Opinion | Campaign

Why Democrats may end up with a nominee who is like Donald Trump

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Elizabeth Warren took a slash and burn approach to the Las Vegas debate that may play well on Twitter, but that makes bringing new voters into the fold more difficult. Her campaign telegraphed all week her desire to take on Michael Bloomberg over issues such as stop and frisk, his corporate culture, and his support of the Iraq war. What was not expected were the attacks leveled at practically every other candidate across the field.

Up until now, voters have been wary of candidates engaging in the type of negative attacks that made Warren the talk of the town this week. What will be interesting to see is whether she suffers any consequences for her change in strategy. Earlier in the primary race, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro both experienced negatives after using a similar strategy. Only time will tell whether Warren suffers a similar fate in her campaign.

Her debate performance was not the only thing that could be labeled as negative this week. Bloomberg raised all kinds of questions about whether he is prepared to take on Donald Trump during a general election debate. Bloomberg stumbled through softball questions about stop and frisk, his taxes, and the nondisclosure agreements that former employees signed amid allegations of harassment. His team attempted to lower the bar for expectations prior to the debate, but even they could not prepare voters for the uncomfortable string of words that Bloomberg said on stage.

He needed to show empathy and strength, paired with the wit that has made his campaign social media account a must read on the trail. Instead, many voters who were being introduced to Bloomberg for the first time met a man who seemed more like the guy who fired them from a job they really hated being at in the first place and less like a candidate with sharp elbows and unlimited resources. Bloomberg will undoubtedly live to fight another day, but he missed several opportunities to punch back against powerful attacks his campaign deemed unfair and overly political.

Bloomberg failed to hold Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar accountable for their problematic records on criminal justice. He failed to show contrition for his prior statements on issues of race and sexism. He came off as smug and unapologetic, a trait that is too common in the current White House occupant. Bloomberg has a lot of work to do before the next debate in South Carolina. He was punched for the first time in the race, and we will soon find out how he responds.

What is clear from the latest debate is the fact that this is going to be a long nomination process. What started off as a relatively tame primary has turned into the type of street fight that ad makers for the Republican Party have been dreaming of. The further into this process we get, the far more personal the attacks will become. Voters will have to decide whether they see that strategy as preparation for a brutal general election, or standard softening up the nominee for a president who is the master of spin.

After the next debate, Democrats should be prepared to batten down the hatches and prepare for an all out war. Moderates within the party are terrified of not only losing the White House, but the down ballot effect that Sanders would have if he sits at the top of the ticket. Likewise, his supporters are already claiming the fix is in and preparing to hold the party hostage. This take it or leave it approach may not have worked in 2016, but in that race he was only running against one other candidate. In the field today, with huge amounts of spending, his path to nomination will not be an easy one. So weary Democrats may have no choice but to throw the sink at Sanders in a last ditch attempt to stop all his gains.

Until Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Klobuchar stop cannibalizing the rest of the vote, the nomination is for Sanders to lose. With Super Tuesday coming and a large swath of delegates in play, time is running out to stop Sanders. Attacking Bloomberg plays well on Twitter, but it only fractures the party. Buttigieg was the only candidate to go after Sanders on stage, and more candidates would be smart to follow his lead. If Sanders starts running away with the nomination, like Trump did four years ago, then Democrats may be left wondering how they ended with a presidential nominee who does not even self identify as a member of their party.

Michael Starr Hopkins is the founding partner of Northern Starr Strategies. He served on the Democratic presidential campaigns for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Delaney. Follow him on Twitter @TheOnlyHonest.

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