I’ll never forget the first time I saw Elizabeth Warren. It was in Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit, and the Era of Predatory Lenders, a 2006 documentary by James Scurlock that essentially predicted the soon-to-come financial crisis. In addition to devastating interviews with debt-ruined consumers, the film featured a number of well-known faces, including then–Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, Eliot Spitzer, and Robin Leach (of all people). But the breakout star of the film was Warren, a Harvard Law professor known at the time mostly for a few books about the shrinking middle class. Cambridge chic in a black turtleneck, tweed jacket, and no-nonsense pageboy haircut, Warren held forth animatedly about predatory lending practices and how borrowers in bankruptcy were actually credit card companies’ favorite customers. With her now-familiar speech inflection — call it a cross between exasperation and golly-gee bafflement — Warren was a little bit dorky. She was also totally captivating—by far the most memorable part of the film.
In 2009, the newly elected President Obama put Warren in charge of a startup agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a watchdog agency that Warren originally proposed in a 2007 article for the left-leaning quarterly Democracy Journal. As such (and because this was a time when the president of the United States read Democracy Journal and obscure agency heads appeared on television talk shows), Warren was a guest on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I recognized her immediately. “It’s that woman from Maxed Out!” I shouted.
I was watching the show that night with my mother. I remember saying something like, “Pay attention. This woman is going to be the next big thing.” But the interview was a little strange. Warren was stilted and unable to remember the name of the very initiative she was trying to explain. She would later write in her memoir that she was so nervous before the show that she threw up repeatedly, but at the time it seemed like she was being coy. In the end, Stewart gave her more time, and Warren saved herself with a cogent lesson on how deregulation led to the savings and loan crisis, but she still made for an unusual guest.
My mother was not impressed. She said something about Warren being too “cutesy,” which is a word she often used for glib. What I now think is that she was reacting to a certain folksiness Warren employs when she’s trying to put complicated ideas into terms most people can understand. It can sometimes sound like she’s teaching Sunday school, which she once did. Ever since her name began being bandied about as a potential candidate for president—there was much speculation that she’d run in 2016—I’ve worried that this slightly pedantic, sometimes almost cornpone manner would turn off various fence-sitters.
But here we are in 2019, and Warren’s manner seems to be working just fine. In fact, she seems on track to be the Democratic presidential nominee. She is now ahead of former front-runner Joe Biden in several polls, including a Quinnipiac survey showing Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters favoring Warren by two points. She was number one in polls in New Hampshire and Iowa last week, and an online survey conducted by the data analytics firm Civiqs showed that Warren would beat President Trump by four percentage points if the national election were held today.
Meanwhile, her rallies are getting bigger all the time, suggesting that Warren can put on just as good a show as Trump. Even Joe Walsh, the conservative talk radio host who’s making a long-shot Republican primary challenge, said on a Reason podcast last week that Warren was a “rock star” who “would destroy” Trump if she were the nominee. Presumably this was meant to suggest that he could beat Warren and therefore Republicans should put him on the Republican ticket instead of Trump, but it’s still a remarkable statement coming from a man who, shortly before the 2016 election, tweeted that he was voting for Trump, and, “If Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket.”
Warren came to our attention under the wonkiest of auspices, but she held our attention because she didn’t try to be anything other than what she was. Along the way, she managed to get her message across more powerfully than anyone could have imagined.
Despite all this momentum, there’s no getting past the question — one that is both perennially over-asked and unanswerable — that hangs over every candidate, but perhaps over Warren most of all: Is she electable?
Of course, the only way to know if any given candidate is electable is to see if they get elected. In Warren’s case, as in the case of anyone who’s not a white, heterosexual male, the question is also a reminder of how far we still have to go when it comes to trusting ourselves and our fellow citizens to vote out of hope and conviction rather than fear and resignation. That’s the basis of much of the present debate: Can we really elect a woman, especially one as far to the left as Warren? And given the stakes of this particular election, isn’t it reckless to do anything other than make the safe choice? On Friday, CNBC reported that several wealthy Democratic donors have quietly said they’ll withhold fundraising—or even support Trump—if Warren, whose platform revolves around wealth taxes and reining in Wall Street, becomes the nominee.
But in the current environment, who can even tell what the safe choice is? There are the new and ever-breaking developments surrounding Trump’s impeachment proceedings and potentially treasonous calls for Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s business affairs in exchange for military support. (Not that the phrase “potentially treasonous” has ever had more effect on the president than “bad hair.”) Biden, who’s made defeating Trump the centerpiece of his campaign, could stand to benefit from this mess — or he could be dragged into the muck of a smear battle with a cornered president and a ferocious, defensive right-wing press. The chaos of impeachment could make the Warren movement, with its calls to rebuild a broken system, all the more appealing — or it could drown out her efforts to define herself on the national stage.
A handful of experts I checked in with, while perhaps not quite as confident as Walsh about Warren’s chances in the ring against Trump, think Warren is poised to succeed if she just keeps doing what she’s doing. Moreover, no one seems to think Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 has much bearing on Warren’s chances. Christine Jahnke, a speech coach specializing in women executives, activists, and political figures, dismissed concerns about Warren’s “cutesiness,” along with the idea that she might fall victim to the sort of voice policing that saw Hillary Clinton accused of being “shrill” and “strident.”
“The quality of her voice doesn’t matter,” Jahnke said. “People don’t talk about Elizabeth Warren way they talked about Hillary. The power of her voice is the power of what she’s saying. She’s an amazing storyteller. She’s forthright. There’s an earnestness to her that speaks to her authenticity. To hear her say, ‘I’m not afraid’—that’s incredibly powerful.”
Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and author of the forthcoming book American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave, told me she thinks so much has changed over the past three years that the “woman problem” is off the table as well.
“The idea that a woman is not electable in this day and age, I say shame on anybody who makes such a claim,” Fisher said. “There are going to be some people who say they’re just not willing to support a woman. However, those people will be overshadowed by all the women who just can’t stand voting for Donald Trump. I think we’re going to see a lot of conservative women, women who voted for Trump in the last election and who may have to hold their nose on some of Elizabeth Warren’s policy positions, be willing to cast their vote for her because they just can’t support him now.”
It’s also worth noting that while Hillary Clinton’s momentum slowed in the months leading up to the 2016 election, Warren’s popularity, at least as a primary candidate, is on a steady uptick. Moreover, that popularity follows a very simple and reliable pattern: People like her the more they get to know her. Unlike Clinton, whose chief task in the likability department was to get voters to put aside their preconceptions and warm to her despite their past distaste, Warren can really only go in one direction, which is up. So far, that’s where she’s been going.
Fisher, who conducts much of her research by surveying liberals and progressives at political rallies, told me that in January of this year, when she collected data from a random sample of participants at the 2019 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., only 12% favored Warren. A few weeks ago, when she polled attendees at the September 20 climate strike rally in Washington, D.C., she found that 41% support Warren now. “She was head and shoulders above all the other candidates,” Fisher said. (And this was largely the same crowd; 47% of climate strikers also attended the 2019 Women’s March.) Fisher also noted that the median age of climate strikers was 22—many will be voting for the first time
“I’ve got pretty clear evidence here that at least among young people — and these are young people who are extremely civically engaged, who will be voting — they are not going to support Biden,” Fisher told me.
Another researcher, Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who studies political organizing and voting trends, pointed out another thing that’s changed in the past three years is Democratic organizing on the ground. In short, it’s better — much better. And while the advantage Democrats have now versus in 2016 is not specific to Warren, it’s key to understanding what might position her as competitively in the key swing state of Pennsylvania as someone like Biden, with his Scranton roots.
“By 2016, there was a really atrophied local infrastructure in all sorts of places where Democrats had traditionally relied on doing well,” Putnam said. This hurt voter turnout, along with campaign messaging and strategy. The Clinton campaign was working in an environment where there wasn’t enough local infrastructure for them to listen to and see the mistakes they were making. That won’t be the case anymore.
“There are more local campaigns and super-committed volunteers on the ground everywhere,” Putnam said. “The folks who turned out to vote in 2018 in Pennsylvania, and in swing states more broadly, had spectacularly high voter turnout from African American voters, from young voters, from Latinx voters… I don’t think there’s any reason to think that’s going to fall off in 2020.”
Okay, what about the Sunday school teacher factor? What about that glibness my mother was objecting to? A Catch-22 that many female candidates find themselves in is that being powerful usually correlates inversely with being likable, and being likable is one of the biggest things a candidate needs in order to win. If there’s any question the media likes to ask about female candidates more than “is she tough enough,” it’s “do people like her enough?” And even though a poll of Democrats conducted earlier this year actually found that Warren and her fellow candidate Kamala Harris were seen as more likable than Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, it turns out that bit of good news might not matter much in the end. A paper about likability and electability in women put out by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to gender equity in politics and elsewhere, has shown that voters will support a male candidate they don’t like as long as they think he’s qualified. Women candidates have to somehow be likable while also showing that they’re qualified. A key finding in the Barbara Lee Family Foundation study found that voters like women candidates who don’t take themselves too seriously.
This is disheartening, but maybe it also speaks to the poignancy, even portentousness, of that awkward Daily Show interview in 2009. Warren was kind of a mess, but she laughed at herself. She showed she was human. She also showed in the second half that she could pull it together in a big way. In other words, the arc of that interview foreshadowed the arc of her political career. She came to our attention under the wonkiest of auspices — head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, book her now! — but she held our attention because she didn’t try to be anything other than what she was. Along the way, Warren managed to get her message across more powerfully than anyone could have imagined back then.
“What people don’t realize is that Elizabeth Warren is a great orator,” Jahnke said. “She’s up there with Ann Richards and Oprah. I look forward to the day of seeing her up on the debate stage with Trump.”
My mother died at the end of 2009. She was ill when we were sitting there watching the Daily Show that night, which might have partly explained her sourness at Warren’s appearance. Though I’ve always considered it a bitter mercy that my mother didn’t live to see the election of Trump, which would have horrified her, I’m sad she’s not here to see what became of that green and bumbling Daily Show guest. There’s no knowing who’s electable right now. But there’s a comfort in knowing how far a person can get by being pretty much just entirely herself. If being yourself turns out to equal electability, Warren may make history in more ways than one.