignore margins of error. To the previous point, though, I will say there is one thing that could still change some of the voter, and candidate, perceptions of all this: a Sanders response to Warren’s statement. There’s a big difference between what could happen if he says she misunderstood versus if he says she’s lying, and so on.

Ezekiel: Yes, it will be interesting to see Sanders’ response (also interesting to see Warren’s unambiguous confirmation of the story). If you were advising his camp, how would you advise them to proceed? And a connected question: we talked a little bit about the short-run – do you think that this is something that’s going to stick with voters, say, if Sanders says there’s no truth whatsoever to the allegations?

Gabe: I’ll answer both questions: it feels like it’s in both camp’s interest now to get the full story on the table. What seems possible given the sliver of overlap in both of their statements is Sanders spoke about Trump’s willingness to use sexism against a female candidate, and Warren understandably interpreted that as his analysis that a woman could not win. It’s also possible Sanders never said this—though Warren says he did—and it’s also possible he said a woman could never win—though Sanders says he didn’t. But neither campaign openly wants this fight to be their explicit closing argument. It’s true all the candidates are scrapping for as many marginal new caucus-goers as they can get, but it seems unlikely that one campaign that was closing on a unity note (Warren) and another that was closing on an electability-minded and anti-Biden note (Bernie) would see an obvious political upside for this to continue for too long as a he-said, she-said type disagreement.

Ezekiel: Your answer, which gets at the trickiness of trying to account for the voting preferences and biases of other strangers, gives me an opportunity to harp on one of my hobbyhorses: I think voters should just vote for the person they think would make the best president and trust the primary process to pick someone electable. That’s what it’s for.

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