vision 2020

Why Hasn’t Elizabeth Warren Caught Fire in the Primaries?

There’s still plenty of time. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Irin Carmon, Sarah Jones, and Ed Kilgore discuss why Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bold ideas haven’t translated — yet — to polling success.

Ben: A few short months ago, Elizabeth Warren was seen by many progressives as a top-tier contender to take on President Trump in 2020. We ran a cover in September with a picture of Warren and the headline “Front Runner.” Since then, Warren has more than distinguished herself in the Democratic field on policy — she has released thoughtful, wide-ranging proposals on everything from taxing the rich to de-monopolozing big tech to restructuring corporate governance.

Many of her ideas have helped set the agenda for the primary so far. But Warren is a consistently middling, single-digit performer in the polls, trailing Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke. To state the obvious, it is still very early in this endless process. Nevertheless, her lack of traction so far is striking. Why do you think she hasn’t really caught on yet?

Irin: It seems to me a preemptive panic about electability, mostly because of her screwup out of the gate of not getting buy-in from Native American leaders on how to handle Trump’s slurs, and not finding a good way to talk about affirmative action. (She pissed a lot of progressives off with protesting that she never benefited from affirmative action, with the implication that there’s something inherently wrong with that.) But on the undulating curve of shifting expectations, it feels like something is turning — the backlash to the backlash.

Sarah: I think there are a few reasons, one being that it’s a crowded field. Another is policy. Her detailed proposals distinguish her as a candidate — she should be top-tier, by any reasonable standard — but as important as policy is, I think it can be a tough sell to voters. (Speaking as a journalist who covers policy, it’s difficult to get anyone to read or care about it.) It’s possible that she’ll catch on more as the primary advances and voters have more opportunities to see her in action; they may begin to see her more as a compelling and charismatic personality, and thus gain confidence in her ability to take on Trump in a general election.

Ed: There’s a lot of buzz about her being the victim of bias against older women — call it the Hillary Syndrome — or of general voter/media sexism.

Irin: That too. I wonder where all the “but I love Elizabeth Warren” guys are now.

I reread Sady Doyle’s piece today and it really resonates. “We want something beautiful to work for, some bright future, and all the while, women work in the background, holding up a bright light so their men can shine.”

Sarah: Certainly I think sexism is part of it, but for whatever my anecdotal observation is worth, she seems to be much more popular with the DSA-adjacent left than Clinton was. It’s just not enough to tilt the polls in her favor.

Irin: I just think history shows we like women most when they aren’t asking for a promotion. That was true of Hillary too. And the most popular older woman I can think of (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) never asked for our vote.

Ed: That gets to two aces in the hole I think Warren has, if I can complete the thought for a moment.

Irin: Ed, men aren’t allowed to talk anymore.

Ed: Haha. Hope I can get an exemption to make a plug for Warren.

First, she is a potential unity candidate. She is widely respected by pretty much everyone; is a likely second choice of the Bernie people; and has a remarkable amount of support (I speak anecdotally here) from “centrist” types who believe the party really does need to move left but not without some nods to traditional economic thinking. Biden’s no longer a “unity” figure, I’d say. Beto could flame out. And the “Pocahontas” thing will seem like nothing compared to the crap Republicans will soon be hitting her rivals with.

Second, she seems to be doing better in Iowa than elsewhere, and she has an excellent organization there. She should wear well on likely caucusgoers who appreciate being respected to understand policy arguments. And she’d hardly be the first Massachusetts senator left for dead in New Hampshire and being miraculously revived by doing well in Iowa (cf. 2004).

Ben: I’m Elizabeth Warren, and I’m reporting for duty!

Irin: Not the most cheering antecedent for Democrats.

Ed: There’s no reason Warren would run the kind of maddening general-election campaign Kerry ran, and I say that as a Kerry fan.

Irin: Warren probably benefits from being off the radar at this stage, as long as she can stay in it. Everyone is tearing each other apart, and she can emerge as the unity candidate, per Ed.

Ben: The bungled Native American explanation seemed to take the wind out of her sails early, but anecdotal evidence shows that Democratic voters don’t care about the issue too much. What they probably do care about is the effectiveness of Trump’s attack lines, and one does hear from people that Warren might just be a lost cause because she gave him a potent piece of ammunition. After the trauma of 2016, are Democrats overthinking what it takes to beat the president? I mean, they overthink everything, but are they doing so to a damaging degree here?

Ed: Again, compare “Pocahontas” to the stroll down fellow-traveler lane with Bernie that Republicans are sure to pull on him and it looks a lot less formidable. And we know about Biden’s baggage.

Sarah: They might be overthinking it, yeah. The Pocahontas incident was an obvious misstep, but compared to the baggage some of the other Democrats are lugging around, it’s nothing. She doesn’t have to account for her record as a prosecutor. She didn’t repeatedly violate the personal boundaries of women in public settings. Her tax returns are straightforward. Unlike Beto O’Rourke, she didn’t just lose an election.

Ben: I agree that taken as a scandal in isolation, it pales in comparison. But that’s a different thing than its salience as a GOP talking point. Kamala Harris’s prosecutorial record might actually be helpful in a general election.

Sarah: She’s gotten some bad advice — the DNA testing, the website that preemptively addressed right-wing smears — and that’s a bit concerning.

Ed: Well, the trump card — no pun intended — in all these arguments is the tiebreaker: Who would you like to see as president? Do Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris strike you as can’t-miss great presidents?

Sarah: I’ll plead the Fifth.

Ed: Haha, I should, too. Though I did qualify this with “can’t miss.”

Irin: I’ve heard a lot of progressives say Warren would be the best president, but that they don’t think she can win.

Ben: I actually feel that way.

Sarah: It all still feels like reading tea leaves at this point.

Ed: Well, one possibility is that as we approach 2020, what I’ve called “electability panic” among Democrats could fade. Or at least they could conclude that the identity of their nominee isn’t going to move the numbers a lot.

Sarah: I also think that voters and pundits define electability in different ways. Bernie Sanders polls very well, but that hasn’t stopped a round of professional hand-wringing about the inevitability of his loss to Trump.

Ben: There has been some pretty convincing analysis that beyond anything that’s happened in the last few months, Warren underperformed in her Senate election last year. Whether that’s because of sexism, her status as a Fox News target of ridicule, or something else, I don’t know. But it certainly concerns me, as does the lack of enthusiasm from home-state voters and media about her presidential candidacy.

Sarah: The other day I plugged her name and Pete Buttigieg’s into Google Trends, and friends, the result depressed me. There’s definitely a problem!

Ed: All I’m saying is that if primary voters eventually throw up their hands and admit “electability” is impossible to determine, being the candidate everyone would actually like to see in the White House is a pretty big asset.

Irin: Maybe we’re in the bright, shiny object phase of things, and Warren will really shine in the debates.

Ben: I think that’s a pretty good bet. She excels in that kind of setting.

Irin: Running an anti-corruption message against Trump when you don’t have to carry Bill Clinton or Goldman Sachs speeches on your back: It could work. Or maybe Hillary is the last woman Democrats will ever nominate.

Ben: I’ve seen some criticism of that reliable bogeyman “the media” — the charge being that we’re too focused on charismatic men like Beto, Bernie, and Buttigieg, and that we focus on Warren’s flaws, not her wonkery. I personally think that her ideas have gotten plenty of coverage, and that the notion that she’s not blowing up the polls gives too much credit to the press for being able to mold voters’ opinions. What’s your take?

Irin: Oh, I think the nature of the coverage has absolutely been different. But that’s the public’s fault as much as media. See Sarah on Google Trends. She gets covered dutifully, they get covered rapturously. (Bernie is in a different category.)

Ed: Media follow as well as lead.

Sarah: I do think the coverage of Beto and Buttigieg has been a little breathless! But again — people don’t tend to click on stories about policy. Those stories don’t go viral. It’s more difficult to come up with a punchy headline for those stories.

Ben: True, though Warren’s “let’s tax the hell out of rich people” plank is pretty catchy.

Sarah: It is! But there are other candidates angling for the same slogan. Not all of those candidates are progressive as she is, though.

Ed: I am not, repeat not, making any direct analogy between these two people, but in 2012 nobody took Rick Santorum seriously until he traipsed around Iowa and pulled an upset there. And then he hounded Romney for quite some time, and came a few thousand votes in Michigan away from destroying him. Warren may just need to show her strengths in the right time and the right place.

Sarah: Maybe, yeah! Obviously a lot of these candidates will flame out, and soon, and there’s no reason to think that Warren can’t at least survive past that initial die-off and then distinguish herself

Ben: This may be the first time someone has compared Elizabeth Warren to Rick Santorum.

Ed: I just think she’s the kind of candidate who will wear well on voters. Not sure about some of the others.

Irin: I definitely think she has fewer ideological or personal enemies than a lot of other primary candidates. Process of elimination.

Sarah: I just wish liberals defended Warren as doggedly as some of them have defended Joe Biden in recent days.

Irin: I think we’ve found consensus.

Why Hasn’t Elizabeth Warren Caught Fire in the Primaries?