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What Went Wrong for Elizabeth Warren

9 minute read

It was the night before Super Tuesday, and Elizabeth Warren was hanging in there. Bernie Sanders had just held a massive Los Angeles rally with Public Enemy, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar had just dropped out and endorsed Joe Biden, but Warren was doing what she always does: playing the same Motown-inspired soundtrack, handing out the same “Persist” signs, giving another speech that sounded like a history lecture.

The crowd at East Los Angeles College was large but muted, more like a jazz festival than rock concert. It was full of rational people attracted to a rational candidate. But they knew she may not be the rational choice. “It maybe more strategic to vote for Biden, but Warren has always been near and dear to my heart,” says Susan Kaplan, a 64-year old doctor. “It depends on whether I vote with my head or my heart.”

Six months ago, when this was all working, Warren was the candidate of the head as well as the heart. Back then, she was widely considered a Democratic frontrunner, and it all made sense: she was a solid progressive but not as radical as Sanders, a woman in a time of feminist uprising, a planner in a time of chaos. She rooted her big speeches in moments of women’s activism, kept things friendly with her rivals in the interests of party unity, and seemed to have a plan for everything. By the laws of logic, she seemed to be doing everything right.

But politics isn’t always logical, and just because something seems like it should work, doesn’t mean that it will. Some campaigns feel like watching a slow-motion car crash, others feel like watching a car drive into a ditch. Warren’s campaign began to seem like watching a car run out of gas in a traffic jam: no big catastrophe, but stalled nonetheless. Now, she’s heading into Super Tuesday with persistence but not momentum, with a plan to stick it out for the long haul even if she doesn’t come in first in any big state. Her campaign has made an art form out of explaining how she can win without winning.

Staffers attempt to project optimism and tamp down expectations at the same time. The Warren campaign raised more than $29 million in February, according to a memo from campaign manager Roger Lau, and spent more than $2.4 million on ads in Super Tuesday states. They seem to be betting on a divided field: “as the dust settles after March 3rd, the reality of this race will be clear,” Lau wrote. “No candidate will likely have a path to the majority of delegates needed to win an outright claim to the Democratic nomination.”

The campaign also recently got a boost from Persist PAC, which is spending more than $9 million to run ads for Warren in crucial states, making Warren the biggest beneficiary of super PAC money even though she has repeatedly condemned the practice. More importantly, Emily’s List, the powerful super PAC that backs women candidates nationwide, endorsed Warren March 2. “Elizabeth Warren is clearly the best candidate to unify the Democratic party after a long primary, generate excitement across the country, and take on Donald Trump,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in a statement.

In interviews with Democratic strategists, top progressive activists, allies and critics, nearly everyone agrees that Warren’s campaign faltered not through scandal or dysfunction, but because of a series of miscalculations and circumstances that conspired against her. She positioned herself just off Bernie’s right shoulder, which both failed to win his hardcore progressive base and alienated moderates who think she’s too far left. Her campaign hit a series of speedbumps in the last months of 2019 and early 2020 that slowed her down just as her opponents were taking off, and failed to correct course quickly enough to regain momentum. Her online defenders are quick to point out sexist double standards between the candidates, and the stench of bias that pervades some media coverage, but the fact remains: heading into Super Tuesday, Warren has not won a single state.

“The predicate of her campaign was that she would outperform Bernie and consolidate the left and then expand her base,” says veteran Democratic strategist David Axelrod. “And Bernie turned out to be both purer and more durable than anticipated.”

“She had an almost perfect campaign for 10 straight months,” says progressive strategist Rebecca Katz. “And then everyone just went at her.”

First, in October, progressive superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders following his heart attack, which gave the Sanders campaign a crucial boost right when they needed it. Warren’s path forward had always depended on peeling off wavering Sanders supporters, and Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement helped unify the Sanders movement and woo back progressives who might have defected to Warren. “It came at a time when he was being doubted, and she reassured people that he still had the magic,” says Axelrod. “We would not have the Bernie Sanders we have right now without Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” says Katz.

Then, in November, after months of positioning herself as the candidate of plans, Warren faced pressure to release a plan for how to pay for Medicare for All. “There was a pummeling from the left and center on Medicare For All, like ‘you’re the one who has plans, so what’s your plan for this?’” says Katz. “She was attacked for longer and more consistently in that period in the fall than any other candidate has been. At that point it was from all sides.”

When she finally released her Medicare for All plan, which included a “transition period” to “full Medicare for All,” nobody was satisfied. Hardcore progressives attacked the plan as insufficiently radical; moderates attacked it as unrealistic and expensive.

“To the Bernie base, anything that hints of compromise, incrementalism, is verboten,” says Axelrod. “They didn’t want to hear about Elizabeth’s transitional plan. I think that was the beginning of an unraveling, and Bernie doubled down.”

And then, in January, more speedbumps. She tussled with Sanders over conflicting recollections of a conversation about whether a woman could win the election, which inflamed the animosity of the Sanders base, and dominated the conversation after a crucial pre-Iowa debate. The impeachment hearings kept her in Washington during key weeks when she needed to be making her case to Iowa voters. The first caucus was disappointing: the Warren campaign had been organizing in Iowa for a year, yet came in a distant third behind South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sanders. New Hampshire was worse: the Massachusetts senator finished fourth in her neighboring state, behind Sanders, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar.

Some observers think the problem is tonal. While she and Sanders advocated for similar policies, her “big structural change” sounded much less exciting than his “political revolution.” And while Warren worked hard to build inroads with prominent activists and movement leaders (the so-called “grasstops,”) the rank-and-file “grassroots” of the progressive left stayed solidly with Sanders. Her speeches rooting her campaign in the women’s movement sometimes sound more like history lectures than barnburners. “She needed more of Betsy from Norman Oklahoma, and a little less Professor Warren from Cambridge,” says Axelrod.

“Pieces of her campaign really reminded me of Hillary, and it’s the policy piece,” says Jess Morales Rocketto, a progressive organizer who worked for Clinton in 2016 and has not endorsed a 2020 candidate. “I just don’t know that it gets people excited, I just don’t.” Adds Rocketto: “People want to be inspired, people want to have a rabid fan base, they want to part of something that feels way way bigger than themselves.”

Few of her allies expect Super Tuesday to be a big win for Warren, but many argue that a strong second-place finish in enough big states can keep her relevant. One close ally argued that if she can clear 150 delegates on Tuesday, she’ll still be a contender. Another pointed out that Warren attracted more attention when she went after Bloomberg in the Nevada debate, and that with fewer candidates on the debate stage, it will be easier for her to show her fighting spirit. “It’s easier to play whack-a-mole when there are only two moles to whack,” said one California strategist.

Others argued that the well-educated liberals who supported Buttigieg and the practical women voters who supported Klobuchar could drift to Warren, despite the Biden endorsements. “Warren from the beginning was the first or second choice for the most people, but that doesn’t help in a 20-person race, as much as it does in the vastly consolidated race that we’re now in,” says Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren. “Even if Amy and Pete personally endorse Joe Biden on ideological grounds, many of their supporters will gravitate in her direction.”

Warren is trailing Sanders and Biden in Super Tuesday polls everywhere except her home state of Massachusetts. But now that the race is a battle between Bernie Sanders on the left and Joe Biden in the center, a middle lane may be clearing between Biden’s status quo and Sanders’s revolution, even though that path is complicated by Mike Bloomberg and his billions of dollars.

In her speech in Los Angeles Monday night, Warren attempted to define her lane as compromise candidate for those who are unenthusiastic about Biden but wary of Sanders, “Now we find ourselves barreling toward another primary along the same lanes as 2016: one for an insider, one for an outsider,” she said. “Democratic voters should have more choice than that.”

“Voters deserve a choice of someone with unshakeable values who can also get things done, and bring all kinds of Democrats along with her,” she continued, speaking to a respectful crowd full of well-educated liberals at a local community college. “Voters deserve a choice of someone who can both do the work to transform our government from the inside and who can bring pressure to bear on government by leading a grassroots movement from the outside.”

The crowd listened. They clapped at all the appropriate times, cheered at all the right moments. It sounded like a plan that should work. That doesn’t mean it will.

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Write to Charlotte Alter / Los Angeles at charlotte.alter@time.com