In early October, Elizabeth Warren hit her stride. Her stock in the Democratic primary had been climbing steadily since midsummer, and as Joe Biden continued to lag, the Massachusetts senator became the first presidential hopeful to overtake him as front-runner in the RealClearPolitics polling average.
She’s been in free fall ever since.
Warren now sits at just 14.8 percent in the RCP average, in third place behind Bernie Sanders, with about half the support Biden has. The former vice president has lost a step or two (or several) since his time as Obama’s right-hand man, but it’s looking less and less likely that Warren will be the Democrat to supplant him as the party’s favorite heading into 2020’s early primaries.
For media observers who have been pulling for Warren from the start of her campaign, there can be only one plausible explanation for her fall from grace: sexism.
On November 10, after Biden attacked Warren’s Medicare for All plan and her campaign shot back, saying the former vice president was using GOP talking points against her, Biden released a statement saying Warren’s response was reflective of an “angry unyielding viewpoint.” Warren’s defenders have latched on to the phrase as evidence that Biden — along with voters who have declined to back Warren — is guilty of sexism.
“The Sexism Is Getting Sneakier” was the headline of one article in the Atlantic on the subject, in which the author mused:
Anger, rendered as a criticism . . . is a targeted missile, seeking the spaces in the American mind that still assume there is something unseemly about an angry woman. It is attempting to tap into the dark and ugly history in which the anger displayed by a woman is assumed to compromise her—to render her unattractive precisely because the anger makes her uncontrollable.
The Washington Post’s analysis of the incident ran under the headline “Is Elizabeth Warren ‘angry’ and antagonistic? Or are rivals dabbling in gendered criticism?” The authors suggested that charges against Warren “get at something far beyond her policy positions, and into one of the most fraught areas for a female candidate: Is she likable?”
The New York Times report noted that “by calling Warren’s approach ‘condescending,’ ‘angry’ and elitist, Biden and his allies are making a risky case against a female candidate.” An opinion article in Essence magazine put it much more bluntly: “Only Sexist Men Take Issue with Elizabeth Warren’s Justified Anger.”
Though Warren brushed off questions about Biden’s use of “angry,” she seems more than willing to use rhetoric about sexism to her advantage. When Kamala Harris exited the race in early December, Warren’s campaign took the occasion to send a fundraising email reading, “Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand — two women senators who, together, won more than 11.5 million votes in their last elections — have been forced out of this race, while billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg have been allowed to buy their way in.”
It turns out that Warren supporters were laying the groundwork to defend her with an argument about pervasive sexism even before her rise and fall. “‘A Woman, Just Not That Woman’: How Sexism Plays Out on the Trail” was the headline of a Times piece in February. “Reluctance to support female candidates is apparent in the language that voters frequently use to describe men and women running for office; in the qualities that voters say they seek; and in the perceived flaws that voters say they are willing or unwilling to overlook in candidates,” the author asserted.
“Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton and the sexist hypocrisy of the ‘likability’ media narrative. Here we go again” was the contribution from an NBC News opinion article, which claimed that only female candidates are subjected to criticism of their appearance and tone. In September, a Democratic strategist said that supporting Sanders over Warren is “showing your sexism.”
But if sexism really were to blame, why would Warren have spent several months as the race’s second front-runner, in close contention with Biden? What few on the left appear to have considered is the possibility that Warren’s policy positions and recent blunders bear the most responsibility for her declining popularity.
Over the last several months, Warren has stumbled — and not because voters discovered she’s a woman.
There was this report puncturing her narrative about having faced pregnancy discrimination. There was her false response to a question about whether her children had ever attended private school. And there was her repeated refusal, during the last debate before her Medicare for All rollout, to say whether her plan would raise taxes on the middle class, along with her subsequent falsehood that it would not.
But the best explanation for Warren’s decline is her Medicare for All plan itself, and her drop in the polls is clearly correlated with its rollout. As recently as October 22, Warren trailed Biden in the RCP average by about four points. The week following her Medicare for All debut, she had dropped nearly ten points behind him. By mid November, she had fallen into third place behind Sanders, and she hasn’t recovered her second-place standing since.
Finally, if sexism were responsible for the bulk of Warren’s woes, the polling data would make little sense. In the most recent Quinnipiac poll, for example, 23 percent of women said they preferred Biden, while 16 percent favored Warren. A recent poll from The Hill/HarrisX found a similar situation: Thirty-three percent of female respondents chose Biden, 16 percent chose Sanders, and only 10 percent chose Warren.
To claim that Warren’s collapse is the result of sexism, her defenders would have to excuse her obvious missteps and insist that women fail to embrace female candidates due to “internalized misogyny.” And, of course, they’re all too happy to do just that.