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The Memo: Sanders-Warren battle could reshape Democratic primary

The red-hot controversy between Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders press secretary: 'Principal concern' of Biden appointments should be policy DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSchwarzenegger says he would 'absolutely' help Biden administration Disney chair says he would consider job in Biden administration if asked Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill MORE (D-Mass.) is threatening to reshape the Democratic primary — perhaps to the disadvantage of both.

“Strategically speaking, it’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever seen,” said one Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “There is only one winner out of this battle: It’s Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE.”

The core issue is whether Sanders told Warren during a private December 2018 conversation that a woman could not be elected president. She says he did. He emphatically denies it.

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The furor over who is telling the truth consumed much of the week in Democratic politics, especially because of the way it surfaced during Tuesday night’s debate — the final televised clash before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.

During the debate, Sanders said it was “ludicrous” to suggest he would believe such a thing. Warren stuck to her guns.

The contretemps intensified when Warren appeared to refuse to shake Sanders’s hand as the debate ended. When audio from that exchange emerged, it revealed Warren to have said to Sanders, “I think you called me a liar on national TV?” 

Sanders responded, “What? Let’s not do it right now,” adding, “You called me a liar.”

Social media commentary has inflamed the dispute further. 

Warren’s partisans, who naturally believe her version of the conversation, say Sanders harbors sexist views — a particularly explosive charge given the ill feeling that lingers from his 2016 campaign against eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary and Chelsea Clinton to host series based on their book 'Gutsy Women' Democrats see spike in turnout among Asian American, Pacific Islander voters Biden officially announces ex-Obama official Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE

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Sanders’s supporters say Warren has smeared him, which they say is indicative of a broader disingenuousness on her part. Some now respond to any tweet from her with snake emojis.

Progressives who are not hardline supporters of either senator worry that the most likely consequence is the strengthening of other candidates, including more centrist alternatives like Biden or former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegJuan Williams: Clyburn is my choice as politician of the year 'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' MORE (D).

The most recent Des Moines Register poll — the gold standard in the Hawkeye State — had all four candidates within 5 percentage points of each other: Sanders on 20, Warren on 17, Buttigieg on 16 and Biden on 15.

There are previous examples of candidates attacking each other directly only to be bested by a third rival. 

The most celebrated instance in Iowa so far this century came in 2004, when two leading candidates, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) and then-Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) attacked each other fiercely as the clock ticked down to the caucuses, only for then-Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes Kerry'Wise men' redux: The Biden national security team Jamaal Bowman: Hearing names like Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed 'makes my skin crawl' Climate swarming — Biden's 'Plan B' for the planet MORE (D-Mass.) to win. 

Kerry went on to become the Democratic nominee but lost the general election to President George W. Bush.

Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager in 2004, told The Hill this week, “It’s always a really bad idea for two candidates to get into this kind of back-and-forth in a multi-candidate field. It usually ends up hurting both of them.”

Trippi also noted that this was a problem even when the candidates are closely aligned in terms of policy and ideology, as is the case with Sanders and Warren. 

“What you risk is that even the people who liked you as their second choice, now don’t like you because you hit their first choice,” he said.

To be sure, there are important caveats.

One is that Warren and Sanders could deescalate the battle, making it less important on caucus day than it is today.

“We should all focus on defeating Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE, not food fights,” said Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky. “Neither of them seems eager to prolong that dispute.”

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Although Warren and Sanders are the two leading progressive candidates, they aren’t necessarily fighting over exactly the same voters. Their support is different in certain demographic groups.

For example, Sanders is stronger with young voters than Warren, at least in most polls. In a recent Economist/YouGov national poll, Sanders drew the support of 39 percent of Democratic voters between the ages of 18 and 29, way ahead of Warren’s 18 percent.

Conversely, Warren appears to do better with affluent and highly educated voters. In a national Quinnipiac University poll conducted within the past two weeks, Warren had the support of 24 percent of white Democrats with a college degree, more than any other candidate including Sanders, who drew 14 percent support from this cohort.

Additionally, some Democrats simply don’t buy the idea that Sanders and Warren are on a path of mutually assured destruction in the current row.

Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based strategist unaligned with any 2020 candidate, argued that it was a “great strategic move” by Warren to “position herself as the demonstrative woman in the race.”

He argued that, by doing so, she could cut into Sanders’s support and give herself a stronger chance of defeating him in one of the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire. 

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Sheinkopf argued that New Hampshire could be even more of a do-or-die contest for both Warren and Sanders than Iowa, given that they both represent states abutting the Granite State.

For now, though, all eyes are on Iowa. Everyone seems to agree that the Warren-Sanders feud has added more volatility to a race that was already fluid.

“Everything is moving, everything is shifting — and there is going to be some surprise in the result,” said Trippi.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.