At the start of the race to become the Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Warren seemed to be a firm favourite. She was a solid progressive (less radical than Sanders), friendly with her rivals to secure party unity and seemed to be doing everything right. However, as many know, in politics just because something seems to be going right, it does not mean it will. In early Autumn 2019, she was ahead of both Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden to take the lead in Iowa. But by the end of late last year, she did not win a single state—she came in third in Massachusetts (her home state)—and secured only a handful of the delegates available.
What happened to Warren? Her downfall is hard to pinpoint, but an important factor surely that Warren started backing away from Medicare-for-all. She followed fellow candidate Senator Kamala Harris in November 2019 by revoking her support for the Sanders-written Medicare For All bill. She offered instead a watered-down alternative. The idea supposedly was to pass universal Medicare with two different bills: one in her first year as president and one in the third year. Seeing how hard it is to pass anything through Congress and there could easily be fewer Democrats in 2023 than in 2021 it was a confusing tactic. Furthermore, Warren’s Medicare-for-all financing plan did not help fill her voters with confidence but rather suspicion. Rather than introducing a new progressive tax, she would turn existing employer contributions to private health insurance plans into a tax on employers. From the sidelines it may seem that Warren was able to pay for Medicare-for-all without levying new taxes on lower classes, yet because the employer payments are still part of labour compensation it was still the workers paying for it. Warren’s Medicare-for-all mess embodied the central weakness of her campaign.
Another speculative cause of her presidential campaign failure is her conflicting recollections of a conversation about whether a woman could win the election with Sanders. This inflamed the animosity of the Sanders base, and dominated the conversation after a crucial pre-Iowa debate. Rather than deny that Sanders, whose feminist credentials include having been vocally pro-choice since 1972, harboured any such sexist positions, Warren (when given the opportunity to substantiate Bernie’s denials) simply expressed disagreement that a woman could not be President. The stunt failed to translate into increased poll numbers – between 13th January and 10th February Warren’s support among Democrats shrunk from 16% to 14%.
Warren’s indecisiveness and betrayal of Sanders made her seem a risky choice and rob her of the purity that Sanders possesses. Voters in 2020 are frankly quite scared of picking the wrong person. The risk tolerance among Democrats in 2008 was much higher than it is in 2020. The New York Times/Siena College poll that showed President Donald Trump beating Warren in head-to-head matchups in several key swing states could be another key factor of Warren’s presidential failure. As Warren’s support was concentrated heavily among liberal whites with college degrees, which happens to be the demographic of The New York Times, it seems to be clear that Democrats and Warren supporters would’ve read that polling and had second thoughts about supporting her.
Warren’s electability was also blamed on her fairly weak numbers against Trump (compared to Biden and Sanders) in hypothetical election polls, she notched somewhat underwhelming margins of victory in her 2012 and 2018 Senate runs and also she decidedly liberal positions on policy questions.
One problem that seems to persist with female Democratic candidates is the issue of how Democrats seem to think men are more electable. Several of the women who ran for president — Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar, in particular — have said that they faced constant gender-based questions from Democratic voters about their electability. Democrats nominated a woman to take on Trump once, lost, and may have been unwilling to do it again.
Warren failed to win the Democratic nomination. Her indecisiveness of plans already worried many voters, and her attempt to portray Sanders as a chauvinist and the poll in The New York Times completely jeopardised her chances of winning. The underlying sexism of the Democratic party is more of a speculative idea regarding her downfall but nonetheless, relevant. With this said, no matter whether the nomination goes to Sanders or Biden, many of Warren’s ideas may end up ‘winning’ even if she couldn’t.
Image: Flickr / Gage Skidmore