Requiem for Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign

CAMBRIDGE, MA - FEBRUARY 23: Elizabeth Warren is a Harvard Law School professor who studies consumer debt. "The great American middle class is fighting a battle for survival--and losing," Warren says. (Photo by Miche... CAMBRIDGE, MA - FEBRUARY 23: Elizabeth Warren is a Harvard Law School professor who studies consumer debt. "The great American middle class is fighting a battle for survival--and losing," Warren says. (Photo by Michele McDonaldThe Boston Globe via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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February 12, 2020 11:29 a.m.
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I could be dead wrong (I was before on this subject) but after her distant fourth place finish in New Hampshire, I suspect that Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign is over. Who knows what might happen at a brokered convention, but I can’t see her contesting much longer for delegates. And that’s a shame.

Warren had an exemplary resume. She led (on this website) the battle against the pernicious bankruptcy bill and almost single-handedly got the Obama administration and Congress to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. No other candidate can boast these kind of achievements. Her campaign platform (encapsulated in her “plans”) was also exemplary. I don’t care for the Jeffersonian trust-busting, but I applaud her stands on economic patriotism (curbing footloose multinationals), federal chartering of corporations, and labor co-determination (putting worker representatives on corporate boards).

There have been several post-mortems already, but I thought I’d add my own. I would cross out at the beginning the most common — one that she herself has promoted — that her campaign was the victim of misogyny. That’s a hard sell in New Hampshire where Amy Klobuchar came from nowhere on much less money than Sanders, Buttigieg or Warren. New Hampshire is also a state with two female senators.

I wouldn’t deny that some men and women looked askance at the prospect of a female candidate (I had one guy complain to me at a New Hampshire town hall of Warren’s “aggressiveness”), but each candidate has potential detractions (sex, age, sexuality, mental acuity, looks, past record, thin resume), and the trick of a successful campaign (see Obama, Barack) is getting voters who might be put off by one of these to put them aside in favor of your strengths. You wouldn’t know if from political scientists, but voting is actually a deliberative and not an impulsive act.

If you make a timeline in Iowa and New Hampshire of Warren’s rise and fall, you see her taking first place in both states in October after Bernie Sanders’ heart attack. In Iowa, her poll numbers begin to decline about ten days into November; in New Hampshire, later in the month. Most commentators attributed her decline to the publication of her Medicare for All plan, but I find that implausible. She was just spelling out a position she already had taken. Maybe the awkwardness was a factor, but I’d say two other things were important.

First, Sanders regained his footing after his heart attack, and his supporters who had gone to Warren switched back. Secondly, Buttigieg, who had once been an enthusiastic supporter of Medicare for All, but sensed an opportunity on Warren’s right, began attacking her stand and peeling off her votes, and in general repositioning himself toward the center. When I was in New Hampshire last fall interviewing people at Warren’s rallies, what I often found, particularly among the Dartmouth/Hanover and upper-middle-class voters, was their deliberating between Warren and Buttigieg not Warren and Sanders. Hanover, as it turned out, went strongly for Buttigieg in the primary.

I’d add one more factor. I think Warren gained some of her early popularity on her “I’ve got a plan” shtick, but the novelty of the slogan wore off. It highlighted the Harvard rather than the Oklahoma populist side of her, the superb university lecturer rather than the empathetic politician. And her appeal — framed as an attack against “corruption” — took on a kind of abstract quality compared, say, to Sanders’ on the “billionaire class” or the traditional attack on “special interests.” Were the pharmaceutical companies really “corrupt” or were they unfettered by regulation, creatures of a free market that should have been restrained?

In January, Warren tried to stage a comeback. First, she played the gender card. Who knows the exact manner in which her meeting with Sanders was leaked to the press? I suspect her campaign did it, and I suspect the conversation was more complicated than it was presented, but in any case, she attempted to take advantage of the leak by confirming it in its simplest CNN version. She then went on to campaign as a woman for president. This was a mistake. Voters were perfectly aware that she was a woman, and those who were going to support her entirely or primarily on that basis were going to do so without being reminded of the fact. The gender gap, as I used to say, is a two-way street. And in fact, what happened was that Warren’s polling remained stuck, Sanders’ went down temporarily, and Klobuchar’s began to go up.

Finally, Warren tried to present herself as a “unity” candidate — a hard sell for someone who is clearly, and wonderfully, in my opinion, on the political left. Outside of labels, there really hasn’t been a dime’s worth of difference between her and Sanders. I began to wonder in January if she wasn’t getting bad advice from her campaign managers. My older daughter, who is a political junkie like me, speculated that if Warren had had Buttigieg’s campaign managers and he had had hers, the results would have been reversed the past weeks. That’s something we’ll never know.

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