Why did the presidential candidacy of Senator Elizabeth Warren fail?

A year ago, during a weekend when I was in a science communications workshop at Cornell, I spent my evening between the Saturday and Sunday instead writing my analysis as to why the presidential campaign of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) failed that I ended up sharing with several friends. A year later, given that former Vice-President Joe Biden is now President Joe Biden, I decided to re-read it, and figured it was worth sharing (and has only been edited to remove links to posts on my personal Facebook in which I discuss various aspects of the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary).

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In the wake of her dropping out of her run for the Democratic nomination, leaving only two major candidates left, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Bernie Sanders.

In light of the fact that the Democratic nominee in 2016 was Hillary Clinton, who herself fell in the 2008 nomination contest to Barack Obama, then lost to Donald Trump in the general in 2016 losing the electoral college whilst winning the popular vote by several million votes, there were a lot of raw emotions coming into the 2020 primary cycle, and many people were highly motivated to see a woman elected as President of the United States.

In the 2020 primary nomination contest, there was seemingly a font of options for those looking to elect the first female President. There were six female candidates: Sen. Kamala Harris (Cal.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), & Ms Marianne Williamson, who is a self-help author.

As Chris Cillizza pointed out recently: “On its face, running as a woman for president is no hindrance at all. For the past five-plus decades, Gallup has been asking the public a series of questions about whether they would be willing to vote for candidates with a specific set of traits. In 1958, just 54% of people said they would vote for a woman to be president. By 1983, that number was 80%. In 2015 it was 92% and this year 93% said they would vote for a woman to be president.”

But, in the end, the only two candidates left standing after the loss of Warren are two septuagenarian white men. This result has caused a lot of consternation, and a range of other emotions, most of which I think can be centred around anger and disappointment.

Senator Amy Klobuchar expressed curiosity if, given the current inhabitant of the White House, most voters wanted a man to challenge him. This of course is a specific example of the general question of electability.

Senator Klobuchar also claimed in a debate that if someone of former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s qualifications had been a woman trying to run, female Pete, who I’ll label “Petra Buttigieg” for this example, would have gone nowhere. As I have said before: “…go see if you can find a 38-year old female former two-term mayor who was an honours grad from Harvard, went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, worked at McKinsey, & served in the military, and if you can, run her to find out. I’ll even not insist that this person be gay, just to increase the odds of finding someone.” The fact that Pete Buttigieg, who grew up in South Bend, Indiana, did all of the things he did before coming home and getting involved in local area politics, then running for mayor I think was part of his appeal.

I then made out a list of every politically prominent American Rhodes Scholar I could think of (other than the current Lieutenant-Governor of Washington, Cyrus Habib, since his level of political prominence could be argued) and where they were at age 38. The list I came up with was as follows:

1) Cory Booker (one of the other 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination seekers), 12 years ago, he was barely in his second year as mayor of Newark, certainly hadn’t been in the military, nor had he worked for a place like McKinsey, but he certainly could have given his resume (actually, McKinsey is on record as saying they treat Rhodes Scholars as MBA equivalents for their applications process).

2) Eric Garcetti, the current mayor of LA, is probably the closest thing, CV speaking to Pete, and 11 years ago, he was only an LA city counsellor, although he had been a Naval Reserve officer for a few years as well by that point.

3) Carl Albert, who became Speaker of the House, had just returned from WW2 (where he served in the Army Air Corps) and got elected to his first term in Congress.

4) Bobby Jindal, not a veteran, a decade ago was just in his second year as governor of Louisiana, having been a member of the US House of Representatives, Assistant Secretary of HHS for Planning & Evaluation, as well as Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (a position he assumed at age 24).

5) Bill Clinton, draft dodger that he was, had served a term as Arkansas AG, got elected governor, lost re-election, and then got elected again by 1984.

6) John Brademas, a US Navy veteran with brief service at the end of WW2, was a House back-bencher in his 4th term.

7) Gina Raimondo, a decade ago, hadn’t even become treasurer of RI yet, much less governor, also not a veteran.

8) Paul Sarbanes, not a veteran, was just serving his first term in Congress.

9) Heather Wilson, former Congresswoman from New Mexico, and an AF veteran, was just in her first term in Congress 21 years ago.

10) Byron White, future SCOTUS justice, football star, and a Navy vet in WW2, was still a private practice attorney in Denver at age 38, 6 years from his first DC job as Deputy AG.

11) Richard Lugar, a Navy vet and future long-time US Senator, was only in his second year as mayor of Indianapolis.

12) Russ Feingold, not a veteran, was a state legislator in Madison, two years away from the US Senate.

13) Bill Bradley, Air Force Reserve veteran and former NBA player, was only in his second year as a US Senator from New Jersey.

14) Sylvia Matthews Burwell, future OMB director and HHS Secretary for Obama, not a veteran, had finished her years as a staffer in the Clinton White House and was on her second year at the Gates Foundation.

As it happens, Senator Klobuchar, who is not a veteran and not a Rhodes Scholar, 21 years ago, when she was 38, had just been named DA of Hennepin County in Minnesota (which encompasses Minneapolis). I feel safe asserting that had there been a “Petra Buttigieg”, a late-30s veteran, with all of the accomplishments that Pete had racked up by age 38, woman, gay or straight, assuming she’d had the ambition to run for President, she’d have made it just as far as Pete did.

A question to evaluate is, assuming that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are comparable goods (in an economic sense), why did Bernie do a lot better as a candidate than Liz? After all, Bernie only ran in 2016 because other progressives, such as Elizabeth Warren, chose not to run. Can it be as simple as the fact that Bernie got into the space as “progressive candidate” first, crowding out Liz when she ran four years later, against Bernie? On the basis of the available evidence, including the fact that during the late fall of 2019, Elizabeth Warren was at or near the front of the pack of candidates on the basis of polling and news coverage, that question seems to be wrong. Especially since after her semi-strong initial entry, she struggled as a candidate for a while before clawing her way to the top towards the end of 2019 before falling again.

As has been noted in many places in many ways, Elizabeth Warren represented the “wine track” candidate, she may have held similar positions to Bernie Sanders on many issues, but who she appealed to was fundamentally a very different crowd. As I’ve said before, she was undeniably intelligent and diligent, and demonstrated a lot of determination to get from her working-class roots to become a tenured law professor at two Ivy League universities, the University of Pennsylvania and then Harvard. As I noted in a Facebook post citing the analysis of Megan McArdle, bringing in Matthew Stewart’s essay of the new American aristocracy as well as Annie Lowery’s review of Richard Reeves’ book “Dream Hoarders”, all of which I think are interconnected, quoting Ms McArdle: “Too many of her proposals are like this; they focus on corporate villains or billionaires while ignoring the much broader class of people that Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution dubbed the “Dream Hoarders” — the well-educated upper-middle-class people who are desperate to pass their privilege onto their kids, and are unhappy about the steadily mounting cost of doing so. They’re Warren’s base.

Unfortunately, the Dream Hoarders — and I include myself in their number — are a much bigger problem for the rest of America than the billionaires whose wealth Warren promises to expropriate. Those billionaires got that way by building companies that disrupted cozy local monopolies, and they fund coding camps for high-school dropouts; Dream Hoarders protect their professional licensing regimes and insist on ever more extensive and expensive educations in the people they hire. Dream Hoarders also pull every lever to keep their own housing prices high — and poorer kids out of their schools — while using their wealth to carefully guide their children over the hurdles they’ve erected.””

In 1972, Pauline Kael made a remark about the re-election of Richard Nixon: “How could Nixon have won? Nobody I know voted for him”. It should be noted that in 1972, Ms Kael had been the film critic for The New Yorker for four years at that point (and served in that role until 1991). Everyone in her circle, at the forefront of intellectual and cultural life in America, was a McGovern supporter, yet Nixon beat McGovern handily, winning 49 of the 50 states and their electoral college votes (it should be noted that Massachusetts was the only state that McGovern won, along with DC). I think that gets to a solemn truth, part of the appeal of Elizabeth Warren, why it seemed she was doing so well, is that the vast majority of her fans and voters were of the professional class, and whilst that magnified her, that also served as a limiting function for her, since there are more secondary school drop outs than people with graduate degrees, and less than a third of American adults over the age of 25 even have a baccalaureate degree, most of which aren’t from the state flagships and private schools, that are the font for most of the social elite in this country, the well-educated and well-off people, who work in prestige industries including the media, the law, and academia. In short, she was a populist for the professional class.

It was noted last October that Elizabeth Warren had an elitism problem that could cost her the nomination, so it was definitely not a surprise issue that brought her down. In a country that is over two-thirds not university educated, it might be wise to try to break out of that bubble. Bill Bradley and Howard Dean were known as “wine track” candidates in previous elections, and they ended up flaming out before getting the nomination. There was historical evidence of the limits of the “wine track” and yet, in the end, Senator Warren couldn’t break free of her world. It’s obvious that not only did she not, I don’t even think she tried. If she had, she would have pushed her personal narrative as hard as Bill Clinton did his in 1992 in order to not be seen as some Ivy Leaguer elitist technocrat. Joe Biden was able to hit her effectively by stating in a post on Medium: “Some call it the “my way or the highway” approach to politics. But it’s worse than that. It’s condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view. It’s representative of an elitism that working and middle class people do not share: “We know best; you know nothing”. “If you were only as smart as I am you would agree with me.””

Now of course, given that she had gotten her start in electoral politics in Massachusetts, a state known to produce smart and technocratic politicians, regardless of party label, given a history of success in a place where lots of people are well-educated and argumentative, someone who has made a career at being argumentative and intellectually focused (as I think it’s safe to assert that a law professor is), it’s something that doesn’t travel well outside of an area populated by people not in the professional class. Most people don’t like being lectured to, they certainly don’t like being thought of as lesser, a perception that tends to permeate around professors, as well as Ivy League educated technocrats (a population to which I certainly belong, having attended both Penn and Cornell). This would certainly explain why there have been so few career academics in the White House. The fact that what plays well in Massachusetts doesn’t play well nationally isn’t a surprise, none of the major party nominees of the last while made it past the nomination round if they even got that far (Dukakis, Kerry, and Mitt Romney being the three examples of the modern era fitting this mould), and even though she was from Oklahoma, she was thoroughly Massachusetts, and even still the part of Massachusetts she represents is the technocratic, white-collar professional part of it. That has been enough to win her elections for the Senate in Massachusetts, running as a Democrat, but it meant she placed third in a functionally three-way primary, losing to two men, one of whom, Sanders, represents a neighbouring state in the Senate (who beat her for second place, and mostly did well in the areas near Vermont), and outright to Biden, someone who, despite being the former Senator from Delaware, is an Irish Catholic gleefully glad-handing career politician, much more in tune to a lot of the cultural zeitgeist of Massachusetts than she was. It should be noted that Warren didn’t even win women in the Massachusetts primary. It should also be noted that Warren got a lot more support from university-educated men than from non-university-educated women, more evidence that class matters more than sex with respect to voting preferences.

In an article in The Atlantic, Elaine Godfrey asked five prominent individuals, all political strategists/analysts of various stripes, each with their own theory as to why Warren fell short.

1) James Carville: “She couldn’t pick a lane — a problem symbolized by her positioning on Medicare for All.”

2) Joe Trippi: “She was hit by the curse of the front-runner: She peaked too early and never recovered.”

3) Amy Walter: “It was the scourge of electability: Warren was seen as a risky choice.”

4) Dave Wasserman: “Blame The New York Times/Siena College poll that showed President Donald Trump beating Warren in head-to-head matchups in several key swing states.”

5) Jess McIntosh: “It all comes back to sexism.”

Now, undeniably, I think all five of these assertions are true in part. Sexism exists in America; I don’t think anyone would deny it. I certainly won’t, and in some cases that sexism is quite toxic. Did it certainly impact the end result, probably. How much? Considering that Elizabeth Warren was seeking to become the second female major party presidential candidate, I think that impact wasn’t as high as has been made out in multiple fora. Millions of Americans did vote for Hillary Clinton to be President, more than the man who is now in the Oval Office, they were just not well-apportioned for the goal of winning the Electoral College. So, the best answer I can say is that it was there was some sex-based bias, I am unable to quantify exactly how much, but on the basis of available evidence, which is mostly qualitative, the effect was probably slight. Polling that indicated that she drew more support from university-educated men than from non-university-educated women I think provides evidentiary support for this. The electability assertions I do think are undeniably valid, especially given the strong desire to remove Trump from office. Peaking too early is a historical truism, many times, if you rise early, especially against an incumbent president, you get taken down before you can rack up electoral wins to push your campaign forward. The lane issue that James Carville identifies I think is a big one, probably the biggest single of this list of five.

As I’ve said previously:
“Jonathan Chait leads off with what I think is one of the better analyses of her candidacy in a nutshell:

“When Elizabeth Warren began her candidacy in 2018, I expected her to be the candidate who would get my vote. She had, in my view, identified the political and policy sweet spots to move her party left: corruption and financial regulation, and she designed effective populist plans to rein in Wall Street and the power of organized money. But her campaign did not quickly catch fire, and over 2019 she tried to woo progressive activists by moving left on a wide suite of social and economic positions, matching every bid put up by Bernie Sanders. As New York Times reporter Astead Herndon noted recently, her use of intersectional rhetoric won the professional left’s acclaim, but left voters in the communities it was attempting to reach cold. By the end, she was boxed out on both sides: She had lost her mainstream appeal to the center left, but was still unable to dislodge the Sanders hardcore.”

In short, in trying to prevent Bernie from getting to the left of her, she turned off everyone who wasn’t already on the left, & in so doing, she turned off almost everyone else (and I should note I’m one of those latter people), and once the choices were between her & the original hardcore leftie Bernie, people wanted original leftie, not new leftie.”

This would be Carville’s lack of choosing a lane and sticking to it. I also think that, whilst she was being pulled at from the left because of Bernie, she was also competing against Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg for the votes of white-collar socially-liberal professionals. Both Amy and Pete, did surprisingly well in Iowa, a fact I think stems in part from both of them having Midwestern roots, with Amy Klobuchar being from the next state over, Minnesota. Elizabeth Warren’s fourth place finish in Iowa was the beginning of the end, she had people, organisation, and money she ploughed into Iowa, and if she couldn’t win with all of that, how far could she go? Coming in third in the primary the state you represent as a state-wide official is a massive failure that would cause me to wonder not if, but when and who will challenger her for her Senate seat. She also didn’t do herself any favours by coming out initially in favour of Medicare For All, providing a convoluted plan to implement it, and then later backing away from it. It looks like she was trying to chase smoke, going where she thought there would be the most support, demonstrating a lack of consistency of belief in it, but trying to engage in strategic positioning, something that usually never goes over well.

In the end, Elizabeth Warren was fundamentally done in, not by the fact she was a woman, but by her own weaknesses as a political candidate on the national stage. She was a niche candidate running in a field with too many candidates to have much in crossover appeal, and acted in ways that boxed her in from growing her appeal. She was too leftie for the moderates, not leftie enough for the true-believers. She tried to be all things to all people, but ended up nothing to most. The Warren campaign had a plan for everything except anything that mattered, including malfunction in her campaign. Unable to tell her personal narrative that would have been a strong case for her to demonstrate why she was in the race, and caught in capture to the professional & activist left who may appreciate “wokeness” from white politicians, but it’s something that is a turn off to many others, including the Latino and African-American communities that she was purporting to be trying to help. She came across as a conceited and condescending elitist in a country that dislikes condescension and conceit in its politicians, part of the enduring popularity of the “Can I have a drink with them” test that many apply to politicians. Her advisers amplified her flaws and dampened her virtues, and probably deserve to never work in professional politics given their squandering of her potential as a transformative candidate, and since she was the candidate, in the end that responsibility for her campaign’s failures lies with her. To perform a mashup of Tip O’Neill & Robert Frost that I think gets to the core of the matter: “She forgot from whence she came, and it has made all of the difference”.

The analysis performed above is mine, but over the course of the 2020 Presidential Primary Cycle, I read several pieces that are reflected within this essay, and those references are listed below, many of them analyses of why the Warren Campaign failed, inspired my own work, as I felt that they all had parts missing:

1) Bacon — https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-warren-couldnt-win/

2) Carmon et al. — https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/what-doomed-elizabeth-warrens-candidacy.html

3) Cillizza — https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/05/politics/elizabeth-warren-2020-presidential/index.html

4) Cillizza — https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/06/politics/amy-klobuchar-elizabeth-warren-donald-trump/index.html

5) Glueck — https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/05/us/politics/joe-biden-elizabeth-warren.html

6) Godfrey — https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/warren-2020/607327/

7) Herzog — https://reason.com/2020/03/06/sexism-didnt-kill-the-warren-campaign-the-warren-campaign-killed-the-warren-campaign/

8) Khalid — https://www.npr.org/2020/03/07/812903782/why-progressives-chose-bernie-sanders-over-elizabeth-warren

9) McArdle — https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/04/elizabeth-warren-focused-her-core-voters-there-werent-enough-them/

10) McArdle — https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/05/elizabeth-warren-is-out-no-its-not-because-her-gender/

11) Millman — https://theweek.com/articles/900163/elizabeth-warren-bet-being-right--lost

12) Nilsen — https://www.vox.com/2020/3/3/21161603/bernie-sanders-beat-elizabeth-warren-in-massachusetts

13) Suderman — https://reason.com/2020/03/05/elizabeth-warren-drops-out-her-failed-campaign-is-a-reminder-that-even-democratic-voters-dont-want-a-woke-policy-wonk-in-the-white-house/

14) Thompson — https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/06/warren-team-wonders-how-they-blew-it-122628

15) Weiss — https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/06/elizabeth-warren-strength-weakness-122975

16) Wilson — https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/486169-on-the-trail-warren-falls-victim-to-the-electability-obsession

17) Yglesias — https://www.vox.com/2020/3/3/21162527/what-happened-to-elizabeth-warren

18) Yglesias — https://www.vox.com/2020/3/10/21169166/elizabeth-warren-working-class-women

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Note: Obviously, along with Joe Biden now being President and Bernie Sanders now being chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Gina Raimondo is now Secretary of Commerce and Pete Buttigieg is now Secretary of Transportation. Even though the last former Cabinet Secretary to run for and win the presidency was one-time Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, the fact that now Secretary Raimondo and Secretary Buttigieg are still in politically prominent positions of the Cabinet of President Joe Biden, they will be discussed as future running mates for whomever becomes the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 2024 and beyond.

Engineer, PMP, Left Coaster, UVA/Penn/Cornell alumnus w/ a habit of writing about personal interests. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/apdgeverett/

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