No woman was going to escape the electability trap — not even Elizabeth Warren

No woman was going to escape the electability trap — not even Elizabeth Warren
NBC News

The phrase that will be forever emblazoned in my mind whenever I reflect on the 2020 Democratic primary wasn't uttered by the one of the candidates, spoken by a pundit, or even written by a journalist in their first draft of history. Rather, it was a sentiment expressed over and over by my fellow voters, on TV, in print, over the radio, on Twitter: "My heart's with Warren, but..."


If I never ever hear that phrase again in my lifetime or even the hereafter, it will be too soon. The night before Super Tuesday I listened to an NPR election podcast in which a young-ish sounding Virginia couple was attending a Bernie Sanders rally to suss out for whom they would they cast their ballots the following day. It was down to Bernie and Joe Biden and one of the pair said she kind of figured she would hold her nose and vote for Biden. After the soundbite, the reporter chimed in to say the fascinating thing was that they both said they liked Elizabeth Warren's policies best but had ruled her out based on electability.

Electability concerns, driven by voters' sheer panic that Donald Trump might win reelection, became a national obsession this cycle that was tailor-made to hobble any female presidential candidate regardless of how inspired her campaign, how promising her candidacy, or even the merit of her qualifications to be president. And although Warren managed to defy its gravitational pull for a magical few months last year, electability ultimately became the lead weight she couldn't escape as voting began.

Elections, they say, are about the future. But the past two presidential election cycles have turned more on a fear of the future. In 2016, mostly white voters fearful of losing their ascendency in a changing America cast fear-driven votes against the party that best represented that change. In 2020, voters all along the liberal-to-right of center continuum are casting similarly fear-driven votes against the country's future under Trump's leadership. Generally speaking, this has been a political decade defined by voting against something, and the three Democratic candidates who lasted the longest in the primary all found a toe-hold in some expression of the "anti-" movement. Warren drew strength, particularly last summer and fall, from those voting against the billionaire class that is effectively turning this country into an oligarchy. Bernie's following has long been fueled by a younger generation leery of the capitalism that has plundered their future, robbing them of even basic middle-class aspirations like owning a home and starting a family. But ultimately Joe Biden may have consolidated the big kahuna of “anti-” voting blocs—those placing the ouster of Trump above every other concern they have. It's not a vote that rewards innovation, forward thinking, or even competence for that matter. And in my opinion, it didn't yield the best candidate to take on Trump or help transform our democracy into one that values most of its citizens rather than a tiny percentage of the uber rich. But the voters didn't agree with me and their gamble appears to be pointing toward a Biden nomination based on a combination of Super Tuesday results, the key demographics of black voters and suburban women rallying behind Biden, and the polling we are seeing in critical states moving forward like Florida and Michigan. (And no, I'm not here to quibble about Bernie v. Biden, so please don't litter the comments arguing over that.)

Voters of all three Democratic candidates will likely take exception to the idea that they were merely casting votes against something. It's very obviously not that simple. But the overriding discussion throughout this Democratic primary has been, for better or worse, about which candidate was best suited to defeat Trump in November even as other issues such as health care often dominated the conversation. In fact, even the debate around Medicare For All vs. “Medicare for all who want it” simply served as a proxy for electability. And not so coincidentally, Warren fared worse in that discussion than any of the top male candidates she was competing against.

It's worth taking a moment here to say that I have read multiple critiques of why Warren's campaign ultimately stalled. From the built-in misogyny of the media coverage to her missteps on health care, they all provide a piece of the puzzle. But for me the fatal flaw always comes back to the electability question and how it became a vehicle for the inescapable sexism that finally ended Warren's bid. It's not that Warren ran a flawless campaign. She ran a damn good campaign that was indeed flawed. But both the media and voters demanded more of her than her male counterparts, and she paid a higher price for each and every mistake she made.

Along those lines, Warren basically never fully recovered from her stumble on Medicare For All, even after she labored to get the math right and provide a road map for how to transition the country to a system where health care really is a human right and Americans no longer live in fear of their next medical event. If you look at the polling, Warren’s apex came in mid-October, exactly when the debate took place in which all the candidates came for her and Pete Buttigieg landed perhaps the biggest gut punch to her campaign. (Warren’s in purple below.)

538 aggregate polling of the Democratic primary showing Warren peaking in mid-October at around 25% in the polls. At the time, she was running second only to Joe Biden.

Asked about his assertion that Warren had been "evasive" over how she would pay for Medicare For All, Buttigieg turned to Warren and said, "Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this." The critique not only undermined the foundational premise of her candidacy as the race's most competent wonk, it impugned her integrity. Perhaps she wasn't as competent as we thought or, worse yet, maybe she was a fraud and just couldn’t be trusted. To be clear, it was a totally fair jab and, in hindsight, her campaign exhibited a complete blindspot in not rolling out her own health care plan sooner. Indeed, the press hounded Warren for the next couple weeks on how she would pay for the plan. But even though she put in the work and devised a fairly comprehensive plan, the damage was done. On the one hand, many liberal voters viewed her wobble as a betrayal of progressive values. On the other, none of the male candidates were held to a similar standard in terms of teasing out their health care plans and exactly how they would pay for them. Sanders said he would raise middle-class taxes, but he basically skated on providing any details until he was finally asked in a 60 Minutes interview two weeks ago how he would pay for his many ambitious plans. Sanders blithely offered, "I can’t rattle off to you every nickel and every dime." After that interview, Sanders’ campaign was finally forced to try to explain how he would fund his health care plan along with a host of other policies, but the reckoning came fully three months after Warren had weathered the withering scrutiny and criticism that helped tank her campaign.

Warren's path from that moment on included her very slow but sure descension in the polls. One Cook Political Report analyst attached her slide to a New York Times/Siena poll released in late November featuring head-to-heads with Trump in which Warren faired poorly compared to Sanders and Biden. To me, the polling simply reinforced a sexist feedback loop, especially when Warren had lower name recognition nationwide than either of the two men in the race. Negative perceptions of women seeking power are baked into every poll. Sexism precedes them, especially if voters aren't particularly familiar with the female candidate and she hasn’t had a chance to make her case to them yet.

In fact, if you want a master class in how hard female candidates have to work in order to put voters at ease with their candidacy and beat the rap that they're too ambitious, listen to former Clinton communications director Jen Palmieri break down Warren's stump speech. (If you’re a cisgender man, I especially encourage you to give this a listen in order to get a sense of why, for instance, Warren didn’t lead with the “blood and teeth” aspect of her personality that ultimately eviscerated billionaire Mike Bloomberg.)

As Palmieri wrote for Vanity Fair this week, "Warren had a plan for everything, but, tellingly, her stump speech did not focus on policy. Instead she spent most of it telling us about herself and making us comfortable with this ambitious woman who wanted to change so much." Indeed, Warren’s effort to disarm voters of endemic misogyny on the stump included featuring her struggles as a working mom, her dream job as a special education teacher, and the more than hundreds of thousands of selfies she slogged through to develop a huggy personal rapport with voters. Warren was the perfect happy warrior throughout and, although many wished she brought the fire with which she torched Bloomberg sooner, it's a no-win for a female candidate. Getting aggressive too early could have been just as big a death knell as getting aggressive too late.

Of course, none of these observations take the sting away from watching Warren fall out of the race. She has gotten tons of credit for dealing the death blow to Bloomberg's bid, as she should. But that again just feels like two men getting promoted after a woman stepped up to do the gritty work. Biden in particular, has run one of the most lackluster campaigns for a frontrunner I have witnessed in the last several election cycles. Right up until South Carolina, he showed almost zero zeal for campaigning. He sometimes yelled at questioners during town halls, he often yelled from the debate stage, he's promised a "bold" plan to expand health care to more people but provided precious little detail and he's failed to articulate any real economic vision for voters to believe in. (All things he’s gonna have to address moving forward.)

All that said, Biden appears to have made the exact right early bet on the electability question and framing the race in more gauzy terms about the "battle for the soul of the nation." Electability was sure to trip up the female candidates and Team Biden probably correctly bet it would also serve as a foil for the man who was most likely to become his chief rival on the left, Bernie Sanders. Sure enough, as soon as Sanders underwent a week of scrutiny as a frontrunner that included revisiting his praise for certain aspects of communist revolutionary Fidel Castro’s leadership and a raucous debate in which every remaining candidate came for him, voters retreated to the safe harbor of a white male moderate who, frankly, isn’t promising much more than a reversion to pre-Trump era politics. And that may be just good enough in the end.

Biden injected "electability" into the conversation immediately upon his entrance into the race in late April 2019. In the handful of days after he launched, 9 articles about electability in the Democratic primary popped up on a Lexis search. As a topic, “electability” was mentioned 107 times in the New York Times and the Washington Post from September through December 2019. By comparison, the same outlets only mentioned electability 51 times during the same time frame in 2007, even though the electability question was being weighed in the primaries of both parties that year and Democrats were choosing between two candidates running historic races for the nomination.

In my struggle to make sense of Warren’s defeat, I also searched the topic by candidate among all media (newspapers, wire services, blogs, news transcripts, and online sites) last fall/winter and found the following numbers for the four candidates who were arguably the frontrunners for most of the race once voting began.

Warren & electability

  • August: 473
  • September: 569
  • Oct: 279
  • Nov: 452
  • Dec: 493

Biden & electability

  • August: 546
  • Sept: 635
  • Oct: 293
  • Nov: 468
  • Dec.: 572

Sanders & electability

  • August: 421
  • Sept: 524
  • Oct: 251
  • Nov: 398
  • Dec: 479

Buttigieg & electability

  • August: 153
  • Sept: 241
  • Oct: 145
  • Nov: 349
  • Dec: 489

Bottom line, that's a lot of mentions. What was perhaps most notable was that articles in which Biden was mentioned almost all framed electability in positive terms for him, exactly as he had originally framed the question for voters. Conversely, the issue was almost always framed in the negative for Sanders and Warren. Here's several headlines:

  • Sept. 11, Politico, 'I love Bernie, but': Electability worries haunt Sanders
  • Sept. 15, Politico, Biden allies attack Warren's electability
  • Sept. 19, New York Magazine, Biden’s Electability Advantage Will Be Hard to Shake Among Risk-Averse Democrats
  • Nov. 1, CNN, Can Joe Biden's electability argument help him hang on to Iowa?
  • Dec. 22, Los Angeles Times, Joe Biden is winning the electability primary

In the end, electability was probably always just a proxy for sexism and internalized gender stereotypes that still grip the nation and even the Democratic party, despite the fact that some 60% of Democratic primary voters are women. Where Warren’s concerned, the most prescient poll of this election season may well have been the Ipsos poll back in July that found 74% of Democrats and Independents considered themselves comfortable with a female president, while only 33% of them similarly believed their neighbors would be as comfortable. In other words, I’m not sexist but my ingrained perceptions of humanity are and therefore the plausibility of a female presidency is questionable.

Elizabeth Warren had some incredible accomplishments this cycle. In an era of grievance and vitriol, she forced a conversation about real policies and transformative ideas and even rose to the top of the pack on them. She turned her campaign into a virtual think tank for progressive change and left a shelf full of detailed plans for the taking by any Democrat who wants to make good on them. She, like Hillary Clinton before her, became a powerful symbol for a generation of young girls who will grow up knowing that, yes, women run for office—even the highest office in the land. She saved our democracy for now from becoming a succession of billionaire scrums every four years. And on a personal note, through her smarts, compassion, decency, accountability and ingenuity, she became the only politician I have ever truly fallen for. I have certainly admired and been inspired by other politicians, but I have always maintained a certain safe distance from them in order to keep my focus on the larger goal of advancing progressive ideals.

But Warren, by sheer virtue of her optimism, integrity, and her unrelenting humanity coaxed me off the sidelines and onto her team. Indeed, there's a different way to do politics and, one day, I have to believe it will win because Elizabeth Warren won't let me believe otherwise.

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