Like New Coke, Warren couldn't measure up to the real thing

Like New Coke, Warren couldn't measure up to the real thing
© Greg Nash

What happens when an incumbent with brand loyalty gets challenged by an energetic, aggressive newcomer? Even if the challenger seems like a better and sweeter product, consumers will mostly stay loyal, even if the incumbent is a little old and bitter.

And that is the main reason why Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenAll fracked up: Biden's Keystone State breakdown What do Google, banks and chicken salad have in common? Final debate: War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit MORE (D-Mass.) could not dislodge Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez says Democrats must focus on winning White House for Biden All fracked up: Biden's Keystone State breakdown The Memo: Five reasons why Trump could upset the odds MORE (I-Vt.), but not the only reason.

While the progressive pundit and political class put sexism at the forefront of Warren’s failure — even women who endorsed Sanders — the fact is that Warren was at a significant disadvantage to Sanders and Biden regardless of gender. With respect to Sanders, his surprisingly strong candidacy in 2016 not only gave him a significant leg-up in organization and fundraising, it also conferred upon him leadership of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.


In politics, ideological voters tend to have intense loyalty to their candidates. Sanders benefited from even more intense loyalty due to his candidacy against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris lists out 'racist' actions by Trump in '60 minutes' interview: 'It all speaks for itself' Trump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Clinton says most Republicans want to see Trump gone but can't say it publicly: report MORE. He was (and is) seen as an heroic figure whose stature only increased by fighting to the end. Replacing a leader like Sanders was always going to be very difficult and require extraordinary circumstances.

People are willing to give a “New Coke” a try (which accounts for Warren leading the Democratic race for a few weeks in the fall), but they will drift back to the tried and true unless given a truly compelling argument. And this is where Warren and her team really misread the electorate.

Warren thought that contrasting her accomplishments against Sanders’ inability to enact any meaningful legislation would allow her to vault into the leadership of the progressive bloc. But, that argument doesn’t help with most ideological voters — it actually hurts. For ideologues, purity matters above all. The inability to pass legislation is not a demerit, it is a badge of honor because it means Sanders never compromised. There is nothing ideologues love more than martyrdom. As a result, the strategy Warren chose to use against Sanders doomed her from the start.

To her credit, Warren held her own against Sanders and was within striking distance for much of December and early January. But she fell back the moment she accused Sanders of sexism on Jan. 12. Warren’s polling instantly began falling relative to Sanders, and she never closed the gap. For progressives, it was difficult enough seeing Warren challenge Sanders, but to accuse their hero of the sin of sexism was just too much. His acolytes bought his denials unquestioningly, the charges just bounced off him — and Warren never recovered.

If Warren was always going to be playing catch-up with the progressive Sanders bloc, could she have chosen to be the moderate pragmatist? Not with Joe BidenJoe BidenFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE in the race. No Vice-President or former Vice-President has been denied a major presidential nomination with the exception of Hubert Humphrey in 1972 (and Humphrey won the primary popular vote — he was outmaneuvered by McGovern at the convention). When Warren jumped in the race, Biden was handily ahead in the polls. Even during Warren’s brief time at the top of the polls, Biden was just a sliver behind her.


With Warren facing an uphill climb in both the progressive and the moderate camps, the best chance for her would have been to go on the attack to climb over Biden or Sanders. And that leads to another problem: Negative campaigning is difficult in a multi-candidate field.

While negative campaigning is very powerful, its power is greatest in a one-on-one battle. People do recoil at attack ads and rhetoric, but in a two-person race they will hold their nose and vote for the aggressor if the attack has a real impact. In a multi-way field, the dynamic is different. Simply put, when Candidate A attacks Candidate B, Candidate C wins. That’s why Warren didn’t get “credit” for knocking down Bloomberg in the debates. Essentially, Warren did the dirty work while Biden and Sanders benefited.

Attacks in a multi-way field have to be very precise, well thought out and followed up with a pivot to the positive. Warren failed to do that in her hits on Sanders and Bloomberg but made her biggest blunder against Buttigieg with her “wine cave” attack. The initial hit on Buttigieg’s fundraising got some traction and provided a solid contrast with Warren — that is until she was exposed as having her own “wine cave” fundraiser for the Senate. The hypocrisy did little for her credibility, to say the least.

All presidential campaigns make mistakes and misjudgments, nobody has ever run the perfect campaign. Warren didn’t “blow it” as some of her staffers may lament. She was at a severe strategic disadvantage that could not be overcome without either Sanders or Biden blowing themselves up. Most political candidacies — especially for president — are lost even before they start, and Warren could not overcome that axiom.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711