Is it a “woman thing” or a “Warren thing” that turned off voters like my friend?
She’s a white, college-educated, lifelong Democrat who has given time and money to many progressive causes and candidates. In 2008, she voted for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton; in 2016, she voted for Clinton over Bernie Sanders. This time, her vote went to Joe Biden — a late-breaking decision that helped the former vice president notch a stunning Bay State victory on Super Tuesday, without any field operation or campaign spending. Biden, said my friend, “can build a coalition, and last night proved it.” As for Senator Elizabeth Warren: “I love her voice in the Senate. But build a coalition? No.”
Thinking like that handed Warren a humiliating third-place finish in her home state, behind Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. It was like that across the country, as voters, male and female, made it very clear: They don’t like Warren for president.
Instead, they are coalescing behind a 77-year-old candidate whose wobbliness on the campaign trail raised age-related questions about his mental sharpness and fitness for office. There’s also the matter of his son, Hunter Biden, and his business dealings in Ukraine and elsewhere when his father was vice president.
If that’s not sexist, what is?
Warren had well-documented problems with non-college-educated men and women. Indeed, The New York Times dubbed her “A Populist for the Professional Class,” whose policy plans made college-educated voters swoon. But even those voters had their doubts. In Massachusetts, where women make up more than half the voter base, Warren won 33 percent of white college-educated women — not enough to offset her poor showing with men, voters without college degrees, and voters of color.
Why does Warren rub so many people the wrong way? She’s obviously smart, tough, and ready to rumble with President Trump. On the debate stage, she twice eviscerated former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, to the point that he told her “enough is never enough.” Warren has the guts to run as an angry, take-no-prisoners woman. As a sometimes angry woman, I admire that. So why did I feel her second assault on Bloomberg came off as bullying? Why did I keep on thinking — just like the average sexist man — couldn’t she smile more or show a little humor? Meanwhile, she expended all that energy on Bloomberg (who dropped out of the race Wednesday), when Sanders was the real threat to her hopes of rallying progressive voters behind her.
In the end, I voted for Warren, but without much enthusiasm.
It’s easy to write off the Biden voter — and my own lukewarm vote for Warren — as the product of cultural sexism, amplified by the Hillary hangover connected to Clinton’s devastating loss in 2016. To some degree it is. But sexism doesn’t explain it all. To use an overused word, Warren has an “authenticity” problem, initially revealed by her claims to Native American heritage. She never fully addressed why she checked that box, and all the disclaimers that it had nothing to do with professional advancement couldn’t erase the feeling that it did.
Ahead of Super Tuesday’s vote, Democratic strategist Paul Begala told the Times that voters saw “Professor Warren from Harvard Law and not Betsy from Norman, Oklahoma.” And that worked against Warren, he said. But Warren is both of those people. She can’t substitute one for the other. She needed to draw a clear line from Norman to Cambridge, and tell voters how that remarkable success story came to be. And no, it wasn’t all about leveraging her Native American family lore for her personal benefit. It was about the intelligence, persistence, and sheer talent that got her past the Ivy League obstacles of gender and class bias.
Beyond building a personal narrative that connects with average voters, Warren needed something bigger and better than an anti-corruption campaign theme. And billionaire-bashing isn’t a winning strategy either, for Sanders or Warren. Voters don’t see personal wealth as the root of all evil in this country.
It’s also popular to connect Warren’s fall to her embrace of Medicare for All and her refusal to separate herself from Sanders’ socialist agenda. But that alone didn’t drive voters like my college-educated friend to Biden.
It’s a “woman thing” and a “Warren thing.” And women should be honest enough to admit that. And live with the electoral consequences.