On The Trail: Warren falls victim to the electability obsession

On The Trail: Warren falls victim to the electability obsession
© Getty Images

As Democratic voters agonized over a historically large field of potential presidential candidates, virtually every one put Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenProgressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC On The Money: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process on Wednesday | Four states emerge as test case for cutting off jobless benefits Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC MORE (D-Mass.) in a category of her own. Whether they were fans or not, liberal or centrist, voters universally loved that Warren offered so many detailed plans and such a robust agenda.

But the one plan Warren struggled so much to articulate was the most important to voters eager to oust President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE in November: How she could win what in their minds is the most important election of their lives.

In dozens of conversations around the country this year, voters kept returning to the central question of electability, each with their own definitions of what made a candidate more or less viable than their rivals.


Supporters of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersProgressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC Zombie Tax punishes farmers to fill DC coffers Progressives threaten to block bipartisan infrastructure proposal MORE (I-Vt.) argued his ability to drive new voters to the polls made him the best candidate against Trump. Fans of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMellman: Trump voters cling to 2020 tale FDA authorizes another batch of J&J vaccine Cotton warns of China collecting athletes' DNA at 2022 Olympics MORE pointed to his appeals to blue-collar voters in Midwestern states. Those who backed Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC | Lawmakers urge Biden to be tough on cyber during summit with Putin | TSA working on additional security regulations following Colonial Pipeline hack Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC Senate confirms Lina Khan to the FTC MORE (D-Minn.) pointed to her unblemished record of electoral success in an increasingly swing state. Warren fans were smitten with her plans for everything.

“I think she’s incredibly intelligent. She’s got a plan for everything,” said Kyle Siefers, a mental health professional in Des Moines who caucused for Warren.

Many voters tried to put themselves in the minds of swing centrists who will determine the race, choosing a candidate in their caucus or primary more for those who would come later than for their own ideological edification.

Warren seemed to recognize she was losing that internal struggle in voters’ minds: In the closing weeks of her campaign, she urged voters to think in the present, and to cast a vote that would make them proud.

But voters kept returning to what they perceived as Warren’s political shortcomings.


Some questioned whether a woman could win the White House, even as they relished the idea of a woman beating Trump, in spite of Democratic wins in 2018 fueled by female voters and female candidates.

“The way the nation is now, we have to be represented by a male, someone who's going to get down and dirty with Donald Trump, because he's going to fight below the waist, we already know that,” said Tony Hopkins, a retired school teacher in Nevada who caucused for Biden. “I’m tired of dealing with the devil.”

Some wondered whether the party would make a mistake by nominating another Massachusetts liberal, the searing memories of John KerryJohn KerryIn Europe, Biden seeks to reassert U.S. climate leadership Climate progressives launch first action against Biden amid growing frustration What US policymakers can glean from Iceland's clean energy evolution MORE and Michael Dukakis still fresh in their minds.

“I like the progressive candidates and their ideas a lot, but I also like the idea of not polarizing things more,” Mia Power, a junior at Iowa State University, said of Warren at a pre-caucus stop in Ames. Power ultimately caucused for Klobuchar.

In the end, the faction of liberal voters who want a revolution opted for Sanders, and the more moderate Democrats who just want to win coalesced behind Biden.

“She has a strong message of big, structural change and Democratic voters decided they just wanted to beat Trump without taking the risk that big structural change could alienate swing voters we need on the general,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist in Baltimore.

History might have played out differently, had Warren heeded the entreaties of progressives back in 2016. Then, they wanted her to mount a campaign against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonProgressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC Hillary Clinton backs Manhattan DA candidate in first endorsement of year NSA leaker Reality Winner released from federal prison MORE; even Sanders, Warren’s ideological ally in the Senate, publicly urged her to get into the race, only jumping in himself once Warren made clear she would not run.

Instead, Sanders’s 2016 campaign became the grassroots foundation for his 2020 run, when he raised more money, recruited more volunteers and in the end claimed more votes than Warren.

Had Warren run in 2016, she would have started the 2020 race with the behemoth organization that has kept Sanders at or near the top of the field. And while Sanders has struggled to add to his coalition from four years ago, Warren might have found more success.

The lesson in Warren’s decision to wait is the same lesson illustrated by the opposite decision taken by a rookie senator in 2008. After just a few years in the Senate, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP senator: I want to make Biden a 'one-half-term president' Obama: Fox News viewers 'perceive a different reality' than other Americans Police investigating death of TV anchor who uncovered Clinton tarmac meeting as suicide MORE saw an opening and leapt at it.

But Obama is the exception, rather than the rule. The odds of any one candidate actually winning a party’s nomination are slim. Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisDemocrats learn hard truths about Capitol breach Harris calls for pathway to citizenship for Dreamers on DACA anniversary Abbott says he'll solicit public donations for border wall MORE (D-Calif.), Cory BookerCory BookerZombie Tax punishes farmers to fill DC coffers Rand Paul does not support a national minimum wage increase — and it's important to understand why Absences force Senate to punt vote on Biden nominee MORE (D-N.J.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandCosmetic chemicals need a makeover Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Top general: Military justice overhaul proposed by Gillibrand 'requires some detailed study' MORE (D-N.Y.) were among the two dozen candidates who found that out this year.

Still, no one wins a race in which they do not run. There’s no plan for that.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.