Elizabeth Warren’s quest for the White House has come to an end. The proximate cause was a fruitless Super Tuesday performance, in which she not only placed third in her home state but also failed to reach the 15 percent threshold for delegates in California, Texas and seven other states.
The path to this point, however, stretches back nearly 18 months, and includes at least five important decisions that, in retrospect, were key to campaign failure.
They’re not all mistakes, necessarily. Some seemed wise at the time — even, arguably, the only possible route to victory.
But as events unfolded, all proved detrimental to a generally excellent, principled, and effective campaign.
1.Trying to win the heritage issue
As the launch of her Presidential campaign approached, Warren decided in October 2018 to address head-on the issue that had dogged her for six years and become a regular Donald Trump punch line: her unwarranted claims to Native American heritage.
That impulse might have been right, but the execution — a campaign-style video in which she touts the results of a DNA test — was disastrous. She wasn’t so much trying to address the issue, as trying to dunk on her detractors.
It was cringeworthy, disrespectful, and perhaps worst of all, politically calculating.
Her subsequent, more genuine attempts at outreach helped undo some of the damage with Native Americans. But Democrats generally were left with heightened concerns that Warren could be a disastrous nominee. If a few taunts from Trump goaded her into such a massive unforced error, how could she possibly survive the general election?
Up to that point, much of the national media were treating Warren as the de facto frontrunner for the nomination. Thanks in large part to this one fiasco, Warren entered the race two months later polling at around five percent and carrying a sense of damaged goods.
2. Swearing off big donors
It wasn’t just that Warren re-drew her lines on whose contributions and assistance she would accept, shortly after starting her presidential campaign. She pledged to give no special access to big donors: no fundraising dinners, no house party schmoozing, no VIP meet-and-greets. Not even the notorious “call time” dialing for dollars that has become a ubiquitous part of modern politics.
The overall effect was bruising to the fragile egos of the well-off, who predictably failed to cough up their coins. Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and even Bernie Sanders have each outraised Warren among those giving a total of $200 or more — not by a little, but by roughly $20 million each.
If she had hoped that everyday Democrats would reward her for the principled move, that payoff from small-dollar donors never materialized in amounts that could make up the gap.
Meanwhile, Democratic insiders and activists fretted that her rejection of big donors and PACs would cripple her against Trump. After initially leaving the door open to changing for the general election, Warren clarified in October that she would continue to do no special-access fundraising as the nominee.
She was soon forced to partially walk that back, trying to calm fellow Democrats’ nerves by saying she would do such fundraising for the Democratic National Committee. Her attempts to parse a distinction to justify that decision undermined any points she was earning with the crusade against corrupting donor influence.
That wasn’t the only time. More than $10 million of Warren’s presidential campaign funds had been raised via her Senate committee, before she adopted the new no-access rules — a hypocrisy that Buttigieg called her on in a televised debate. And late in the campaign, after a year of declaring her opposition to Super PACs, she declined to call on one to stop its efforts on her behalf.
3. Investing in organizing
Anyone who has seen the effectiveness of progressive grassroots organizing in Massachusetts over the past 15 years wouldn’t have been surprised at the Warren campaign’s decision to go big, early, in a field operation.
Warren was one of the first major candidates to declare, barely even waiting until the calendar flipped to 2019. Through the first three months of the year, her hiring spree averaged two new staffers a day. By the time voting began she had more than 1,000 on payroll. She had 50 people on staff in Iowa before Kamala Harris had that many on staff in total.
The campaign also quickly built up a large headquarters staff, including some that brought in-house some functions typically handled by consultants.
That early build-up took advantage of the $10.4 million transferred from her Senate campaign committee, but she stuck with the strategy even after it became clear that fundraising would not keep pace with expectations. The theory was that long-term organizing would have a more important effect than late-campaign advertising.
Her campaign put staff on the ground and opened offices in Super Tuesday states as early as last summer, and continued building those teams for months. That was a considerable departure from past norms, as well as most of the 2020 campaigns.
It’s impossible to know what would have been; perhaps that field work helped keep her viable while others fell away.
But the drain on her account left Warren without flexibility as the first caucuses and primaries approached. She had barely $2 million left on hand at the start of February.
Many of her supporters hoped at that point that all the organizing would pay off in an election day advantage. The combination of goodwill through personal contact built over months and a stellar get-out-the-vote operation would help her outperform her poll numbers. That would, in turn, generate momentum, which her operation in the next states could take advantage of, and so on.
There was no evidence of that in the first four states to vote. And on Super Tuesday, Warren was demolished by Joe Biden in states where he had virtually no organization or staff on the ground.
4. Leaning into a re-brand
The idea had always been to sell Warren as a fighter — specifically, someone fighting indefatigably with you against hindering forces. “This Fight Is Our Fight,” proclaimed the title of her 2017 book, following up on her 2014 “A Fighting Chance.” The unofficial campaign slogan in early months, “still she persists,” worked into that context.
In the spring, however, a different branding emerged. Warren, who was releasing a stream of thoughtful, detailed policy proposals, became the candidate who “has a plan for that.”
Columnists and commentators started it. Supporters loved it. So, the candidate adopted it on the stump.
It was terrific branding, distinguishing her from the large pack of candidates. Her moribund single-digit polling started a sustained climb, peaking in the mid-20s at the start of October.
But, as I wrote last May, having the most plans was never going to seal the deal. It’s just not how most voters base their choice.
If anything, all those plans can ultimately provide almost everybody some basis for opposition.
That was evidenced by criticisms of Warren’s health care plan, which managed to alienate the left, right and center of the party.
The campaign was not unaware of this. On the stump, Warren always tried to contextualize the “plans” into her broader themes, and by September seemed to be actively avoiding the term.
In theory, the plans and fighter brandings might seem compatible. In practice they aren’t.
By presenting so many specific plans to fix so many complex problems, Warren unintentionally styled herself, less as a fighter, and more of an egg head professor. That was part of a perception problem exacerbated, like much else in the campaign, by gendered stereotypes.
5. Appealing to unity
As the field narrowed, and voters vacillated over the decision, two camps took root in the party. One held that Democrats needed to nominate someone welcoming to independents and centrists; the other, that they needed to nominate someone who energized the left.
Warren had all along positioned herself as the candidate who could do both. Her background and populism appeals to the middle of the middle class. Her policies make her a hero to progressives.
That positioning became more explicit over the course of the campaign. Democrats turned a deaf ear to it.
Instead, they chose sides. One side chose Bernie Sanders, knowing he is anathema to the centrists; the other side chose Joe Biden, knowing that young progressives disdain him. Both groups seem more interested in telling the other to get over themselves and get with the program, than in offering to clasp hands and find a mutually acceptable candidate.
The unity strategy also deprived Warren of something important: a foe.
Warren is at her very best when pitted against a foil. It’s how she brought down Scott Brown. It’s why her grilling of witnesses in Senate hearings get millions of YouTube views. It also demonstrates in action the “fighting for you” message.
But she couldn’t train her fire on her fellow candidates, while simultaneously pursuing the unity path. She had to instead treat Sanders, as well as the centrist candidates, respectfully to avoid alienating either side.
As a result, her foes were all off-stage, metaphorically and, during the debates, literally: Trump, bankers, unnamed corrupt politicians, and the like.
The difference was illustrated starkly when she received the gift of a ready-made foe in the form of Michael Bloomberg. Like Popeye downing his spinach, Warren transformed at the multi-billionaire’s appearance. She brutalized him on the debate stage, showing the dexterity and savagery that Democrats dreamed of unleashing on Trump.
It lifted her back into the conversation, but was too late to open a path to victory.
Like everything else in the course of the campaign, the unity strategy will be picked over and second-guessed for years to come. That’s the nature of failed presidential campaigns — which, In the end, Warren’s became.