Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) announced today that she is dropping out of the presidential race. Warren ran on a platform of arch-technocratic progressivism coupled with identity politics, and her steady release of proposals drove much of the race's policy discussion.
But after briefly rising to the top of the polls last fall, Warren's campaign fell into a steady decline; she failed to expand her appeal beyond a core group of highly educated upper-middle-class voters. If elected, Warren promised to be a president who had mastered both the minutiae of governance and the social habits and language of the liberal elite. Her failure is a reminder that even Democratic voters don't want a woke policy wonk in the White House.
On the campaign trail, Warren called for trillions of dollars in new government spending on education and climate change, massive regulatory interventions into the structure and operations of large technology companies, criminal penalties for spreading voting disinformation online, and a radical revamp of corporate governance.
Although she distinguished herself from the explicit socialism of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), her closest rival, by insisting that she was a capitalist "to her bones," Warren never really demonstrated much fondness for markets. More often than not, she appeared to view them as an inherently corrupt system that required aggressive management from an enlightened expert class. Warren was a capitalist who hated capitalism.
No policy represented this worldview more than her wealth tax, a two-percent tax on households worth above $50 million, with an additional surcharge of 3 percent (later raised to 6 percent) on households worth more than $1 billion. Warren advertised the proposal as a fair, straightforward way to raise approximately $2.75 trillion tax revenue to pay for her education plans. All she wanted, she said, was for the very wealthy to pay a simple two-cent tax.
But behind the scenes, the tax was hardly simple: It would require the government to accurately value unique assets, an inherently complex task that would require a giant new tax collection infrastructure. The revenue estimates drew intense criticism from economists across the ideological spectrum, including former Obama administration adviser Lawrence Summers, who argued that it would not raise nearly as much money as Warren expected, leading to shortfalls and deficits. Other analysts warned that, over time, the bulk of the tax burden would fall on workers in the form of lost jobs and wages. And Warren's supporters made little effort to hide the idea that the tax was primarily punitive, designed as much to degrade fortunes as to raise revenue.
It was health care, however, that sent Warren's campaign into its eventual death spiral. After endorsing Sanders' Medicare for All plan, a government-run system that would eliminate virtually all private insurance in four years, Warren was repeatedly pressed on the question of how to pay for the more than $30 trillion in estimated new government spending the idea would require.
Initially, Warren hedged in ways that made it obvious she was avoiding the question and had merely hoped to bandwagon with Sanders, peeling off some of his voters without taking full ownership of the issue herself.
Eventually, she released a plan that was simultaneously convoluted to the point of being unworkable and bad on the merits. After significant criticism, Warren released a second plan that called for implementing Medicare for All, a difficult political task in the most promising of circumstances, several years into her presidency. It was a tacit admission that she wouldn't pursue single-payer health care at all.
Warren's have-it-both-ways approach had become a trap. Voters who didn't want Medicare for All believed she was for it; voters who did believed she wasn't genuinely invested in the issue. In a race that often revolved around health care policy, Warren had put herself in a no-win position.
As her polling dipped, Warren ended up in a separate fight with Sanders over a years-old conversation in which Warren claimed that Sanders said a woman couldn't win the presidency. Sanders denied ever having said such a thing, and in a debate-stage conversation, Warren accused Sanders of having called her a liar. The squabble appeared to backfire on Warren. As Reason's Matt Welch wrote, "By leaking a private conversation with Sanders in a not-particularly-convincing attempt to make him look possibly sexist, Warren's campaign is engaging in the same kind of bad-faith word-policing that so many voters find off-putting."
By the time voting started, Warren had slipped noticeably in the polls. She finished third in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire and Nevada, and fifth in South Carolina. On Super Tuesday, Warren not only failed to win a single state; she finished behind both Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden in her home state of Massachusetts.
Tonight, in her home state of Massachusetts, exit polling shows Elizabeth Warren:
- lost women to Biden by 10 points
- lost "very liberal" voters to Sanders by 7 points
- lost college + voters to Biden by 5 points
- lost M4A supports to Sanders by 14 points
— Tim Alberta (@TimAlberta) March 4, 2020
Warren won a high-profile dual endorsement from The New York Times, along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Mass.). But the Times endorsement was itself representative of the problems that plagued her campaign. Her strongest appeal was to the sort of people who write for The New York Times—highly educated, left-leaning, career-driven meritocrats who place a high-value on technocratic mastery. But even the Times editorial board couldn't bring itself to exclusively endorse her. The dual endorsement seemed to suggest that she was a fine candidate—but not obviously the best one.
Warren's weak performance made clear that her theory of the race was flawed: Both her strategy (to peel off persuadable Sanders voters while maintaining a nominal appeal to moderates) and her tactics (selective leaks against Sanders, Medicare for All two-stepping) weren't working. It's probably no surprise that voters concluded they didn't want Warren, the plan-for-everything candidate, when her actual campaign didn't go according to plan.