At her rally in Des Moines on the night of the Iowa caucuses, Elizabeth Warren preached a message of persistence.
“Throughout our history, when moments of crisis have called on us to meet big challenges, Americans have answered the call,” Warren said to the admiring audience. “Even when the doubters and critics say that our dreams are too big and the fights are too hard, we persist.”
Warren has made persistence a selling point of her campaign, underscoring her steep trajectory starting from being a single mother who dropped out of community college to becoming a Harvard professor and senator.
But her presidential campaign might now be faced with its most difficult test yet: recovering after underwhelming showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Warren topped polls in Iowa for much of the fall, and she was widely regarded as having the best field organization in the state, but her fellow progressive candidate Bernie Sanders received 12 of the 41 pledged delegates available, compared to Warren’s eight. Sanders finished neck-and-neck with former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who received 14 pledged delegates, while Warren trailed the two frontrunners at a distance.
This showing underwhelmed many political commentators, including David Axelrod, Democratic strategist and founder of UChicago’s Institute of Politics. Axelrod told The New York Times that Warren “underperformed” and added that “a second week of disappointing results could have a dire impact on money moving forward” in reference to the following week’s New Hampshire primaries.
But New Hampshire proved not to be the silver bullet many Warren supporters were hoping for. After consistently polling in double digits in the state during the months leading up to the primary, Warren garnered a mere 9 percent of the vote, coming away with none of New Hampshire’s 24 delegates.
Her campaign acknowledged that her performance in New Hampshire was disappointing. “Let’s face it,” the campaign wrote in a fundraising email sent the morning after the primary. “Last night didn’t go the way we wanted it to go.”
But to many of Warren’s supporters and staffers, her shot at the presidency is far from lost. Her campaign manager, Robert Lau, published a Medium article casting the race as open and noting that 98 percent of pledged delegates were still up for grabs after New Hampshire.
“No candidate has come close yet to receiving majority support among the Democratic primary electorate, and there is no candidate that has yet shown the ability to consolidate support,” Lau wrote.
Why Not Warren?
However, the disparity between Warren’s projected and actual performance remains, and observers at UChicago who campaigned for her are trying to make sense of her recent loss of momentum.
Audrey Glaser, a master’s student and organizer for Warren, spent the weekend before the caucuses knocking on doors for Warren in the cold and snowy Des Moines, Iowa.
Glaser said that voters had a wide range of reasons for which they were hesitant to “go all in” for Warren: her progressive politics, preferring another candidate, or sheer indecision. But many responses traced back to an idea that has been haunting the senator’s campaign since its genesis: the “E-word.”
“I’m hearing electability concerns,” Glaser said. “People feel a lot of responsibility to pick the strongest candidate against Trump and the Republican machine. Some of that has to do with her being a little left of the rest of the field, some of that has to do with her being a woman.”
In response to these concerns, Glaser often emphasizes Warren’s winning record.
“One strong point to bring up is that the only candidate in this field to win against a state-wide Republican incumbent has been Elizabeth,” Glaser said, referencing Warren's claim in a January debate that she is the only candidate to have done so in the past 30 years. Sanders won against an incumbent Republican in a statewide race in 1990, which is also within 30 years before the debate.
In an interview with The Maroon about the discussion surrounding electability, Linda Zerilli, professor of political science and gender and sexuality studies, said that Warren has been hurt by the gendered aspects of electability and that voters should be mindful of double standards based on categories such as a candidate’s gender or race.
An “Electable” Alternative?
Some other voters on campus primarily concerned with electability have opted for other candidates over Warren.
Adam Sachs, a first-year political science major, recently made his first-ever campaign donation on the basis of “electability.” His candidate of choice? Joe Biden.
Sachs hasn’t always been a Biden supporter; he was initially a Kamala Harris supporter, and last summer, he knocked on doors for the Buttigieg campaign.
Although Sachs has major concerns about the former vice president, he hopes that Biden will regain his position as the race’s frontrunner.
One main reason for Sachs’s change of heart was his consideration of “how the average voter in a swing state” will vote and the candidate’s appeal to minority communities.
“The polling in this cycle has shown that he’s really connecting to African-American voters in those critical [swing] states,” Sachs said. He’s connecting more effectively to African-American voters than Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren, or Mayor Pete [Buttigieg].”
While Sachs views Warren favorably—“I really like Warren, and I wish she was doing better”—he believes that her progressive policies rule her out for many voters.
“I think that her struggle going forward, trying to convince voters through Super Tuesday, is her policies,” Sachs said, adding that her platform has been criticized as “too liberal.”
Even now, Sachs said that he’s “not totally convinced” he’s going to vote for Biden during the Super Tuesday primaries in his home state of Virginia, and he says he will support any Democratic candidate. Still, he believes that Biden has a broad appeal that can attract voters of many political stripes.
“I feel like [Biden] is mainstream, middle-of-the-road, admired by people on both sides of the aisle, and moderates and progressives in the Democratic party,” he said. “I think that he will be able to unite the country.”
The Future of the Campaign
In spite of many doubts now clouding the Warren campaign, Michael Ryter, a second-year in the College who co-chairs UChicago for Warren, sees a future for her candidacy.
“I’m optimistic. We’ve had two states go, and we still have 55 states and territories left,” he said. “There’s plenty of time for improvement.”
Ryter views Warren as a candidate whose ability to unite people from diverse backgrounds will be showcased on Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states hold their primary elections.
“Her message of big, structural change resonates around the country…. She has a broad coalition that’s going to support her on Super Tuesday, even if she didn’t win in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Ryter said.
When asked whether he was considering supporting other candidates, Ryter answered point-blank: “Absolutely not.”
“I’m committed to Elizabeth and I believe in her ability to win. You don’t get what you don’t fight for.”
Correction on Feb. 21, 2020, 9:48 a.m. CST:
This article originally stated that Elizabeth Warren's claim at a January debate, that she is the only candidate to have won against an incumbent Republican in a state-wide race in the past 30 years, is a fact. It has been updated to clarify that this was a claim and that Bernie Sanders has also won against an incumbent Republican during that period.