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Bernie Sanders Definitely Should Not Have Campaigned Like Elizabeth Warren

In the wake of the end of Bernie Sanders's campaign, many pundits are asking: Should Bernie have campaigned like Elizabeth Warren? The answer is no, since she lost very badly.

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaking with attendees at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum at the Iowa Events Center on August 10, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

In the past couple of weeks, supporters of Elizabeth Warren have ventured out into the media outlets to say that the reason Bernie Sanders failed is because he tried to appeal to working-class voters rather than college-educated voters and suburban voters. This seems like a flawed analysis in my opinion because Elizabeth Warren tried to appeal to college-educated and suburban voters and did very poorly in the election.

The most prominent advocate of this view has been Sean McElwee. Unlike many of the others writing in this genre, McElwee came to believe this many years ago, even before Warren started her campaign. Presumably in part because of this belief, McElwee threw his efforts behind Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 Democratic primary and, according to sources familiar with the matter, even opened up his organization, Data for Progress, to donations from Elizabeth Warren super-donor Paul Egerman.

Warren ran her campaign exactly as McElwee’s theory says she should have. Instead of trying to appeal to working-class voters as a “blood and teeth” brawler, Warren tried to appeal to professionals and suburbanites as a policy super-genius with a cute doggo. This strategy definitely achieved its narrow goal: Warren did way better with the McElwee constituencies than she did with others and did better with them than almost any other candidate. This success was enough to get Warren third place in Iowa, fourth place in New Hampshire and Nevada, and then fifth place in South Carolina. Before candidates started dropping out en masse, Warren was tied in fourth place with Amy Klobuchar.

On its face, this would seem to be a big setback for the McElwee theory. We gave it a try and it failed. That’s what happens with theories sometimes. That’s part of the process of figuring things out.

But rather than reassess, McElwee has used the occasion of Bernie Sanders dropping out of the race to act like the problem with Bernie Sanders’s campaign is that he didn’t run it like Elizabeth Warren’s campaign even though Elizabeth Warren’s campaign clearly did way worse. Here is what he told Vox:

The future of [Bernie’s] agenda lies with young people, but college-educated and suburban voters are increasingly interested in the progressive agenda,” Sean McElwee, co-founder of the left-wing polling outfit Data for Progress, tells me. “Sadly, we [progressives] are about four years behind in reaching out to those voters because people don’t read enough fucking polling data.

He said something similar in his appearance on Ezra Klein’s podcast.

From a psychological perspective, this is of course a totally reasonable response. Data for Progress, and McElwee in particular, has spent years building up its reputation as pollsters who have their finger on the pulse of the American electorate. When that is your whole thing and then your novel theory of how that electorate works is tried and fails catastrophically, you aren’t likely to just throw your hands up and say, “Well I guess that was wrong.” But certainly other political observers, and the Left in particular, should be able to see it for what it is and stop buying the snake oil at this point.

I bring this up not to criticize Data for Progress in its entirety. The general model of commissioning issue polls that show left-wing policy is popular and then offering those polls as exclusives to journalists is a good way to get the ideas in front of more eyeballs and move the discourse in the process. But that work of the organization is undermined by emphatically insisting that the Elizabeth Warren electoral strategy is the fucking goddamn right way to run for office.