Morning broke on Monday, and, with the news that Pete Buttigieg has dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary, it apparently became smart to say that the race is now between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden and no one else. Here’s a dissenting view: That’s absurd! Forty-six states have yet to vote, including the 22 most populous states; 96.1 percent(!) of the convention delegates that Democrats will vote to award remain unawarded. As Biden’s performance in South Carolina shows, a candidate’s narrative momentum can be reversed in a single day. No one is out of the race until they are out of the race.
One of the other people who are still in the race, fatalistic over-extrapolation of very recent trends aside, is Elizabeth Warren. If you are a Democrat and polls are correct, you would probably be OK with her becoming the nominee. It might also be relevant to you that she’s not a nearly 80-year-old man who has recently experienced heart problems, evident cognitive decline, or being embarrassed by Elizabeth Warren on national television. So why not vote for her—which, again, if polls and on-the-ground reporting are correct, is probably something you’ve already considered doing?
That this feels like a contrarian thing to suggest—voting for the famously well-prepared presidential candidate to be president, as a hot take—gets at Warren’s weird status as a public figure. Since she came to prominence in the Obama years, her real reputation and identity haven’t changed at all, as far as most Democrats are concerned: She’s an advocate for public accountability and an enemy of unethical corporate executives. More or less via force of will alone, she—as a private citizen!—created an entire new arm of the government that protects consumers and borrowers and helped make sure that the Troubled Asset Relief Program (i.e., the bank bailout) wasn’t a boondoggle. As a senator, she shamed the rest of the government into holding Wells Fargo accountable for some of its many crimes. As a candidate, she has laid out ambitious but practically achievable ideas for a department of “public integrity” and a system of day care subsidies, just to name two of many.
Despite this consistency, her candidacy has been a roller coaster—not of accomplishments and defeats, or of sudden shifts in positions and style, but of meta-indecisiveness regarding her perceived potential strength in an election that is still eight months off. In a race that has been defined by voters changing their minds about who could best persuade other voters to vote against Donald Trump, she has been extra-volatile.
For years before she even entered the race and for months thereafter, there was concern that Trump would caricature and destroy Warren by belittling her past claims of Native American ancestry, or that she would be perceived as too leftist, angry, or nonmale for the general electorate. So despite being one of her party’s most well-known, enthusiasm-inspiring figures, she launched her campaign with little support from her peers, and her poll numbers stayed in the single digits for months.
From summer through early fall of 2019, though, she rose steadily to become a front-runner. This “surge” coincided with a heap of positive if backhanded profiles that basically asked why she wasn’t doing better, given how appealing her platform seemed to be and how evident her level of competence was. Why not support Warren, the media asked, and voters, as if embarrassed that they couldn’t think of a good reason, started doing it. For a while, her nerdy enthusiasm became cause for affection rather than charisma-related concern, and her tenaciousness became an asset for taking on Trump rather than a “shrill” thing. Her age and gender turned into attributes that would help seal a connection with rank-and-file female voters.
But when Warren’s advocacy of single-payer health care got hammered in debates and ads, her support dropped once again. According to voter interviews and polls, it was not necessarily single payer itself that was the problem—exit polls in each of the four states that have voted so far have found majority-or-greater support for “Medicare for All” among Democrats—but the perception that her stance on the issue made her too polarizing for other people.
Her careful, defensive debate performances and introduction of a hedged phase-in M4A plan succeeded only in helping other candidates. Sanders got a bump among voters who aren’t worried about how polarizing his agenda may be. On the other end, Pete Buttigieg—who’d done a full heel turn away from his own support of Medicare for All to describe it as an attack on freedom—and Amy Klobuchar picked up Warren supporters with messages of inclusion and compromise that were as much responses to Warren’s popularity (especially in Buttigieg’s case) as they were authentic original positions. Michael Bloomberg swept into the picture on a wave of money, voter panic, and the perception that an omni-capable no-nonsense persona would provide the best possible contrast with Trump.
Then, in Las Vegas, Warren showed everyone what being capable and nonsense-averse can look like in the heat of a campaign. It was probably the best single performance by any candidate in any of the 11,000 debates that have been held, and in another indication of her campaign’s solid fundamentals, it helped her raise nearly $3 million from small donors in a day. But she lost Nevada badly, got nowhere in South Carolina, and is fourth in national polls. There’s a clear front-runner (Sanders) and a clear challenger (Biden). So the morning before Super Tuesday, the take writers assume that it’s too late to bother voting for her. Her time has passed. Right?
Or maybe it’s just time to ask this: Which Democrat would one most want as president making decisions about, let’s say, how to handle a viral pandemic? The 78-year-old to whom the big picture is more important than the details, or the 77-year-old who literally cannot remember details any longer? Or the person whose entire thing is being prepared to handle complicated problems?
Maybe you think Bernie Sanders’ broad message and proven power to inspire young voters are what the next president most needs to guide the nation with confidence into a more humane future. Maybe you sincerely believe Joe Biden’s commitment to positivity and his long-standing institutional connections are essential to stabilize and rebuild a collapsing political system. Great! Those aren’t terrible reasons to make your choice, all things considered, if you want to choose those particular people. But if you believe Warren would do the best job of leading the country through its multiple interlocking crises, you still have the chance to give her that job.
Don’t end up like this guy whom Slate’s Jeremy Stahl interviewed in Nevada:
Gustav Lukban and Carmelita Lukban, who sat in the back of the five-sixths empty outdoor amphitheater, both had already caucused early. They had voted for Buttigieg, with Warren as their second choice. “It was pretty close,” Gustav said. “I kind of second-guessed myself after I went with Pete. I was thinking, ‘Warren really was my first choice,’ but at the last minute I switched.”
Gustav Lukban voted for a candidate who dropped out before 96 percent of the votes were counted because he’d become convinced that that candidate was more likely to win than the one he wished would win. That is a self-checkmate. Gustav Lukban played himself.
Don’t play yourself! If other people don’t like the candidate you like, let them vote that way on their own time. It’s still too early to give anyone else control over your vote. Aspire to full participation in a political system where whatever the most people ask for is what they get. A democracy, if you will. Will you?
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