Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s knockout performance in the February 19 Democratic debate in Las Vegas came too late to provide a win for the struggling candidate in the Nevada caucuses, but her campaign believes can continue to capitalize on her debate success and sudden surge in fundraising as other candidates flame out into the background.
For the fourteen months she’s been running for president, Warren has argued that she is uniquely capable of taking on ultra-powerful billionaires and corporate executives and holding them accountable to the American people. During the Nevada debate, Warren proved to voters in real-time she could do just that.
Going into the Nevada debate, Warren’s campaign was in somewhat of a downward spiral after she came in third place in the Iowa caucuses and an even more troubling fifth-place in New Hampshire, which is right in the backyard of Massachusetts, the state she represents in the US Senate.
Over the course of the two-hour debate, Warren eviscerated Bloomberg’s argument that he is best-situated to defeat Trump in a general election piece-by-piece, landing blows on every part of his record. As a result, she received a surge in campaign contributions, raising $9 million in the three following days , as well as positive news coverage that breathed fresh life into her campaign.
But in the Nevada caucuses, Warren came in fourth place with 96% of precincts reporting, so far earning just 11.5% of the popular vote and less than 10% of county convention delegates, and failing to reach 15% minimum threshold candidates must reach to earn statewide pledged delegates.
Part of the problem was that by the time Warren took to the debate stage on the 19th, an estimated 75,000 people had already cast ballots in the four days of prep-caucus early voting that took place before the caucus from February 15 to February 18.
As of Wednesday, total turnout in the caucuses has already outpaced the total 84,000 people who participated in the 2016 Democratic caucuses and could near the record-high turnout levels of 118,000 who participated in the 2008 caucuses.
Indeed, as Vox noted , Warren’s vote share in Nevada appears to have substantially increased between the early voting period and the day of the caucuses, partly due to her strong showing among caucusgoers who indicated in entrance polls that they made their voting decision at the last minute.
Warren knocked Bloomberg back on his heels, but it may not save her own campaign
Within the first five minutes of the debate, Warren came out of the gate swinging against Bloomberg over his reported comments about women, landing an initial blow that only began hours of blistering attacks on Bloomberg from her and every other candidate on stage.
“I want to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no I’m not talking about Donald Trump I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” she said. “Democrats take a huge risk if we substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”
Then, in a brutal line of questioning, Warren hammered an ill-prepared Bloomberg on his company’s use of non-disclosure agreements in cases where employees accused the company of sexual harassment or gender discrimination.
When Warren pressed Bloomberg to release former employees from NDAs they signed, he stumbled and melted down under pressure, first re-hashing talking points about how his company is a good working environment for women, and then arguing that none of the women accused him personally of doing anything “other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” drawing grimaces and groans from the audience.
“This is not just a question about the mayor’s character this is also a question about electability,” Warren shot back. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who-knows-how-many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of women who say they have been harassed or discriminated against. That’s not what we do as Democrats.”
Bloomberg wasn’t the only candidate on the receiving end of Warren’s fire that night as she positioned herself as the only serious policy expert in the room. On healthcare, she criticized former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s healthcare plan as a “PowerPoint presentation” drawn up by consultants, and said that Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s healthcare proposal was so inadequate that it could fit on a “Post-it note.”
Warren’s total shellacking of Bloomberg had two tangible impacts in the days following the debate. In Morning Consult polling, Bloomberg’s net favorability among Democratic primary voters plummeted by 20 percentage points and 30 points among moderates, the subset of voters among which his campaign should be doing the best.
And secondly, Bloomberg capitulated to Warren’s demands and on Friday, agreed to release three former Bloomberg LP employees from NDAs they signed covering allegations they launched against Bloomberg himself and his workplace behavior.
Warren’s previously faltering campaign got the boost it needed to stay in the race and put her back in the conversation as a top-tier candidate, with Warren raising $14 million in the ten days between the February 11 New Hampshire primary and February 21, including $6 million in the 24 hours after the debate.
Despite the last-minute bump from the debate, Warren is still in a precarious position heading into the next contests. She’s currently polling at 10% on average in South Carolina in FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker, below the 15% minimum threshold she’ll need to attain to earn delegates, and 10% among Super Tuesday voters in Morning Consult polling.
While Warren’s post-debate bump failed to materialize into a strong showing in Nevada, her campaign is playing the long game and believes Warren can continue to capitalize on her success as other candidates flame out, beginning with the next time she’ll face Bloomberg at Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina.
In a lengthy Saturday night Twitter thread , Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau argued “the Nevada debate will have more impact on the structure of the race than the Nevada result,” noting that “since a huge percentage of the votes were cast before the debate likely well more than half tonight’s results are a lagging indicator of the current state of the race.”
Lau said the Warren team believes she now has a unique opening, arguing that Biden’s “collapse” in Nevada is “is further evidence of his steep decline” that could make him a non-factor by Super Tuesday, Buttigieg’s fundraising is “drying up,” Klobuchar “has no apparent path” forward, and while Sanders and Bloomberg trounce the rest of the field in funding, they both have “a ceiling” of support.
And as Politico Magazine’s Bill Scher pointed out, Warren’s best bet at this stage in the race is to focus not on winning multiple states outright, but on reaching the 15% delegate threshold in as many places as possible to keep her afloat as a viable contender to maintain her fundraising.
Only time will tell if Lau’s view of the race will pan out and lead to their dream scenario of Warren emerging as a unity candidate over Sanders and Bloomberg as the others fade into the background.
But given Warren’s unsteady position in the field and her failure to earn any delegates in two out of the first three primary states, her window of opportunity to capitalize on her translate her powerful take-downs of Bloomberg into strong electoral results is only getting smaller.