The night of November 8, 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost her presidential bid, women and girls across America were told that they would need to wait another four years for the highest glass ceiling to be shattered. On Thursday, March 6, 2020, as Senator Elizabeth Warren — the smartest person in the room — failed to gain the support she needed to stay in the race, women and girls were told the same thing again.
It is a familiar story, and one that frustrates many close followers of Democratic Party politics. The field has narrowed from a diverse array of candidates spanning different races, genders, ages, and sexual orientations, to two familiar white men who seek to unseat the current president.
Warren’s departure from the field of Democratic candidates was noteworthy not only because of the gender diversity that she would have continued to bring to the nomination contest, but also the policy expertise that she consistently brought to the table throughout her campaign.
That is leaving a lot of people not only frustrated and disheartened, but also wondering: When (if ever) will a woman ever be good enough? Does it even matter for women to run?
The answer is yes: campaigns make a difference when they bring ideas to the table.
Amid a primary season dominated by tweets and 60-second sound bites that value style over substance, Senator Warren distinguished herself among a large pool of candidates (some more experienced than others) by her detailed policy plans. There was a plan to end Washington corruption. A plan to combat climate change. A plan for affordable higher education for all. A plan for paid family and medical leave. A plan for comprehensive criminal justice reform.
To be sure, Warren’s plans were not perfect, nor were her explanations for how best to pay for them. Health care reform was a particular stumbling block. As the primary debates highlighted, there are divergent Democratic Party views as to the best way to expand health coverage to the American public. Candidates differed over whether to build on the progress of the Affordable Care Act while preserving the core institutional structure of the current American health care system, or whether to shake up the system itself with the adoption of Medicare for All, or somewhere in between.
Senator Warren was for quite some time — and under scrutiny — reluctant to discuss how to pay for her Medicare for All proposal. Upon revealing her plan for how to accomplish it without taxing the middle class, she met with skepticism about the program’s underlying budget assumptions and feasibility.
In fairness, this should not have been disqualifying. Health care is an urgent policy issue, a question not just of creating health equity when millions of Americans remain uninsured, but it also affects economic productivity.
But this scrutiny reveals the irony of Warren having detailed plans in the first place — which the remaining candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders do not. Putting health care at the center of a campaign, and making a public promise that it can be paid for without taxing the middle class, made Warren particularly vulnerable to scrutiny about the feasibility of all the plans that drew so many admirers to her. And while Warren’s liberal, feisty, and policy-detailed approach to campaigning appealed to many, her inability or unwillingness to pivot in response to critiques and lower poll numbers did not serve her well.
Central to the frustrations about the collapse of the Warren campaign has been the media coverage — or perhaps more accurately, the lack of media coverage. While Warren did not crack the top three in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, other lower ranking candidates received more attention. The highly limited coverage of her speeches after these contests was widely noted, as was an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll omitting Senator Warren from the list of candidates, leading to #WhereIsWarren trending on Twitter.
This is why, although we can track other reasons for her inability to win primary elections and caucuses, it is difficult to divorce the campaign coverage from the systemic misogyny that many Warren partisans believe ultimately doomed the Senator’s prospects for the presidency.
Looking at the failure of a candidate whose expertise and competence were unmatched in the primary field to also garner media exposure and voter support plunges us back into the questions raised about Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016.
In Warren’s case, there are two forms of misogyny that dominate. One the structural sexism of political institutions and voter behavior. But the second is more complicated: the sexism that voters expected of others, leading them to play pundit in the voting booth. Voters who claimed to have preferred Warren were dogged with doubt about what other voters might do and why. Will she be electable enough? Is she likable enough? Is America ready for her?
The answer was clearly no.
Perhaps Americans need more faith in their fellow voters. Perhaps they need a reminder that Clinton won the popular vote in 2016. Or perhaps we might need to admit that Warren simply wasn’t the right woman to break that glass ceiling. And ultimately, we will not know an answer to those questions.
What might have come of her campaign in a primary cycle less fractured by multiple, well-qualified candidates is also an open question.
It is hardly a secret that women running in politics get fewer breaks from voters and the media than their male counterparts do. They must be smarter, more on point, tough yet likeable, confident yet not too ambitious. That Warren balanced these expectations while also doing her homework on such a sweeping range of issues, and engagingly discussing how to enact her proposed policies without garnering adequate votes and delegates is an understandable source of frustration among her supporters. Such frustration was likely compounded by Senator Sanders continuing to campaign on more expansive policy proposals without more than unsatisfying sound bite explanations for how to pay for them, and without nearly the resulting pushback that Warren faced.
Still, it is clear that Warren made her mark on the Democratic primary. By bringing her expertise to the debates and pressing her fellow candidates to explain their own policies in greater depth, Warren elevated the policy debate. She made it more difficult for her fellow candidates to continue to avoid accounting for how to pay for their proposed policies (e.g. health care), making their evasiveness obvious. And perhaps most notably, Warren’s attacks on Mayor Bloomberg exposed many of his core vulnerabilities as a candidate, with Bloomberg ultimately dropping out right after Super Tuesday — just a day before Warren herself.
Nevertheless, she will persist. Elizabeth Warren will not be America’s first female president, but there is little question that she will continue to be a leading player in the Democratic Party — and the 2020 election.
Miranda Yaver is a political scientist and Postdoctoral Scholar in Health Policy and Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she conducts research on health disparities in the US health care system and on how political conditions shape the impact that policies have on health outcomes in the US.