Elizabeth Warren
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Elizabeth Warren has a new memoir out that is driving some interesting discussion this weekend. Unfortunately, some in the pundit world are using it to draw false conclusions in support of positions that mischaracterize both the Democratic base and the general electorate. Those misconceptions need correction.

In Persist, Warren mostly focuses on the policy themes that undergirded her campaign: the need for Big Structural Change to the foundations of modern capitalism, and a rethinking of the social contract to demand equity for marginalized groups. Reception to the book has been mostly positive, and there can be little question that the structural problems Warren highlights–and the solutions she advocates–will remain important for serious thinkers on the left and center-left for foreseeable near-term future.

Predictably, though, much of the reaction to her book has focused less on the policy steak than the campaign sizzle. It’s understandable: political obsessives want to hear from Warren herself why she believes her campaign faltered in her own words.

As far as that goes, Warren’s main answer is that sexism derailed her campaign’s initial success. Some on both the left and the right have taken objection. Many Bernie Sanders partisans, of course, still feel anger at Warren, believing that her stances were not far enough to the left, and that without Warren in the race Sanders could have consolidated the left vote enough to beat Biden. Those to Warren’s right–or those with an ax to grind against left activists in general–view her defeat with some satisfaction as a lesson that campaigns to the left of the more centrist Biden-Klobuchar-Buttigieg axis are doomed to fail.

The leftist critique is simple to dismiss. Biden wound up handily beating Sanders by more than the combined support from Warren and Sanders would have gotten. More importantly, Warren voters’ second choice were about evenly split between Sanders and the more centrist candidates–had she not been in the race, the result would have been a wash between Sanders and the faction that ultimately consolidated behind Biden. It is absolutely true that (largely unfair) leftist critiques of Warren’s stance on Medicare for All did eat into her support somewhat, pushing her to third place behind Sanders. But it doesn’t explain the bigger question of why her more moderate supporters switched to Biden, whose healthcare position was well to the right of both of them.

The more centrist take on Warren’s defeat is that she lost by trying to shift too far left in an effort to please the activist base. This position is stated most prominently by Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine, who dismisses the sexism claim to argue that Warren’s campaign got sucked into a leftist bubble from which it could not escape. Per Chait:

But sexism alone has a hard time explaining why Warren took the lead in national polls of primary voters before collapsing in the fall of 2019. Surely, the reason many of the voters who were prepared to nominate her changed their mind is not that they learned her gender.

Warren’s account ignores the possibility that her campaign simply misjudged the electorate, both within the party and outside it. As a result, she positioned herself too far left, which not only cost her support among Democrats, but created well-founded concerns — even among Democrats who liked her ideas — about her ability to beat Trump. (I was one of those voters. My initial enthusiasm for her candidacy gave way to dismay at her apparent lack of political savvy.) Perhaps she would have lost no matter what she did, but her strategic choices seem to have hurt her chances in ways she does not acknowledge.

But there isn’t actually evidence for this. Chait tries to argue that because Warren tried to address her leftist critics even as Democratic primary voters were consolidating behind Biden, it must be that voters got nervous that she was too far to the left. That’s not what happened, though.

Throughout the campaign, Democratic primary voters were very clear about their priorities: they wanted someone “electable” who could beat Trump. Again and again, electability topped every other concern. Primary voters might have had opinions about policy, identity and leadership style, but what they wanted more than anything else was to drive Donald Trump out of office–whatever it took.

And while pundits might have obsessed over someone as far “left” as Sanders could beat Trump or whether someone as “moderate” as Biden would be needed, that wasn’t really what voters were thinking about. Certainly, a large number of primary voters thought that it would be necessary to nominate a populist firebrand like Sanders to defeat Trump and siphon off some of his angry, low-trust white working class voters while mobilizing the young, multi-cultural left. We’ll never know if it would have worked–and Biden’s approach turns out to have been successful, validating in some respects the opposite view–but it was a widely shared opinion among a large swath of the electorate.

More to the point, if most Democratic primary voters were looking to a politically moderate candidate and leery of the “left,” it didn’t redound to the benefit of most of the moderates in the race. Buttigieg and Klobuchar failed to have staying power past Iowa and never had more than a smattering of support in national polls. A whole host of forgotten moderate primary candidates from John Delaney to Steve Bullock to Michael Bloomberg never gained significant traction at all.

In the end, the Democratic primary result aligned remarkably closely with head-to-head polling versus Trump. For over a year, head-to-head polling against Trump told a remarkably consistent story: Biden always had the best numbers against Trump; Sanders lagged Biden by a few points, but also beat Trump; and Warren came in just behind Sanders, maintaining a slim lead over Trump. Other candidates came out just ahead or tied with Trump, but always behind the main three.

The key inflection point that started the downward slide for Warren’s campaign was a series of head-to-head polls in December and January showing faltering numbers for Warren against Trump. These polls made waves across the media and throughout the electorate. Canvassers for Warren started coming back with the same stories again and again from base Democratic households: “we love Warren and we think she would make the best president, but we just don’t think she can beat Trump.”

And why didn’t they believe she could beat Trump? It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the biggest obstacle was deep, toxic sexism in the broader electorate. After all, Hillary Clinton had been the “safe” choice in 2016, but she ended up losing to an alleged serial sexual assailant who famously bragged about grabbing anything and anyone he wanted, however he wanted. Voters knew that a Warren win would mean hearing Republicans chant the sneering racist and sexist nickname “Pocahontas” endlessly on the news for months. And notably, Democratic primary voters failed to throw any significant support behind other women candidates Gillibrand, Harris or Klobuchar–all of whom occupied different points on the ideological and strategic spectrum. It seems abundantly clear that not only was some sexism at play in the Democratic primary electorate itself, the primary electorate was also making bets about the sexism of the general electorate.

When the dust settled, the Democratic primary electorate voted defensively: they chose the candidate who consistently performed best in polling against Trump, the most familiar and comfortable candidate, the one who was least likely to set off cultural alarm bells among the Trumpist base and vaguely bigoted independents.

They may well have been right to do so, as Jill Filipovic opines with dismay. But if Biden voters were right about the electability of a woman candidate and of Warren specifically, that only reinforces the pernicious effect of sexism.

What it doesn’t mean is that Warren lost ground because she catered too much to leftist activists. On the contrary, Sanders partisans have the better of the argument on this front: she lost appreciable ground from the left due to leftist attacks on her policy positions. Whatever efforts she may have made to shore up that support had no appreciable effect on primary voters. No one thought to themselves “I thought Warren was a good candidate, but then she moved a bit to the left on Medicare for All and now I think she’ll lose to Trump in a debate on healthcare.” The electability concerns were much more visceral and much uglier, and much more driven by public polling.

In the end, there’s not much value in relitigating primary battles. But it is important for current policy considerations and political strategy not to draw the wrong conclusions about past events. It’s also crucial for our society and culture to reckon with the enormous uphill battles facing women professionally and politically, to draw lessons from it and continue working to fix it–and not to dismiss those challenges in order to score cheap political points.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.