Why didn’t Elizabeth Warren do better?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks after suspending her 2020 Democratic presidential campaign.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 presidential race Thursday, ending a once front-running bid that never achieved its sky-high potential once voting actually began.

“I refuse to let disappointment blind me — or you — to what we’ve accomplished,” Warren told her campaign staff on a conference call Thursday morning. “We didn’t reach our goal, but what we have done together — what you have done — has made a lasting difference. It’s not the scale of the difference we wanted to make, but it matters. And the changes will have ripples for years to come.”

Warren’s decision to leave the race came after a series of disappointing finishes. She placed third in the Iowa caucuses and fourth in the New Hampshire primary. She was fourth again in Nevada and fifth again in South Carolina. Super Tuesday was also a major disappointment; Warren didn’t win a single state and placed third in her home state of Massachusetts.

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After such a series of disappointing showings, the only question after Super Tuesday was when Warren would get out. (The only other question was, would Warren endorse anyone on the way out; she did not.)

But with the logistics of when/how Warren will end her campaign now out of the way, a bigger question arises: Why didn’t she do better?

After all, as recently as the early fall of 2019, Warren was among the favorites — if not the favorite — for the nomination. And yet she won zero states and left the race with just 37 delegates.

Answering the “what happened” question is never a simple thing. Voters make up their minds for lots of different reasons — some of which they are willing to articulate and some they simply won’t. But generally speaking, there seem to be three reasons why Warren didn’t get to where she wanted to go. (These are in no particular order.)

1) She peaked too soon: If the Iowa caucuses were October 3, Warren could have won going away. National polling around that time captures Warren’s summer and early fall surge. On October 8, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, Warren actually passed former Vice President Joe Biden. But that was the high point for Warren. She never went any higher, watching as her support dropped both nationally and in key early states like Iowa and New Hampshire as the actual votes neared.

That decline led to Warren looking like a bad bet or a risky stock in the eyes of lots of voters. And people — all people — like to be for a winner, or at least someone who they think has a realistic chance to win. When votes started to be cast, that wasn’t Warren.

2) She tried to be more than just a liberal: In announcing her decision to get out, Warren made clear that she was told at the start of the race that there was an incumbent in the liberal lane (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders) and an incumbent in the moderate lane (Biden). And that there were only two lanes to run in. Warren had said she believed that analysis was wrong, but in the end, she said Thursday that she turned out to be wrong. Voters in the two lanes of the Democratic Party have now coalesced around Biden in the center and Sanders on the left.

You can track Warren’s slide in polling relatively directly to her decision to kind of, sort of walk away from her previously full-throated support for “Medicare for All,” a program that Sanders has long championed that would eliminate the private health insurance industry entirely in favor of a government-run plan. After struggling for weeks to answer her critics’ questions about whether she fully backed Sanders’ plan and how she would fund it, Warren released her own detailed plan that tried to find a middle ground between Sanders and Biden on the issue.

It failed — angering liberals who thought she was walking away from her principles in hopes of appearing more attractive to general election voters and not satisfying more moderate voters who still thought the plan went too far.

3) Sexism: This is an indisputable fact: We have had 44 presidents and not one of them has been a woman. Coincidence? Probably not. How much did the fact that Warren is a woman and ran on an unapologetically feminist platform for president affect the outcome? It’s almost impossible to know, but it’s equally impossible to think it had no role in how voters perceived her.

Asked about the role her gender played in the race on Thursday, Warren responded this way:

“That is the trap question for every woman. If you say yeah, there was sexism in this race, everyone says, ‘Whiner.’ And if you say no, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?'”

She added that she would “have a lot more to say on that subject later on.”

Again, how much each of these factors played into Warren’s inability to turn her momentum over the summer into actual votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond is very difficult to say. But there’s little doubt that each of them were part of voters’ calculations as they decided who to be for — and who not be for — by the time votes actually happened.

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