On Tuesday morning Elizabeth Warren strolled into her Cambridge, Massachusetts, polling place. Her team was feeling bullish on the most important day yet in the Democratic primary: They had 400 paid staffers fanned out across 14 states, thousands of volunteers, some of whom had been canvassing since the summer, plus a surprise infusion of some $14.8 million in advertising dumped into the most important states over the past two weeks care of the newly formed Persist PAC. The campaign expected Warren would finish in the top two in at least eight of that day’s 14 contests. Outside the elementary school where she would vote, supporters were hoisting liberty green signs, chanting “W-A-R-R-E-N” and “We need a woman in the White House.”
“I stood in that voting booth, and I looked down and I saw my name on the ballot, and I thought, ‘Wow, kiddo, you’re not in Oklahoma anymore,’” she recalled, speaking to reporters on Thursday.
It was a long road to that moment. It started, probably, back in the Nineties when the then-Harvard professor first started showing up on Capitol Hill to testify about the potential ramifications of a bankruptcy reform bill being pushed by Joe Biden, the Delaware senator. The bill, Warren stressed over multiple appearances before Congress, would make it harder for struggling families to wipe out credit-card debt and student loans while guaranteeing handsome profits for consumer lenders, many of which were concentrated in Biden’s home state. Fast-forward to 2008. Warren — by this time a leading consumer advocate — was tapped to sit on the oversight panel administering $700 billion in bailout money after financial firms got themselves and the rest of us into a global financial crisis. That gig served as launching pad for her big idea: a government agency to look out for consumers. After she was blocked from becoming the bureau’s top official, Warren ran for Senate. Almost as soon as she won, Democrats began clamoring for her to run for president.
Warren seemed like the perfect candidate: an inspiring biography, an impressive résumé, and the kind of charisma even the most jaded pundits swooned over. But she had a significant political liability, and one that a lot people still refuse to acknowledge is a liability at all: her sex.
There are people who will argue that gender played little to no role in Warren’s failure to catch on — that if she was just a little more moderate, or a bit more progressive, if she had only gone all in on Medicare for All, or if she’d never embraced it in the first place, if she’d been a little tougher or just slightly less caustic in her remarks about billionaires, if she’d run four years earlier, if, if, if, if, if …
To Warren, though, it was pretty obvious that sexism played a role in the way her candidacy was received. She said as much as she dropped out of the race Thursday. “You know, that is the trap question for every woman: If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says ‘Whiner!’ If you say there was no sexism, about a bazillion women say, ‘What planet are you living on?!’”
In other words: It’s there, it’s just a question of whether or not you acknowledge it.
And there is a convincing argument for not acknowledging it, premised on the idea that discussing the specter of sexism at all introduces doubt into people’s minds. And there’s reason to suspect that dynamic might have existed this year: Warren began sinking in national polls not long after a New York Times survey showing her doing poorly head-to-head with the president in certain crucial Rust Belt swing states among a subset of voters who believed women who run for president weren’t “likable” was being widely circulated.
At least one political scientist — Kathleen Dolan of the University of Wisconsin — has argued persuasively that rather than measuring sexism, the poll itself exacerbated it. In a year when the vast majority of Democratic-leaning voters are animated by a burning desire to see Trump drop-kicked from the White House grounds, the most important quality any candidate can have is the one the last nominee (who happened to be a woman) lacked: electability. According to an Ipsos/Daily Beast poll 74 percent Democrats and independents say they themselves are comfortable with a female president, but only 33 percent believe their neighbors would feel the same — a purely speculative statistic, and thus, probably a worthless one, but still not the kind of odds anyone wants to gamble with in November.
Concerns about electability have, in the end, narrowed the field to a 77-year-old who struggles to string together coherent sentences and a 78-year-old who just had a heart attack — both, ultimately, deemed safer bets than the woman. Supporting a political candidate, almost any political candidate, requires a suspension of disbelief. Like successful improv or the stock market, it only works if everyone buys into the fantasy together. But since covering the 2016 election, I’ve started to wonder what it will take for a majority of American voters to believe that a woman can win the presidency again.
Stephanie Schriock, of the women’s fundraising powerhouse EMILY’S List, which endorsed Warren Monday, told Rolling Stone back in December, “Nothing makes you electable until you start winning. That’s it. You gotta start winning.” But isn’t the opposite true too, if women keep losing?
I wasn’t necessarily planning to vote for Warren, but watching her drop out of the race on Thursday made me angrier than I’d expected. I think it’s because her announcement immediately touched off the same conversations that took place after Clinton lost in 2016. Voters are evenly split on whether gender played a role in her defeat — 51 percent believed it had at least a small role, 49 percent believed it had none whatsoever. (Women and Democrats were more likely to believe; men and Republicans less likely. Clinton herself said sexism was a “contributing factor.”) But a lot of people had alternative theories: If it weren’t for WikiLeaks, if it weren’t for the Russian troll farm, if she didn’t have so much baggage, if she’d shown more emotion…
Warren’s decision to drop out created an opportunity to show just how far we have not come in the last four years — and to wonder whether we will ever make progress. You can’t meaningfully address a problem like gender bias that half of the population refuses to acknowledge even exists.
But what’s the alternative? To give up on the idea that one of us, at some point, will take on a rigged game and win anyway?
Thursday morning, on a phone call with staffers announcing she was suspending her campaign, Warren made it clear where she stood on the question. Towards the end of the call, she told a story from a few days earlier, at her local polling place.
“When I voted yesterday at the elementary school down the street, a mom came up to me. And she said she has two small children, and they have a nightly ritual. After the kids have brushed teeth and read books and gotten that last sip of water and done all the other bedtime routines, they do one last thing before the two little ones go to sleep. Mama leans over them and whispers, ‘Dream big.’ And the children together reply, ‘Fight hard.’
“Our work continues, the fight goes on, and big dreams never die,” Warren said. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”