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Why Warren Couldn’t Win

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Warren drops out

Sen. Elizabeth Warren gained support in national polls for much of 2019. By October, she had nearly caught the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. She topped him in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire. Warren seemed positioned to seriously contend for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Once voting started, however, the delegates never really materialized. Warren, who will reportedly announce that she is suspending her campaign on Thursday, never finished higher than third in any primary or caucus, including in Massachusetts, the state she has represented in the Senate since 2013.

So what went wrong for Warren, who was perhaps the most credible threat to prevent a two-person race between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders? I think there are four main explanations for her lack of support, and they are all connected.

The party was wary of a “too liberal” nominee

Warren took positions similar to those Sanders has embraced, such as supporting a wealth tax and, most notably, calling for Medicare for All. Some more centrist Democrats simply oppose those policies. Others worried that Medicare for All, and the winding down of private insurance, would be too disruptive and the idea would scare away too many voters.

So Warren’s ascent to the top of the polls was met with resistance from a big chunk of the Democratic Party establishment. News articles began to proliferate quoting party donors and leaders fretting about the Democratic 2020 field. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick launched late bids for the nomination that almost amounted to “Stop Warren” candidacies. The anti-Warren movement was essentially a preview of the more aggressive anti-Sanders campaign orchestrated by party establishment figures between the Vermont senator’s victory in the Nevada caucuses and Super Tuesday.

So whatever her campaign tactics, Warren likely would have struggled to win the nomination for the same reason that Sanders is now an underdog to Biden: Her leftism didn’t appeal to party elites, who signaled to voters that Warren lacked “electability,” the credential many Democratic voters are obsessed with this election cycle.

Of course, Warren could have taken different policy positions, or tried spinning the same ones in different ways, except …

She tried to win very liberal voters from Sanders

Sanders urged Warren to run for president as the liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election cycle. Warren declined, the Vermont senator jumped in himself, and Sanders became the informal leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party after his surprisingly successful 2016 presidential run. With both of them running in 2020, Sanders and Warren spent much of last year basically battling over who could release the most liberal plans, such as making college free, increasing taxes on the rich, and so on.

A big part of that battle revolved around health care. Warren, before the 2020 campaign, had not made health policy a major part of her brand or focused a lot on Medicare for All. But with Sanders leaning into that stance, she opted to adopt a similar position. And in the fall of 2019, she doubled down, releasing a detailed proposal to fund Medicare for All. When Sanders had a heart attack in early October, many people, including me, anticipated that he would gradually drop in the polls, and Warren’s advisers might have assumed so as well. In that context, Sanders’s voters would be up for grabs, and supporting Medicare for All would help Warren inherit those supporters. Or the Warren campaign may have simply hoped to win over the Sanders bloc, heart attack or no; remember, she had been climbing in the polls for months at that point.

Instead, Sanders recovered, both healthwise and in the polls. Once voting started, Warren performed best among Democrats who described their views as “very liberal,” but she still trailed Sanders among those voters. And she had terrible numbers among self-described moderates. She had failed to outflank Sanders on the left, but she failed to win over those voters while also convincing a lot of centrist Democrats that she was too liberal and perhaps a risky bet in the general election.

Of course, the assumption that she’d be a general-election risk was likely related to another factor …

Democrats seem to think men are more electable

Several of the women who ran for president — Sens. 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. I don’t want to downplay the strengths of Biden or Sanders or ignore the weaknesses of the women and people of color who ran in 2020, but the primary process coming down to two white male candidates1 probably reflected this view of electability. Biden and Sanders were consistently rated as the most likely to defeat Trump in a general election.

This electability challenge was arguably the biggest problem for Warren. While rank-and-file voters talked about her gender, more elite Democrats and the media cast her as a bad candidate to face Trump for other reasons (how much these reasons were also simply cover for concerns about nominating a woman, I can’t say). First, she had fairly weak numbers against Trump (compared to Biden and Sanders) in hypothetical general-election polls. Second, considering the liberal tilt of Massachusetts, she notched somewhat underwhelming margins of victory in her 2012 and 2018 Senate runs. Third, she took decidedly liberal positions on policy questions. And finally, Warren’s background, as a Harvard Law professor and Massachusetts senator, made some party officials worried that she would not connect with Democratic voters in the Midwest. I’m not sure how valid these concerns actually are, but party elites and the press considered them barriers to Warren winning.

She was the “wine track” candidate

There is a long tradition of lefty candidates running in the Democratic primary and getting a lot of traction, buzz and campaign donations from party activists but not really catching on with rank-and-file voters. Think Sen. Bill Bradley in the 2000 presidential cycle or Gov. Howard Dean in 2004. This kind of candidate is sometimes referred to the “wine track” candidate, who appeals mainly to elites, as opposed to candidates who are on more “beer track,” who are thought of as being better at connecting with the working class.

Warren was perhaps the 2020 wine track candidate. In her campaigning and policy plans, Warren tried hard to counter this weakness by courting working class and nonwhite voters. She was well-liked by black academics, figures associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and a hard-to-qualify bloc of black figures who are vocal on Twitter and influential in non-electoral ways.

But she just never caught on with a broad swath of voters — polls suggest that she had little support outside of white college graduates. The New York Times described Warren as the candidate who often had the support of the “grass tops” rather than the grassroots — meaning that the leaders of activist groups often really liked Warren, but it’s not clear that the lower ranks did. For example, Warren won the personal endorsement of the president of the American Federation of Teachers, but the union itself wouldn’t endorse her because many of its members were with Biden or Sanders.

So Warren lost. In fact, she didn’t really come particularly close to winning. That said, her campaign mattered in a way that a lot of other failed 2020 candidacies didn’t.

Her strategy of rolling out a ton of left-leaning policy plans arguably forced Sanders to match her, and she pushed the other candidates leftward even if they didn’t wind up quite where Warren was. Her plans also created public conversations about ideas that had not previously been in the mainstream, such as the idea that Facebook should be broken up. And I expect future Democratic candidates for president and other offices will tout ideas similar to the wealth tax that she proposed.

In other words, no matter whether the nomination goes to Sanders or Biden, many of Warren’s ideas may end up “winning,” even if she couldn’t.


  1. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is still in the race, but polling at around 1 percent.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.