• Ryan O'Connell

Why Did Elizabeth Warren Lose?

March 8, 2020

Did sexist attitudes toward female candidates play a role in dashing Elizabeth Warren’s hopes of becoming President? Yes, unfortunately. But the Senator also made some major miscalculations that undermined her quest for the White House. Furthermore, her style alienated many voters; Warren often was shrill and condescending.

First, though, we should recognize that Warren ran a brilliant campaign in many respects. Warren built a massive field operation and, in a sharp contrast to Hillary Clinton four years ago, she managed it very well. The Senator also created a powerful “grassroots” funding operation, which allowed her to avoid relying on large donors…and to trumpet that fact.

With her flurry of far-ranging plans and proposals, Warren forced a much-needed debate within the Democratic Party about its priorities. She effectively set the agenda for many of the debates. However, Warren made some strategic decisions early in her campaign that eventually boomeranged against her. At the outset, the Senator decided to compete with Sen. Bernie Sanders to win support of the progressive wing of the party. That was a risky approach.

Sanders had a four-year head start on Warren and a large, passionate group of followers. Although the Democratic Party has shifted left, about 50% of its members are still moderate or conservative, while half are progressives. Only 15% consider themselves “very liberal”. From the outset, Warren was aiming at a relatively narrow lane, and it was already crowded.

Medicare for All Was A Minefield

So Warren decided to outflank Sanders on the left, to compete for the progressives’ support. She issued some radical proposals for restructuring large swaths of the American economy. Warren railed constantly against the “greed of global corporations” and the “corruption” in our government. This approach played well with progressives but limited her appeal to moderate voters. Warren misread the voters’ temperament.

Some of her ideas, like a 2% wealth tax, were very popular with a broad range of voters. However, her support for enacting Medicare for All backfired. This issue became Warren’s Waterloo in some sense; most Democrats do not want to lose their private health insurance.

Warren lost credibility with voters, too, as she seemed to duck questions during the debates about how much Medicare for All would cost. To her credit, the Senator eventually released a detailed, thoughtful analysis of the likely cost. But the $20-plus trillion price tag stunned voters and gave the moderate candidates ammunition to attack her.

It was ironic, and grossly unfair, that Warren, rather than Sanders, bore the brunt of the attacks based on the cost of Medicare for All. That may have reflected Warren’s front-runner status in the earlier debates and perhaps her penchant for detailed proposals. However, sexist attitudes may also have played a role, subjecting Warren to stricter scrutiny than Sanders.

Warren Didn’t Keep It Simple

An intellectual and, for most of her career, an academic, Warren loves to propose new ways of solving social and political issues. However, she became carried away with her own brilliance and creativity. Warren issued so many plans and proposals--over 80--that she confused voters. What did she really care about? What would she focus on as President? Like Hillary Clinton, she addressed too many issues.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders kept repeating the same themes in every speech. Like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, Sanders is not a deep thinker, but he is a very effective campaigner. Sanders has a few core convictions, which he has turned into slogans. Don’t look to him for any details.

Elizabeth Warren/ photo: Google Images/flickr

Turning Off Moderates

As Sanders maintained a firm grip on his supporters, Warren shifted tactics and tried to appeal to moderate voters, but she sent mixed messages. The candidate softened her stance on abolishing private health insurance somewhat, but she still planned eventually to eliminate that industry (and its 500,000 jobs). She irritated progressives without really reassuring moderates.

The self-described “capitalist” continued to bash a wide variety of industries in very harsh terms: banks, health insurance providers, energy producers, and drug companies. Add up all those sectors and you’re talking about a lot of the American economy.

Warren proposed breaking up tech firms. She wanted a new federal law to require companies to award 40% of their board seats to workers. The list goes on; Warren was basically proposing a drastic expansion of the federal government’s role in the economy. Her approach did not appeal to many moderate voters, and it increased fears about her “electability”. Could she attract independents and moderate Republicans?

And Alienating Some Men

Warren should have focused more on winning support from male voters, rather than trying to boost her support among women by talking about her desire to be the first female President.

Barack Obama did not win his race for President by saying, vote for me because I’m a black man. His message was: vote for me because I’m a competent politician; I’ll fix the economy and provide universal health care. Obama did not have to point out he was black; it was obvious. He would make history simply by winning the election. Warren often said that she was running to be an inspiration for “all those little girls out there”. That’s very nice, but little girls don’t vote. Middle-aged guys do. Warren should have focused on them, not her possible role in the history books.

A Grim Message and a Strident Tone

Warren generated a lot of excitement and news coverage early in the campaign, but her message may have worn thin with voters. Warren often painted a grim picture of our country. In one debate, she said “corrupt” 15 times in six minutes. In her eyes, most corporate executives are evil and greedy. Meanwhile, moderate candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden, spoke more optimistically about the prospects for Americans. Their proposals may not have been as ambitious as Warren’s…but they were more upbeat.

The Senator should have adjusted her tone, as well. It’s fine to be earnest and serious, but she rarely showed flashes of humor. Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Biden often cracked jokes on the debate stage, which made them seem warmer and helped them establish rapport with voters. Warren often talked down to voters, beginning a sentence with the phrase “Understand that…” In other words, she was saying to voters, I’ve figured it all out and I’ll explain it to you. The former law professor sometimes sounded like she was back in the classroom, not on the campaign trail. Still, Warren has leveled the playing field for women who run for President in the future, and she should be proud of that legacy. The Senator was a leading candidate for months. With a less strident tone and more moderate positions, Warren might have well become the Democratic nominee. There’s no reason for women to despair about their prospects in future Presidential elections.

The Wall Street Democrat

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