There are many solid, specific reasons for her failure. She grasped onto Medicare-for-all and then stumbled trying to explain how to pay for it, eventually backing away. She refused to attack her rival for the progressive base, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). She treated the campaign like a policy rollout, too many nitty-gritty plans and not enough uplift. She raised the gender card against Sanders but failed to follow through (or shouldn’t have raised it at all).
It is worth remembering that about two dozen men and women failed, as do all candidates but one in every cycle. Running for president is hard — a baffling exercise in which intellectual merit does not define the winner. There were, however, three overarching problems with her campaign, one gender-related and two not.
From the onset of her campaign, Warren was uniquely battered with questions about “likability” and “electability”; one could not help but recognize these had a serious gender bias. Few questioned if the screaming Sanders was “likable." Moreover, commentary posited from the get-go that Hillary Clinton lost; ergo, women are too risky. The country is not ready. The race is too important to risk the nomination on a woman. There was zero evidence for the proposition that gender alone explained Clinton’s loss (which James B. Comey, Russia, bad strategy and more contributed to). To the contrary, women had won in overwhelming numbers in 2018, in large part by attracting female voters. Nevertheless, the narrative persisted, fueled by the mainstream media insistence that the failure to win white, working-class men in 2016 meant Democrats needed a white man to attract those voters this time around. (In fact, boosting African American and suburban women turnout has been Biden’s key to success.) Perhaps Warren should have directly confronted this framing, but when we look to reasons for the failure of four qualified female senators, the media should engage in some serious introspection.
A non-gender related explanation is that Warren simply got squeezed between a center-left and a far-left candidate. She was too moderate for Sanders’s voters and too progressive for Biden voters. Had she attacked Sanders directly, making the case that he was selling snake oil, perhaps she could have convinced progressives to think more pragmatically. Had she avoided the Medicare-for-all trap, she might have drawn enough voters away from Biden.
And another non-gender explanation concerns the nature of presidential political campaigns. Unlike with candidates for the Senate, House and state offices, voters really do not assess candidates based on their white papers. Elections are much more emotional, intuitive exercises in which anger, passion, inspiration and fear drive voters to one candidate or another. I would prefer it was not so — that the race come down to the proverbial battle of ideas. But who am I kidding? Journalists may have thought she “won” debates, but voters are not looking for the most logical, wittiest, cleverest candidate. They want emotional oomph. Though enthusiastic and energetic, she did not create that emotional bond with voters. They (especially nonwhite voters) did not feel she really knew them.
It is regrettable when a politician who does what the chattering class demands — produce mounds of policy proposals, go before voters constantly, defend her views in debates — loses. But we must remember, it is not about what a thin slice of Americans like; this is about mass marketing to tens of millions of voters. If women want to win, they would be better served to explain less and emote more, ironically the opposite of what they’ve been told is the key to success.
UPDATE: In a moment of true poignancy, she told the media in announcing her departure: “I announced this morning that I am suspending my campaign for president. ... One of the hardest parts of this is all those pinkie promises and all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years. That’s going to be hard.” Asked about the role of gender, she responded: “It’s a trap question. If you say, ‘Yeah there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’ And if you say, ‘No,’ about a billion women say, ‘What planet are you on?’" She says she will have plenty to say about that later. I hope she does.