The night Elizabeth Warren won reelection, Krista Magnuson started showing symptoms.
Magnuson, a 41-year-old political junkie, had come to Warren’s victory party in downtown Boston that November evening to celebrate the swelling blue wave. Democrats were poised to take over the House of Representatives, and here, in a chandelier-lit ballroom, the senator would cruise to another term and promise in her victory speech to “get right back into the fight.”
Magnuson cheered, but she was feeling a bit off.
She was feeling . . . like a pundit.
“If you talk to Senator Warren,” she said, turning to a reporter in the crowd, “please tell her not to run for president. I just love her so much, but I don’t think she can win.”
What Magnuson did not realize is that she was suffering from Pundititis, a virus affecting the nervous system of Democratic voters that was born out of the 2016 elections. Those infected find themselves unable to fall in love with candidates, instead worrying about what theoretical swing voters may feel. Signs of Pundititis include excessive electoral mapmaking, poll testiness, and an anxious, queasy feeling that comes with picking winners and losers known as “Cillizzasea.” If you experience any of these symptoms for three hours or more, please stop consulting your television.
Although Pundititis afflicts voters, it can be deadly to politicians. And there is, perhaps, no potential presidential candidate more susceptible to its effects than Warren.
Before the 2016 election, the progressive left begged Warren to run for president. Now, parts of her constituency are urging her not to; the Boston Globe published an editorial saying that she was too “divisive” a politician and that she should sit 2020 out, and a poll of Massachusetts voters found that 58 percent agreed.
“She polarizes too many people,” said Magnuson, who doesn’t register as a Democrat because her views are often to the left of the party. “I really, really, really hate being so pragmatic, but I also just want to win this time.”
“I’m not sure if I want her to run,” said Cameron Speyer, a recent college graduate who also attended Warren’s victory party while suffering from Pundititis. “A lot of people will look at an older woman and say they don’t like the way her voice sounds. Obviously, I don’t agree with that, but it affects the way a lot of people think about her, and I want to put forward the strongest candidate that we have.”
How, exactly, can anyone tell who the strongest candidate is before an election? The simple answer is, they can’t. Americans have a terrible track record when it comes to determining who is “electable.” Before Hillary Clinton entered the 2016 election, her approval rating rose to 66 percent while she was secretary of state. She was so “electable” that she nearly cleared the field.
Then she wasn’t elected.
The ensuing months were the perfect incubator for the Pundititis. Democrats spent hours watching cable news; listening to the endless yammer of “political analysts,” learning about exit polling and being haunted by talk of “invisible Trump voters.” The pundits had gotten 2016 all wrong, but instead of dying out, they multiplied.
“This is an epidemic in our party right now,” said Adam Jentleson, who served as spokesman for former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid. “Everyone is going on to FiveThirtyEight, and deciding who the nominee — and the VP! — should be based on their view of the electoral map. I think psychologists could have a field day with why Democrats don’t trust their own feelings and are working so hard to anticipate what people in Michigan or Pennsylvania might think.”
Three weeks ago, Warren announced she was all-but-running for president. The talking heads on television said that she had missed her moment, that she should have run in 2016. Her detractors said she'd stumbled at the start by taking a DNA test that showed some distant Native American ancestry, and dropping a slickly produced video about the results; an attempt to disable President Trump's attacks on her for supposedly lying about her Native American ancestry.
This was not the first time the chattering class had written her off. Back in 2011, when Warren was thinking about running for the Senate against a popular Republican incumbent, Scott Brown, she kept hearing from people who were certain a woman couldn’t win (this, after Martha Coakley had lost a special election against Brown a year earlier).
“It was almost as if folks were saying, ‘Hey, we tried that, it didn’t work. Come back in a generation or two, women, and we’ll see if we can try this again,’ ” Warren said at a women’s leadership event in Ankeny, Iowa, earlier this month. “And of course you can imagine how that made me feel, which is . . . I’m in.”
Warren defeated Brown in 2012. But overcoming one strain of Pundititis does not make someone immune, and on a recent visit to New Hampshire, it was clear this region was suffering from an outbreak.
“For me, I just want to vote for someone who personally excites me,” said Karen Stone, a woman in her 50s standing in line at Manchester Community College to see Warren’s first New Hampshire event of the year.
“Hmmm,” said Emily Hammond Ewing, 49, standing beside her. “That’s a tough one. I would say even if I was super excited about somebody, I would only vote for them if I thought they could beat Trump. That was one of the mistakes from the last election.”
“That’s a good point,” Stone said, noting that Warren can sometimes come across as a little bit “harsh” to people other than her. (Pundititis is hyper-contagious. See how it passed seamlessly from Hammond Ewing to Stone.)
A short time later, Warren took the stage in front of a few hundred excited but skeptical voters. She wore a coral cardigan and brought her golden retriever, Bailey, and her husband, Bruce, onto the stage. It was the picture of a typical American family, only in this case the dog was equipped with a GoPro camera to collect footage for the candidate’s Instagram feed.
Warren’s plan to inoculate herself from the effects of Pundititis appeared to be twofold. First, she would tell a story about rising up from near-poverty in Oklahoma (after her father had a heart attack, her mother took a minimum wage job answering phones at Sears to keep the family afloat) on her way to becoming a professor at Harvard and then a U.S. senator.
Part 2 would be to offer a reason for running, a central message: The middle class has been hollowed out, and the country needed someone like her to fight for “systemic change.”
“This is our moment,” she said. “This is our chance to dream big, fight hard, and make this an America that works not just for the rich or powerful, but an America that works for everyone.”
Warren received a hesitant standing ovation from New Hampshire’s famously hard-to-court voters. Next, she headed out, through the icy streets to a packed colonial house in Concord, where among the crowd of white-haired wine drinkers and cheese munchers, Ronald Abramson, a former delegate for Bernie Sanders displayed one of the worst cases of Pundititis yet recorded.
“I think at the end of the day, if I find a candidate who agrees with me on everything, they are probably not electable,” he said. “I only want to vote for someone who can win.”
I would never want a president, he seemed to say, who would have someone like me for a voter.
Near the end of the event, a middle-aged man said: “Senator, we all want change here. I’m looking for someone whose platform aligns with my views. But more importantly, I want someone who is going to win.”
“So,” he said. “Convince us that you can win.”
In response Warren spent four minutes talking about her Republican brothers, her work on anticorruption legislation, her hope that the country would come together on issues such as health care and housing costs, and the need to build a grass-roots organization.
It was an impossible prompt to fully answer. Which is, of course, what makes it so deadly.
It's hard to say for sure exactly what makes Warren so vulnerable to Pundititis. Experts point to a number of factors: being a woman (sexism), an academic (anti-elitism), and a unapologetic progressive (too far left), to name a few. It's altogether possible that some voters have been subject to misdiagnosed cases of Pundititis as well.
“I think more often than not, it’s a surrogate for their own concerns,” David Axelrod, the former chief strategist for President Barack Obama said of Pundititis. “When we started running with Obama, one of the questions that our pollster asked was whether your neighbors would ever vote for an African American president. His theory was that if you asked them straight up, they wouldn’t answer honestly.”
Whether real, or imagined, Axelrod said there is only one foolproof cure. He was there in early 2008, back when African Americans seemed hesitant to vote for Obama, worried that whites wouldn’t elect a black president.
The solution? Winning.
“When we won in Iowa, a state that’s like 98 percent white, our numbers with African American voters instantly reversed,” he said.
In the meantime, voters worried about having Pundititis can work on trying to cure themselves. The first step, as with most things, is to recognize the problem. For Magnuson — the woman who at Warren’s victory speech last year hoped the senator wouldn’t be running for president — recovery seems possible.
“I still identify with that feeling,” she said when reached by phone recently. “But I’m a little more loath to say that out loud to anyone. I realized something: By saying that, by shooting down our own candidates, I was doing the Republicans’ job for them.”
Would this be enough for Magnuson to vote for Warren? Would enough fellow sufferers of Pundititis go through the same healing process?
Nobody can say for sure. And only a pundit would try to guess.