WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is suspending her presidential run, ending a campaign that built a massive fundraising, organizing and media apparatus but was done in by a string of disastrous results in the primary’s early competitions.
Warren informed staff Thursday she’s leaving the race. “I may not be in the race for President in 2020, but this fight — our fight — is not over,” she told them. “And our place in this fight has not ended.”
Warren ran on a full-throated progressive platform and released dozens of detailed plans that included a focus on student debt, wages, the climate crisis, health insurance, defense spending, and combating corruption, helping to move many of those positions from the party’s ideological fringe to standard planks of its platform.
But Warren’s electoral results never matched the national profile of her campaign or her backing by high-profile progressive activists, media figures, and newspaper editorial boards. Despite assembling an impressive campaign team with hundreds of staffers on the ground in key primary and caucus states, Warren struggled as soon as voting began. She placed third in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire, fourth in Nevada, and fifth in New Hampshire. On Super Tuesday, she failed to win any states and placed third in her home state of Massachusetts. Warren’s departure was first reported by the New York Times.
Warren’s endorsement will be highly sought after by both Sanders and Biden, and the Washington Post reported Wednesday that both camps had reached out to Warren’s staff about potential cooperation after Super Tuesday. Warren’s policy proposals are closer to those of Sanders, and the two have long collaborated on progressive policy goals.
After her poor finishes in the early nominating states, Warren’s camp pitched the idea that she could still gather delegates and potentially emerge as a unity candidate at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee this summer. But that long-game strategy proved far too sanguine after her deflating losses in key Super Tuesday states such as Texas and California.
Warren’s campaign helped shape the Democratic primary, as well as the party as a whole. She, along with Sanders, pulled the field to the left with her calls for universal health care, universal child care, a wealth tax, and bold action on the climate crisis. She frequently told stories of her working-class youth to illustrate the hardships of living in a country whose social safety net is far more porous than nearly all of its economically developed peers.
Perhaps Warren’s most significant impact on the primary was her evisceration of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg during their first debate together. With the former Republican billionaire attempting to use his fortune to stage a centrist takeover of the party, Warren successfully linked him to Trump in his treatment of women and highlighted a series of positions — from his past backing of Republicans to his support for the racist Stop-and-Frisk policing policy — that are anathema to the modern Democratic electorate. Bloomberg’s poll numbers collapsed after the debate and he dropped out Wednesday after failing to make much of a mark in the Super Tuesday contest.
Warren took a parting jab at Bloomberg in her remarks to her staff: “We have been willing to fight, and, when necessary, we left plenty of blood and teeth on the floor,” she said. “And I can think of one billionaire who has been denied the chance to buy this election.”
In the end, however, Warren beat Bloomberg by only a handful of delegates and her campaign outlasted his by less than 24 hours.
Warren found herself in a lonely middle space between the party’s two wings, with Sanders capturing the bulk of the progressive vote and a crowded field of more centrist candidates winning over the party’s middle. Warren had hoped to position herself as an ideal mix of the field — one who shares Sanders’ vision for a government that does more to support the poor and working class but would be better able to realize it, due to her ties to the rest of the Democratic Party and her detailed policy plans.
This briefly appeared a possibility in October, when her poll numbers climbed close to (and in some cases above) Biden’s, but she has slid near-continually since. And her plans, at times, were a liability, particularly on health care.
Warren in November announced a proposal to first enact a federal “public option” health insurance plan and then later push for a universal health care plan that’s often called Medicare for All. The pitch aimed to win over skeptics worried about the shock of a mass-restructuring of an industry that takes about one out of every six dollars spent in the U.S. economy, while still remaining loyal to progressives who object to a U.S. health-insurance system that provides poor outcomes in terms of life expectancy and leaves nearly 30 million people without coverage. In the end, Warren did neither, as she still faced centrist attacks for wanting to “take away” private insurance and criticisms from progressives for having put off a transition to single payer.
Warren also struggled to convince voters of her “electability” — an amorphous term driven by voters’ and commentators’ broad belief in their own ability to predict results in November. Those concerns were inextricable from Warren’s attempt to be the first female president. While few were willing to publicly state that they personally would not vote for a woman, they expressed concern that other voters would balk. It appears, now, we’ll never know.
Sanders’ supporters fumed at Warren for staying in through Super Tuesday, saying she set back the progressive cause by drawing support away from her closest ideological match at a time when the Vermont independent was fighting a string of close races with Biden. Biden edged Sanders in Massachusetts and Texas on Tuesday, part of a resurgence that has taken away the frontrunner status Sanders had secured by winning the popular vote in the primary’s first three contests. While Sanders is far from a unanimous second choice among Warren voters, his ideological proximity suggests he’s the candidate who stands to benefit most from her leaving the race — as well as that her exit might have put him over the top in some of the states contested on Tuesday.
Sanders praised Warren on Wednesday, saying the decision on when and whether to leave the race was hers alone and that she deserved time to make it. “Elizabeth Warren is a very, very excellent senator, she has run a strong campaign, she will make her own decision in her own time,” he said.
As for Warren, she’ll return to the Senate, where her current term extends through 2024. Warren would be 74 then, younger than Biden, Sanders, and Bloomberg are now.
But if Thursday’s announcement marks the end of her presidential ambitions, it will close a long, strange trip. Warren spent three decades in academia, including time as a high-profile Harvard professor. Her national political career took off as she emerged as a prominent critic of Wall Street and the rest of the financial industry. She was heavily featured in the documentary Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders, where she warned that banks’ exploitation of consumers seeking mortgages and credit cards was not only ruining lives, but also weakening the underpinnings of the global financial system and laying the groundwork for a mass collapse. The documentary came out in 2006. A wave of defaults on complex mortgages — many of which were extended to borrowers who never had any hope of paying off their loans — started shortly thereafter, eventually rippling out into the 2007-08 financial crisis.
In the aftermath of the crisis, Warren championed financial reform, successfully pushing for Democrats’ eventual response to include a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a semi-autonomous federal agency aimed at policing the financial sector and punishing companies that prey on consumers. Former President Barack Obama attempted to appoint Warren to be the agency’s first director, but she was blocked by Republican Senate opposition.
Warren instead, in 2012, beat one such Republican, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), to join the body that had denied her the CFPB job. Her victory was preceded by a memorable 2012 Democratic National Convention speech, where she sounded an anti-corporate note that was both an attack on then-GOP nominee Mitt Romney and a pronounced shift away from former President Bill Clinton’s “third-way” style centralism.
“Republicans say they don’t believe in government. Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends. After all, Mitt Romney’s the guy who said corporations are people,” she told the crowd. “No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people.
She made an immediate impact in the Senate through a series of widely viewed hearing appearances in which she ripped Republican colleagues, banking executives, and even Obama administration Treasury Department nominees who she alleged had been too soft on massive corporations that had just received massive federal bailouts. Warren’s push to the left, however, has not come at the expense of relations with the rest of her party. She is the vice chair of the Senate Democratic caucus.
Warren’s departure from the 2020 race kicks off a two-man contest between Biden and Sanders, with everyone else having either dropped out or been left far behind. The pair appear positioned for a drawn-out slugfest. There are no winner-take-all states under Democratic primary rules, making it exceedingly difficult for either candidate to build an overwhelming delegate lead.
That comes with risks for the Democratic effort to oust President Trump. Either candidate would need to win over the overwhelming majority of the other’s primary supporters to win the general, and a grinding primary can suck up resources the eventual winner will need to compete with the president’s massive campaign budget.
Recent history provides a reminder, however, that an acrimonious primary does not always portend poorly in the general. Democrats took great glee in Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP in the 2016 primary, during which he took a torch to conservative orthodoxy — as well as to the Republican Party leaders who’d endorsed it. The Democratic primary, in contrast, was a more civil affair, with Sanders and former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton largely papering over deeper divisions as they engaged in a series of more civil policy debates. Clinton emerged victorious and the consensus favorite to beat Trump. She didn’t.