intelligencer chats

What Doomed Elizabeth Warren’s Candidacy?

An inspiring campaign, but not a winning one. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren ended her presidential campaign on Thursday. For months, she had been a top-tier contender, sometimes flirting with front-runner status. But as she lost ground to Bernie Sanders among the party’s liberal wing and failed to pick up enough minority support, it became clear that she had no path to the nomination. What went wrong? I discussed that question with senior correspondent Irin Carmon and senior writer Eric Levitz.

Ben: When commentators opine about why Elizabeth Warren’s campaign failed, they usually conclude that it was some combination of sexism, embrace of unpopular ideas (mostly Medicare for All), and polls showing that she was a weak general-election candidate against President Trump. Oh, and maybe her willingness to adopt the language of the social-justice left in a way that Bernie Sanders doesn’t. Do these factors capture to you why Warren, who was leading in polls a few months ago and seemed to impress just about everyone with her policy chops and debate skills, failed to finish better than third place in any primary? Or is there something else going on that these explanations don’t quite capture?

Irin: You mentioned a lot, but I’d also add abject fear among Democrats in the age of Trump. We can talk about the mistakes Warren made — and she made them! — forever, but the consolidation around Biden, who had at best a shambolic or nonexistent campaign with plenty of baggage, suggests people are running scared to the familiar. The differences in those general-election matchups were mostly insignificant and arguably were self-fulfilling prophecies. But a progressive woman who is a relatively new quantity had everything working against her in that environment.

Eric: I disagree slightly. The polling I’ve seen, both internal and external, really did show Warren doing significantly worse against Trump than the other major candidates (after accounting for name recognition), and I think that hurt her with both the public and perhaps with would-be endorsers. I would also say that Pete Buttigieg’s surprising strength is probably an underrated factor given the overlap in their bases of appeal. If Pete doesn’t catch fire, it’s not hard to see Warren winning Iowa and perhaps riding the ensuing wave further than the mayor of South Bend was able to.

Irin: Fair enough, but assuming these polls are a fixed science didn’t get us very far in 2016 with plenty of unforeseen circumstances at late hours.

Eric: Yeah, I’m not saying the polls would have necessarily been vindicated, but the discrepancy was real and likely influenced Democratic primary voters’ behavior. It’s plausible to me, though, that the polling hurt her more than they would have hurt a moderate man in the way that negative attacks that validate the electorate’s preconceived concerns about a candidate are always more potent (voters started out skeptical that a liberal woman was electable, so polls that affirmed that impression carried more weight).

Irin: Too many people acting like pundits instead of voters.

Ben: Is there anything Warren could have done differently in the campaign to avert this result? Or given the factors at play, was this — you might say depressingly — going to be the outcome all along?

Irin: I don’t think it would have been dispositive because I am deeply fatalistic about the misogyny, including internalized and projected misogyny, of even the Democratic electorate, but a criticism I had of the Warren campaign is that she was overly reactive. She let Trump and right-wing radio bully her into the DNA test; she spent too long answering bad-faith questions about how to do Medicare for All; she tried out the unity candidate thing when it made no sense for her. It left a muddled impression.

Eric: I think if Bernie dropped out after his heart attack and endorsed she might have had a shot. But that’s obviously not something Warren could have done. I do think she maybe could have chosen to pick three big, popular, populist progressive ideas to center her campaign around — say, the wealth tax, codetermination, and universal child care — and then just run as Klobuchar clone on most other issues. I would have found her less appealing had she campaigned like that. But it’s conceivable to me the voters she lost to Pete may have been more comfortable with her if she read as moderate on health care and such.

Irin: Yeah, I would note that Sanders asked Warren if she was running in 2016 before he did (reportedly) but did not thus defer to her this time when she did decide to run, and a lot is resting on a very old man who had a heart attack. This has to rankle her! Not to uh, reap the whirlwind, but I didn’t take a pre-2014 position on whether RBG should have retired (when it mattered) and now I can’t help but think of how many people said she was selfish to want to keep going. Here, instead, the pressure was all on Warren to drop out.

Ben: Does the failure of Warren’s campaign mean that we’re unlikely to see someone in a Democratic primary embrace her strategy of drilling down on the gritty details of government again anytime soon?

Eric: Depends on how narrowly we define “drilling down on the gritty details of government,” I’d say.

Irin: I don’t think that’s why she lost — if anything it gave her a hook to differentiate herself when there was a massive pack — and I hope that her work will be recognized as an ideas shop for whoever’s in a position to implement them. I do think this has made even more people pessimistic that we’ll ever see a female president. At least, a progressive female president.

Ben: No doubt.

Eric: Across countries, you do see some post-political, outsider businessmen turned self-styled technocrats winning elections (Macron being the paradigmatic example). I think there is an electoral market for managerial competence when packaged in a pseudo-authoritarian “I’m just going to go in there and fix all this stuff through personal expertise and sheer force of will.” This was actually, kinda, Donald Trump’s pitch.

But I would guess that Warren’s campaign strategy of running on actual technocratic chops — while being a liberal woman — is not going to be emulated (at least, not successfully) in the near future.

Ben: Do you see Warren endorsing any candidate, as Biden looks to put Bernie away in the next couple weeks? (With the caveat that anything could happen in this topsy-turvy race.)

Eric: If Bernie pulled some upsets next week and returned to viability, I could see Warren coming onboard. But I kinda doubt she endorses Sanders absent new evidence that he can win. I’d guess she’d endorse Biden when/if he assembles a prohibitive lead.

Irin: She waited until June in 2016, and I could see her doing it again. She can keep doing what she’s doing in the Senate no matter who the candidate is. So she might as well stay neutral until it’s all over.

Ben: Let’s say Biden wins the presidency. Do you see her role as being different than it would have been if she hadn’t made this run and accumulated all this good will? This of course depends on whether Dems can recapture the Senate.

Irin: I also don’t think it will make much of a difference who she endorses, frankly. The course of the race seems set, and sadly she didn’t command a massive number of delegates. She famously held Obama to account, pissing off lots of his administration in the process, and I’m sure she would do the same in the event of a Biden presidency  but with an even bigger platform.

Eric: I think she’ll still be one of the relatively few Dems in Washington with a national platform and following. That will give her influence

Irin: And it’ll help that we love women who aren’t asking to be fully in charge.

Eric: I also think it might be unwise for either Biden or Sanders to pluck her from the Senate, depending on what the party breakdown there is 2021. Eventually you’d almost certainly get a Democrat in that seat, but I believe there’d be a period during the presidential “honeymoon” where you’d be down one vote due to Charlie Baker. That said, I would guess that Bernie would commit to making her veep if she promised to endorse now. But she has reason to doubt that he will ever be in a position to offer her that job.

What Doomed Elizabeth Warren’s Candidacy?