The United States is sifting through the fallout of last night’s Super Tuesday primary — one of the biggest events in the 2016 election cycle, with a huge number of primaries that have the potential to clinch a nomination or dash presidential dreams. The results were mixed, with Senator Bernie Sanders taking Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Vermont, while his counterpart Hillary Clinton swept the Southeast with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia in addition to capturing Massachusetts and Texas. Clinton has definitely reclaimed her role as strong frontrunner, while Donald Trump on the Republican side kept up his frightening momentum.
But for some Bernie Sanders fans, one state particularly stung: Massachusetts, where Clinton won by a very narrow margin. In a quest to understand why the senator lost the state, they found a nearby target for blame: Senator Elizabeth Warren, famous for her aggressive criticism of Wall Street and tireless advocacy on issues that matter to the lower and working class. She might seem like a lock for a Sanders endorsement, but she declined to endorse the senator — or Ms. Clinton — and for that, some supporters argue that she’s to blame for Sanders’ loss in Massachusetts.
Post-election bitterness is a common phenomenon across all voting demographics, and in primary season, losing a state can feel like a personal sting, especially for voters who delved into organizing with intense zeal. Yet, the reaction from the Sanders campaign has been outsized, and it joins a complicated ongoing media narrative in which hyperaggressive Sanders supporters engage in abusive tactics directed at high profile women in the media (regardless of political endorsement), and then deny that the so-called ‘Berniebro’ phenomenon exists and is a huge problem for the campaign — despite the fact that the senator himself said ‘we don’t want that crap‘ in a direct shot across the bow at his ardent fans.
From #DraftWarren to #BlameWarren
As exit polls and precinct numbers started to flood in, ardent supporters took to Twitter, first to complain, and then to get more vociferous. Angry voters were advised to ‘direct their outrage’ at Senator Warren, for example, and her Facebook page quickly accrued comments from the mildly remonstrating to the actively hostile, with aggressive Sanders supporters insisting that she would be singlehandedly responsible for the election of Donald Trump in November. This built upon commentary like ‘thanks for nothing, Elizabeth Warren,’ which suggested that the senator was ‘missing an opportunity’ to make Democratic history by coming out strong in favour of a given candidate.
This is a reasonable response that benefits your campaign's reputation and/or gender politics in every way pic.twitter.com/bxZM7BAzt9
— Sady Doyle (@sadydoyle) March 2, 2016
US electoral politics can get hopelessly complicated — many outside the country struggle to understand the internecine and seemingly completely illogical primary system. Notably, without the primary system and specifically staggered series of elections and caucuses, Sanders likely wouldn’t be a contender at all. Democrats attending a primary on the same day across the country would have voted Clinton almost across the board out of concern that she’d be the only viable candidate against any Republican frontrunner. By scattering elections across the country and the calendar, the DNC has created a legitimate opening for Sanders, and it’s one that some of his supporters are disturbingly eager to throw away by attacking anyone and everyone they think is to blame for any of the senator’s poor election results or personal missteps.
At one point, even the New York Times got dragged into the fray, when the Grey Lady was forced to publish a clarifying article to explain that it had not, in fact, endorsed Sanders after a spoof website suggested that it had. Delighted Sanders supporters had linked to the ‘endorsement’ and crowed with glee across the internet, apparently inattentive to the URL and other key indicators, a reminder that internet spoofs spread like wildfire on social media and become nearly impossible to stop. The Times had in fact endorsed Clinton in January.
Elizabeth Warren’s complicated political position
As a sitting Senator and a woman, Warren finds herself tangled in a very dangerous web. Many argue that she should support Clinton by virtue of her gender, and in fact she reportedly urged Clinton to run in a private communique filed three years ago. Others note that her politics differ wildly from Clinton’s, and that in order to remain consistent to her values, a Sanders endorsement would make more sense. However, Warren can also opt to endorse neither — or to subtly criticise Clinton, which she’s done on multiple occasions — and that may be a smarter move both for her and for the candidates.
Warren is a figure who commands tremendous attention and respect in the party, such that multiple movements have attempted to convince her run. It’s likely that Warren will consider a run in the future, though 2016 isn’t on her agenda. Thus far, she’s consolidating her base with thoughtful, measured movements that betray an incredibly sharp political mind. Even as she treads carefully, she’s establishing herself as a candidate who will take positions and stand by them, and as a candidate who will take lower and working class issues seriously, a concern for many Americans struggling with the aftermath of the recession, which continues to reverberate in their communities.
Whoever Warren endorses will enjoy additional support from her fans, many of whom are dismayed that she didn’t opt for a 2016 run. Those fans could be as assertive and forceful as Bernie’s existing base — engaging in get out the vote efforts, political organising on Twitter, donation drives, and more. Sanders fans want access to that base now, arguing that without it, Sanders may have a difficult time in states where the two candidates are battling it out in a head to head.
But Warren faces another problem: If she endorses one candidate and attacks the other, but the nomination shakes out the other way, she’s going to be in an uncomfortable position during the general election. Some sneer at her, claiming that she’s going for a vice presidential nomination and doesn’t want to ruffle feathers. That’s a simplistic view, though. More likely, Warren sees herself as a peacemaker who could help lock in a Democratic win by bringing skeptical Sanders supporters to the Clinton side, or communicating in an accessible way with a Clinton base that feels frustrated and betrayed — a not insignificant number of voters have swung Clintonward out of sheer irritation with the most aggressive Sanders supporters, in defiance of claims that this aggression doesn’t exist or isn’t a significant problem for the Sanders campaign.
Should Sanders fail, it may well be blamed on Warren’s refusal to endorse him — something she hasn’t ruled out. If he wins, it will be spun as ‘despite’ her refusal to endorse, suggesting that Sanders didn’t need her help all along, and that will contribute to the toxic dynamic that already surrounds the senator’s most sexist supporters. Leaning on Warren certainly won’t accomplish anything for his followers beyond increasing tensions with Clinton supporters and potentially alienating her staffers, and, ultimately, the senator herself.
US politics can be violently heated, and with the 2016 election, there’s a great deal at stake. While the GOP tears itself apart and faces the very real risk that it won’t continue to exist as a party in its current form as it desperately aims for a brokered convention, the Democrats are involved in a strange power struggle of their own, and one that could prove highly destructive to party loyalists. While cool-headed Democrats plead with voters on both sides to come out in force this November no matter who takes the nomination, the continued Democratic reliance on the ‘anybody is better than the Republican nominee’ isn’t a good political strategy, and the party may not be able to withstand too many more battles like this one.
Elizabeth Warren is entitled to think independently and to consider long-term political strategies, because women like her could become the new face of the Democratic Party, but only if they play their cards right.
Image: Edward Kimmel/Creative Commons