Updated on March 5, 2020 at 11:37 a.m. ET.
Who could have predicted that Elizabeth Warren would fall so far?
In early autumn 2019, the Massachusetts senator’s presidential campaign was soaring. Buoyed by her “I have a plan for that” message, she’d been attracting enormous, energetic crowds; become a front-runner in national polls; and surpassed both Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden to take the lead in Iowa.
But Warren’s numbers began to drop late last year. After voting started, she didn’t win a single state—she came in third in Massachusetts—and secured only a handful of the delegates available. Now she’s dropping out.
The question of what exactly happened to reverse her fortunes is impossible to answer with certainty. However, here are five different-but-intertwined theories of the case, laid out by five political strategists and election analysts I interviewed over the last week. Their comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.
1. She couldn’t pick a lane—a problem symbolized by her positioning on Medicare for All.
James Carville, a Democratic consultant and campaign strategist for former President Bill Clinton:
Her bio is not good—it’s stunning. Her overall critique of the country was, There’s corruption and it’s just everywhere. She had the right critique. She had a base: She really excites educated women, for good reason. They like a story—a girl from Oklahoma, the single mother; geez, you couldn’t make this up in Hollywood.
She was cruising along pretty good, and then she got kind of wrapped up in it. It sure seems to me like her troubles started with Medicare for All. She was very clear: I’m a capitalist, not a socialist, but then she did Medicare for All and got lumped in with Bernie. That seemed to be, as Churchill would say, the beginning of the end. When she [announced her support for it], I just flinched, like, Oh, come on! ’Cause you’re never gonna get out of it!
Bernie had the hard left locked down. I interviewed [the Iowa pollster] Ann Selzer in September, and she made the point that Warren was the second choice of a lot more Pete Buttigieg [and] Biden voters at the time than Sanders voters. But [Warren] made a decision to be on the Bernie side of the equation. If she would have just [positioned herself] a little to the left of Buttigieg or Biden, she would have had more votes available to her. She should have just been a liberal and not a leftist. The original answer should have been, “We’re going to aggressively pursue a public option and expand Obamacare, and then in three years, we’ll see where we are.”
2. She was hit by the curse of the front-runner: She peaked too early and never recovered.
Joe Trippi, the campaign manager for the former presidential candidate Howard Dean:
This has always been the dynamic in a race where there’s an incumbent Republican on the other side of the equation: As soon as anybody starts to get some kind of a lift under their wings, the focus goes from looking at them versus the rest of the field to looking at them versus [in this case] Trump. When you’re the front-runner, the focus comes on you, then guess what? The press and your opponents are going to raise concerning issues.
What happened to her in Iowa is the same thing that happened to Howard Dean in 2004. You’ve got this incredible organization, [you’ve] identified thousands of people that say they’re voting for Warren, and your great organization is going to turn those 80,000 people out. Except the press is starting to talk about [other candidates]: Look at this charismatic, young, vibrant dude, Pete. She’s getting the scrutiny, while some other fresh face is getting the surge. Pete is the new fresh thing and doesn’t get the scrutiny until after he’s moving to New Hampshire.
Now Pete’s growing going into New Hampshire, and she’s got a great organization in New Hampshire, but too late, the entire world thinks it’s between Pete and Bernie. Now Amy Klobuchar is coming up, and some of your women are leaving you for Klobuchar. My point is: Once you start to fall off the map, it becomes very, very tough to turn that tide.
3. It was the scourge of electability: Warren was seen as a risky choice.
Amy Walter, a political analyst and the national editor for The Cook Political Report:
For voters who were looking for a liberal, Bernie Sanders–like candidate but wanted a new model—somebody who was not as old, not as male, not as crotchety—[Warren] looked like this new great option. And for other voters, especially for a lot of women who wouldn’t put themselves in the “very liberal” category, there was an appeal to her because she seemed more unifying than Bernie Sanders. But both of those sides [ultimately] felt very unsatisfied: If you were worried about electability, her decision to say, Well, I’m not totally backing away from Medicare for All made you think she’s still going to be hit for being too liberal in November. If you were looking for a new version of Bernie Sanders, she didn’t provide that either.
What has really plagued every candidate and, quite frankly, the Democratic Party this year is this focus on electability. It was supposed to make the race clearer and easier to understand. This wasn’t about falling in love—this was about the cold, hard reality of electability. Except, as we all know, the idea of electability is a really fungible one.
The risk tolerance among Democrats in 2008 was much higher than it is in 2020. When you talk to voters, there is this paralyzing fear of picking the wrong person, and it has just really screwed up the opportunity for those candidates who were seen as riskier. If we were in a different era, if this were not Donald Trump as president and if Democratic voters were not as obsessed with this idea of electability, would we be in a different place? Yeah, we might. Unfortunately, as a candidate you can’t control for that. All you can do is try to hope you’re running at the right time.
Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst and the U.S. House editor for The Cook Political Report:
It’s impossible to draw a direct line of causation, but here are a few things we know: Democrats are obsessed with electability. No. 2, Warren’s support is very concentrated among liberal whites with college degrees. No. 3, we know that happens to be a large New York Times–reading demographic.
When you put those things together, it makes sense that Democrats and Warren supporters could read that polling and have second thoughts about supporting her. The other aspect here is her adjustments to her health-care plan and the timeline for moving toward Medicare for All. It robbed her of some of the purity that Sanders possesses, and it might have dented the perception that she knows exactly what she wants to do. It might have been an acknowledgment that her initial [Medicare for All] plan [was] problematic to sell to a general electorate.
[This kind of voter punditry] happens in every election, but maybe not to the extent we’re seeing in 2020.
5. It all comes back to sexism.
Jess McIntosh, a former deputy communications director of Emily’s List and a senior communications adviser for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign:
Sexism in politics is like Whack-a-Mole, right? Every cycle, it shows up in a new way. We dealt with the “likability” issue [with Warren] pretty quickly. Now it’s “electability.” Every data point that we have says women can win—in 2018, women won all over the country—and yet we keep asking this question. The conversation becomes really problematic for a candidate who’s trying to make [the] case about what kind of agenda she wants to set, what kind of policies she wants to have.
The biggest issue this year is the double standard, where we hold women candidates to different standards than we hold the men. It’s very clear from the Medicare for All conversation that we expected and demanded more of [Warren] than we did the male candidates, and it hurt her. That was happening right as she was rising. As late as [last] week, Bernie Sanders [was] saying, I still can’t tell you every nickel and dime [about how to pay for his Medicare for All plan], and everybody’s like, All right. Well, you know, it’s about priorities. I’m not saying we should treat Bernie Sanders differently. I’m saying we should treat Elizabeth Warren the same.
She either outright won all [the debates] or performed really well. But you didn’t see wall-to-wall coverage the next day of what that would mean for her campaign and whether the momentum was going to come in. Where she had victories, they were not celebrated as loudly as the men[’s] were, and where she had defeats, it was seen as an inevitable character flaw as opposed to a bump in the road.
There were three tickets out of Iowa until a woman got the third one. I am very interested to see a deep dive into [news-coverage] quantity and quality once this is all over, and it’s pretty obvious that the women just didn’t get the same. Warren pulls 7,000 or 8,000 people at rallies. I think if people were on line for four or five hours to see any of the other candidates consistently, that would be brought up regularly as a sign of the movement [they’re] building. I haven’t heard word one about the movement Warren’s building. It’s really hard to be excited about being part of a movement if nobody talks about what’s happening.