Things are looking good for Elizabeth Warren right now: she has been rising steadily in the polls and now leads Joe Biden in Iowa by two percentage points—the first time she’s polled ahead of the former vice president in the state. She’s been drawing massive crowds, from New York City to Iowa City, and is now seen by Democratic primary voters as just as likely as Biden to defeat Donald Trump in the general election.
Warren is surging and resonating with voters, and is running on policies that voters generally really like. But for some reason, some members of the political press—largely white men, coincidentally—continue to raise tired questions about her “electability,” which as I’ve written before, is just a reworking of the old “likability” question that dogged Hillary Clinton. “Electability” has become the new heavily gendered code-word for the belief that white men with supposed broad-based appeal (cough Joe Biden cough) are the only ones who can win elections.
Take this recent Jonathan Chait piece at New York magazine, titled “How Electable Is Elizabeth Warren, Anyway?” which featured this extremely dumb analogy:
That doesn’t mean you can’t take it into account anyway; professional sports teams can’t know in advance which players will be stars, but it’s still worth scouting them and trying to select the prospects with the best chances. It would be stupid to decide that since No. 1 picks sometimes turn into busts, and undrafted nobodies develop into stars, you might as well just pick a prospect who seems cool.
Chait goes on to dissect her chances, which in his mind require her to moderate her progressive stances. (Despite, again, these being broadly popular ideas.) “At the moment, I’d feel very nervous betting the future of American democracy on Warren’s ability to defeat Trump,” he concluded. He then added, through gritted teeth I imagine, “But a lot can change in a year, and it’s not hard to imagine the Warren of 2020 as a potent challenger.” His advice—for her to moderate the exact aspects of her campaign that are making her so appealing and, dare I say it, electable—neatly sums up one of the core problems of seeing Warren’s campaign through the lens of “electability”—it assumes the only path to victory is through the middle.
But Chait is not the only one who has cast doubt on Warren’s electability in this way. According to the New York Times opinion columnist David Leonhardt, Warren has a “working-class problem,” which is only a problem if one thinks “working class” means “white.” Warren needs to, Leonhardt wrote, “win back working-class voters who swung to Donald Trump in 2016” and not, as others have persuasively argued, energize the Democratic base and build on it. Warren’s ability to win these Trump voters back is now the new reason she’s not “electable.”
Recently, Axios conducted an extremely small focus group of nine women swing voters from Appleton, Wisconsin—seven who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after previously voting for Obama, and two who cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton after backing Mitt Romney. “I like what she had to say, but I still think she’s—sorry—a bitch,” said a 56-year-old Trump supporter. Another added, “Warren won’t be looked upon as a leader because she’ll be presiding over a House and Senate full of men. I’m worried she won’t be taken seriously.” Wisconsin is a state that Warren has yet to campaign in—and if her rise in states like Iowa where she has made significant inroads points to anything, it’s to her ability to win people to her side once they actually hear from her. But according to Axios, “These voters’ comments about Warren’s ability to serve as president reflected the doubts that some people have about women in leadership—even when they’re framed as concerns about what other people will think.”
When she entered the race, Warren was initially cast as lacking in charisma, as too wonkish, as an elitist—all coded sexist critiques. And it’s clear pundits are desperate to hold onto this narrative, no matter how much traction she gains with voters. It’s almost as if the problem is the men dictating the kinds of political narratives we read, not Warren’s “electability.”