Elizabeth Warren Could Never Escape The Baggage Of Being A 'Female Candidate'

She was qualified. She persisted. But sexism still mattered.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was once considered a front-runner, but she wasn't able to amass considerable delegates through Super Tuesday.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was once considered a front-runner, but she wasn't able to amass considerable delegates through Super Tuesday.
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Elizabeth Warren wasn’t trying to be the first female president.

She wanted to be president. She wanted to cut banks down to size and relieve student debt. Root out the corrupt influence of money in politics and go after monopolies.

Warren didn’t focus on how she’d be breaking a glass ceiling. She didn’t shy away from her gender, but when she talked about feminism, it was most often centered on female organizers and the movements they’ve led throughout history.

But Warren couldn’t just run for president. At every step of the campaign, she was reminded that people still saw her as a female candidate, with all the baggage that comes with that designation ― questions about her toughness, likability and relatability.

No male candidate has ever been asked what it meant to run as a man for president. They have all had the luxury of being self-defined by other qualities. Warren never had that moment.

“Gender in this race, you know that is the trap question for every woman,” Warren said in her press conference Thursday, announcing she was dropping out. “If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’ And if you say there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’ I promise you this ― I will have a lot more to say on that subject later on.”

From the start, the senator from Massachusetts had to wrestle with twin dilemmas: what it meant to champion her views and what it meant to do so as a female candidate.

Doubts about Warren began as soon as she announced she was forming an exploratory bid. There were instantly comparisons to Hillary Clinton ― who is actually nothing like Warren and had a completely different set of policies and challenges. But they’re also white women of a certain age, so Warren had to deal with the assumption that she would be the same as Clinton.

The biggest and most damaging assumption? Clinton lost to Donald Trump in 2016, so Warren probably would, too.

But Can She Win?

Warren was constantly dogged by questions of electability. Voters said they liked her, but they weren’t sure she could win.

“Unfortunately, I don’t really believe that a woman can win the general presidential election. Hillary sort of proved that for me,” one woman told HuffPost.

Another woman told The New York Times, “I think right now there’s still not going to be a female president, unfortunately. Right now I think we kind of — not regressed, but looked to the past.

“At a certain point, the narrative that a woman can’t win and that a white man would be the safest candidate to take on Trump became self-fulfilling.”

- Rebecca Katz, progressive Democratic strategist

In March 2019, a HuffPost/YouGov poll found that Warren came in fifth when Democratic voters were asked who could beat Trump. The top three were white men, followed by Harris and then Warren.

Three in 10 Democratic voters thought that most of the electorate would be less likely to vote for a female candidate because of her gender, compared with just 4% who thought a male candidate would face a similar disadvantage.

Other polls had similar results. A 2019 Ipsos/Daily Beast poll, for example, found that 74% of respondents claimed they were comfortable with a female president, but only 33% believed their neighbors would be.

Warren eventually made a push to emphasize her electability, but it came far too late in the campaign.

This hesitation about whether a woman can be elected president broke out into a messy public fight in January.

CNN reported that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Warren in a 2018 private meeting that he didn’t believe a woman could defeat Trump in 2020.

Warren finally had to address the gender issue head-on. She didn’t give a speech about the struggles she’d faced as a female candidate; she simply confirmed the CNN report and asked to move on: “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

In 2018, Warren told journalist Rebecca Traister that she has had to deal with these “well-intentioned” doubts since she considered running for the Senate in 2011.

“That was … the saddest part, the most infuriating part about these calls; they came from people who wanted to be kind but wanted to make sure that I understood the hard reality of America,” she said.

Sanders supporters responded to Warren confirming the CNN report by saying she was lying or accusing her of being a traitor to the progressive cause. People who appeared to be Sanders supporters started flooding her social media posts with snake emojis and using the hashtags #NeverWarren or #WarrenIsASnake.

But if Sanders did make those remarks, they shouldn’t have been that surprising. Former Vice President Joe Biden made similar, but more direct, comments to what Sanders allegedly said, but they received far less attention.

And a few days after the CNN report, which Sanders denied, he gave a radio interview in which he said all the candidates have their ”own sets of problems.” His was the fact that he’s 78. Warren’s was that she’s a woman.

“So everybody brings some negatives, if you’d like,” Sanders said.

But the dispute infuriated just as many Warren supporters as Sanders backers.

Tanya Keith, a 48-year-old undecided voter in Des Moines, Iowa, who attended a Warren event in mid-January, told the senator she believed her fully.

“I know that Bernie Sanders said those things to you, because I have seen your body language, and I’ve seen his body language,” said Keith. “And I know what men say to us in rooms and then what they say to us in person to gaslight us, and I just want you to know that I believe you 100%.”

Warren understood the significance of her candidacy. And in her press conference announcing the end of her presidential bid Thursday, she talked about the “pinky promises” she had made with little girls she met during the campaign, reminding them that they can grow up to be president.

“One of the headest parts of this is all those pinky promises,” Warren said. “And all those little girls who have to wait four more years.”

Always The Professor

Attendees listened to Warren speak during a Feb. 9 campaign event at Rundlett Middle School in Concord, New Hampshire.
Attendees listened to Warren speak during a Feb. 9 campaign event at Rundlett Middle School in Concord, New Hampshire.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Warren was typecast as the wonkish Harvard law professor with detailed policy plans calling for big structural change. She was smart but not relatable. Some people even complained that they didn’t like the sound of her voice. She was too schoolmarmish. Sound familiar?

But Warren also has a compelling personal story that never fully stuck. She grew up in a working-class Oklahoma home with a father who had a heart attack when she was young. Her mother had to support the family on a minimum-wage job at Sears. Warren started waiting tables at age 13, and she dropped out of college to get married and have a child. By age 30, she was divorced.

Warren did share her story on the campaign trail, including her experience with discrimination and how she lost her job teaching in a public school because she was “visibly pregnant.” (Even then, conservatives tried to discredit that story, as if it was out of the realm of possibility that a woman would have experienced this treatment in 1971.)

But that story never caught hold. She and her campaign didn’t emphasize the “Betsy from Oklahoma” angle, and some strategists have said her ads should have focused more on her biography.

A woman from this background who became a populist and an intellectual isn’t a known type in politics yet. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) went to Yale and is still considered down-to-earth and progressive. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was able to be known as both brainy ― showing off his knowledge of language and literature ― and down-to-earth, even though his upbringing was far more privileged than Warren’s. But there are far fewer examples of women who have been as successful in this lane.

It seemed like if anyone could do it, it would be Warren.

Warren ‘Erasure’

Warren failed to make it into the top two spots in the first four voting states, and she was quickly written off by many pundits. Even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who had a surprisingly strong showing in New Hampshire but still trailed Warren overall, at times seemed to get more attention than the Massachusetts senator. Warren fans on social media started referring to this lack of attention as the “erasure” of their candidate.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted after Iowa and New Hampshire testing Democratic candidates against Trump included five candidates ― but not Warren. The pollster said he had room and time for just five candidates, and he decided to exclude Warren ― but include Klobuchar ― simply because he wanted to try something different.

In another Washington Post story mentioning a recent poll (in which Warren was included) and candidate standing among college-educated women, five candidates were again mentioned ― but for some reason, Warren was left out.

And when MSNBC tried to show the support of moderates versus Sanders, it put up a graphic tallying their vote percentages ― but left Warren out from the progressive side with Sanders.

“It is the media’s sexism that determined Warren’s fate ― from the clear evidence of her erasure in their reporting as a leading candidate to the persistent questioning of her electability ― and the media is responsible for hurting her ability to win support amongst primary voters,” said Shaunna Thomas, executive director of the progressive group UltraViolet.

Aimee Allison, president of She the People, credited Warren with partnering with women of color in creating her policies and bringing them into her campaign. She also noted that the treatment of Warren may have resulted from the overwhelmingly white, male makeup of the national media.

“Her transformative candidacy was ignored by the media, and she survived deeply sexist attacks that felled many candidates before her,” Allison said. “Regardless of her ill-treatment, her new style of political partnership is a roadmap for candidates looking to earn the trust and respect of women of color Democrats need to win. With more money, more time and more women of color in media, I have no doubt this would have ended differently.”

Warren’s campaign certainly had its questionable strategic decisions ― refusal to hire a pollster, an unwillingness to attack the other candidates. And there were other challenges, such as going up against two candidates who had bigger name recognition and had run before.

But maybe, even with all those tweaks, what was actually needed was some big structural change for a woman to win.

Taking On Bloomberg

Sen. Elizabeth Warren eviscerated former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg at his first Democratic presidential debate, going after him on his comments about women, his taxes and his support for policies like stop-and-frisk.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren eviscerated former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg at his first Democratic presidential debate, going after him on his comments about women, his taxes and his support for policies like stop-and-frisk.

On Super Tuesday, billionaire Mike Bloomberg said that he didn’t realize Warren was even still in the race.

The next day, he dropped his presidential bid. And Warren was a big part of the reason why.

As Biden faltered after Iowa and New Hampshire, pundits and voters were talking about whether Bloomberg could be a moderate alternative. With his money and ability to get under Trump’s skin, Bloomberg rose in the polls and seemed like a real threat.

Super Tuesday was Bloomberg’s big test. He skipped the first four states, figuring he could simply blanket the airwaves with his expensive ads and win the delegate-rich states on Tuesday. Bloomberg likely spent $600 million of his own fortune on the race.

But Warren made sure that he never went anywhere. In one of the most memorable Democratic presidential debates ever, Warren eviscerated Bloomberg last month in Las Vegas. It was Bloomberg’s first debate and the first time he’d get to show voters who he was outside of his ads.

Bloomberg was the perfect foil for Warren: a billionaire who was using his money to buy his way into the election. Warren went after him for his refusal to release his tax returns, his support of racially discriminatory policies like stop-and-frisk and redlining, and his treatment of women.

It was vintage Warren ― the senator who made Wall Street executives wilt at Senate hearings and promised to leave “plenty of blood and teeth on the floor” fighting for a tough Wall Street reform bill.

Warren received the most attention for calling out Bloomberg on sexism. Her comments were sharp, pointed and, frankly, devastating.

“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” Warren said at the top of the debate. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

Most of Warren’s critiques against Bloomberg were focused on inequality and his wealth. Even her comment about what he said about women noted that he is a billionaire. But Warren broke through most clearly as a woman criticizing a man for sexual harassment.

MSNBC host Chris Matthews later challenged Warren after the South Carolina debate about why she was bringing up sexual harassment allegations against Bloomberg when the former New York City mayor had denied them.

“Why would he lie? Just to protect himself?” Matthews asked.

Warren said she believed the woman (who filed a federal lawsuit and whose allegations were later confirmed by another employee) and responded, “Why would she lie?”

Matthews has since “retired” from MSNBC ― after this exchange, a segment confusing two black politicians and sexual harassment allegations from former HuffPost journalist Laura Bassett.

“Elizabeth Warren faced more scrutiny and more questions every step of the way. From the day she entered the race to concerns about whether she was likable enough, to the day she dropped out, she never got the benefit of the doubt in the way the male front-runners did,” progressive strategist Rebecca Katz said.

“Instead of simply voting for who they liked, Democrats have spent the last year trying to figure out who other voters would like,” she added. “At a certain point, the narrative that a woman can’t win and that a white man would be the safest candidate to take on Trump became self-fulfilling.”

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