On Likability, Electability, and Sexism: Looking at Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential Campaign

Democratic Party voters loved to imagine ‘President Warren,’ but they would not let Elizabeth Warren be a successful ‘Candidate Warren’; How the ‘I’ve got a plan for that’ strategy became a double-edged sword in Warren’s presidential race

Senator Elizabeth Warren, picture by Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Warren was perhaps the most competent candidate in the Democratic presidential race. She has an impressive record of accomplishments and achievements as an educator, policy leader, and politician. Very few politicians can boast such a resume.

Warren’s campaign was strong and energetic, and although she dropped out of the race, she fought hard and won big. She did not win all, but for feminist discourse and the generations of women looking up to her, she is a winner. Warren’s campaign had to fight in several arenas, some of them are political and ideological, and some are related to her gender. Unfortunately, being a woman candidate still draws patriarchal and misogynistic questions about her competence, likability, confidence, and strength.

The main challenges Warren had to overcome were the questions of her likability for voters, her electability, and her ideology, in comparison to her two biggest competitors: Senator Bernie Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden. Warren and Sanders competed on the progressive-liberal ticket, while Biden and Mayor Bloomberg competed on the moderate ticket. One of each could prevail during the primaries. Sanders won Warren’s progressives votes, and Biden won her potential moderate voters.

Warren’s main political challenge focused on her positions on Medicare for All and taxation, especially in contrast to Sanders’ progressive and Biden’s moderate worldviews. She tried to out win Sanders among the liberal audience but failed. Consequently, she alienated the moderate voters that, following Bloomberg’s exit, rallied around Biden.

Throughout the Democratic presidential race, the question of each candidate’s likelihood of defeating President Trump at the general elections has been constantly addressed as a pivotal axis to determine if they are ‘good enough’ to be nominated by the party. As the debates progressed, the question of electability has hovered over each candidate’s personal merit and accomplishments.

The question of electability is an intangible sentiment among the voters, like a gut feeling about ‘who would win.’ Regarding the electability question, Warren and Amy Klobuchar were being held to a higher standard than the men running for president. While the men were automatically assumed to be qualified, Warren and Klobuchar had to prove that they are qualified over and over again. As the race progressed, the question of which candidate could defeat Trump became more critical, following the growing sense of emergency among the Democratic party. Simply put, this is not the time to play ‘plans and strategy,’ this is the time for the leader to shine.

Among the four frontrunners, Biden enjoys his reputation as the Vice President and his bromance with President Obama, and he is considered as capable; Sanders enjoys a reputation of a visionary-socialist-ideological leader with many young enthusiastic followers; and Mayor Bloomberg enjoyed his wealth and accomplishments in business and philanthropy, which transcend his capability. President Trump, whom their electability is measured against, has long enjoyed a halo of nostalgia for the American values through the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan and his image as able to speak the truth ‘as is’ to power. Warren’s forte is her professional and political experience and her meticulous and detailed plans to solve many of America’s problems.

Warren’s challenge was to transform her image to become not just the most capable and experienced candidate, but also the leader for these urgent times for Americans in general and the Democratic party specifically. The leader that is not only ready to defeat Trump but who can actually do it. Her electability challenge was not just her gender or policy, but also transforming her brand from a capable administrator and influential senator to that of an ‘all American leader’ who can beat Trump and win the general election.

Warren’s unofficial slogan, ‘I’ve got a plan for that,’ was strong and catchy. It immediately highlighted her distinct and deep understanding of and familiarity with the American administration and the problems that need to be solved. Her campaign highlighted her effective and competent ideas for social and political change. In the beginning, this strategy proved to be very effective. When the primary voting started, she was skyrocketing.

Warren’s capability, experience, and broad understanding moved her candidacy forward because the voters’ sentiment was responsive and flexible. The Democratic discourse was focused more on the issues and worldviews, than on the actual elections.

Once the nationally televised debates started, Warren’s ‘I’ve got a plan for that’ theme became a double-edged sword. It highlighted her capability and understanding, but at the same time, it highlighted her role as an achiever, a go-getter. This is a positive and constructive attribute, but it is not the right one for the Democratic sentiment and discourse during the primaries.

The ‘I’ve got a plan for that’ achiever image was brilliant for putting Warren on stage as an equal, but it was not useful for elevating her brand to become the leader to defeat Trump. She was kept at the administrator/senator level and did not move out of it to become the chief when the Democratic audience was looking for one. As the question of electability became more prominent, Warren’s ‘I’ve got a plan for that’ did not answer it directly. The voters were not considering Warren’s capability anymore, but her chances of defeating Trump, and they compared them to Sanders’ and Biden’s chances. Her fierce response to Michael Bloomberg at the Las Vegas debate was a good example of strengthening her role as a leader that can deliver a promise and not just a plan. Unfortunately, it was too late to strengthen her image. Simply put, everyone loved to imagine ‘President Warren’ but could not see her crossing the turbulent water of getting to the White House.

Usually, it is hard to spot direct sexism, as the expressions of bias towards women can be very subtle and implicit. Also, understanding this bias is bounded in cultural views and norms that are not necessarily shared by all.

For Elizabeth Warren, the mere reflection on this subject is challenging, as Warren pointed out in her short message suspending the race:

“that is the trap question for everyone. If you say, yeah, there was sexism in this race, everyone says ‘whiner,’ and if you say no, there was no sexism about a bazillion women think what planet do you live on.”

I’m sure Senator Warren will have a lot to say about the sexism she felt during the race, as she promised. In the meantime, we can see the double standard and sexism in the constant public demand from Warren to explain her plans in the utmost detail, which her male contenders never faced. The insistence on looking for the cracks within her vision became more obvious as her role as a frontrunner became stronger. It seemed as if the media and the public discourse have assumed that only Warren’s chances to become a good president are determined by her plans’ details, unlike her rivals. The rest of the candidates were analyzed and judged by their overall image and idealism, and much less by the details of their vision.

This kind of sexism is not an example of the belligerent sexism behind campaign ads such as ‘who would you like to answer the phone at 3 am.’ These ads stress the misogynistic concept that women are indecisive, confused, and helpless when confronting a real threat. Warren’s case is a kind of sexism that judges a smart, capable, and successful woman by different and stricter standards.

Another layer of sexism that Warren has faced was the question of her presumable likability. Simply put, the level of affection and fondness the audience will feel toward her. This subject has always been a challenge for women. It is quite a common cultural idea that women should be likable, delicate, polite, and well mannered. Often, a woman who expresses anger or discontent is considered aggressive, while a man expressing anger is thought to be forceful and powerful. Beyond the cultural norms that wish to tame women to become obedient and coy, is the understanding that women politicians have a double challenge: they must present themselves as capable and accomplished so they will not be seen as weak, but at the same time not to be seen as too authoritative and or antagonistic. Warren has managed to deal with this challenge admirably.

Warren learned from Hillary Clinton’s experience. Clinton was portrayed as aloof and cold. Many argued that her public image is seen as distant and alienates voters. Warren’s solution for not being portrayed as the cliché of a cold, aggressive career-driven woman was to hire a video staff to follow her and communicate her positive and warm personality. This has worked very well for the campaign and allowed the audience to learn more about her personality and feel closer to her.

Warren had some challenges in her campaign. Some of them were related to her ideology, and especially to her Medicare for All and the question of raising taxes to fund it. Other challenges she faced were related to sexism and the double standard that she had to contend with as she sought to strengthen her image as a capable candidate while not provoking antagonism. Not all of the criticism was based on sexism, but it certainly tainted the public opinion about her policy and vision. She had a very narrow span in which to make mistakes, especially compared to Sanders and Biden. Nevertheless, neither Warren nor her ideas are gone. She will continue her influential role as a senator, and her ideas and plans will continue to thrive in the policy debate. Her inspiration and influence are not disappearing, as she will continue to inspire us to dream big and fight hard.

I help companies and executives to tell their stories, focus their messages and reach audiences www.communicatingimpact.com/

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