CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren entered the 2020 race with expansive plans to use the federal government to remake American society, pressing to strip power and wealth from a moneyed class that she saw as fundamentally corrupting the country’s economic and political order.
She exited Thursday after her avalanche of progressive policy proposals, which briefly elevated her to front-runner status last fall, failed to attract a broader political coalition in a Democratic Party increasingly, if not singularly, focused on defeating President Donald Trump.
Her departure means that a Democratic field that began as the most diverse in American history — and included six women — is now essentially down to two white men: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Warren said that from the start, she had been told there were only two true lanes in the 2020 contest: a liberal one dominated by Sanders, 78, and a moderate one led by Biden, 77.
“I thought that wasn’t right,” Warren said in front of her house in Cambridge as she suspended her campaign, “But evidently I was wrong.”
Though her vision energized many liberals — the unlikely chant of “big, structural change” rang out at her rallies — it did not find a wide enough audience among the party’s working-class and diverse base. Now her potential endorsement is highly sought, and both Sanders and Biden have spoken with her in the days since Super Tuesday losses sealed her political fate, though she revealed precious little of her intentions Thursday.
“I need some space around this,” she said.
Warren’s impact on the race was far greater than just the outcome for her own candidacy. Her policy plans drove the agenda. She effectively pushed former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, a centrist billionaire, out of the race with a dominant debate performance last month.
And her ability to raise well more than $100 million and fully fund a presidential campaign without holding high-dollar fundraisers demonstrated that other candidates, beyond Sanders and his intensely loyal small-dollar donors, could do so in the future.
Warren’s political demise was a death by a thousand cuts, not a dramatic implosion but a steady decline. In the fall, most national polls showed that Warren was the national pacesetter in the Democratic field. By December, she had fallen to the edge of the top tier, wounded by an October debate during which her opponents relentlessly attacked her, particularly on her embrace of “Medicare for All.”
She invested heavily in the early states, with a ground game that was the envy of her rivals. But it did not pay off: In Iowa, where she had bet much of her candidacy — she had to take out a $3 million line of credit before the caucuses to ensure she could pay her bills in late January — she wound up in a disappointing third place.
Warren slid to fourth in New Hampshire and Nevada, and to fifth in South Carolina. By Super Tuesday, her campaign was effectively over — with the final blow losing her home state, Massachusetts.
The California results strikingly laid bare the demographic cul-de-sac her candidacy had become as Warren struggled to win over voters beyond college-educated white people, in particular white women. She was poised to win delegates in only a handful of highly educated enclaves: places like San Francisco, Santa Monica and West Hollywood.
Though the campaign failed to generate the widespread backing necessary to win the nomination, Warren retained a core of fierce loyalists dedicated to her promise of wholesale change.
Her selfie lines were filled with well-wishers — young girls seeking her trademark pinkie promise (“I’m running for president because that’s what girls do”), cutouts of Warren’s likeness, and tattoos of her adopted slogan: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” When her staff gathered Thursday, many were clad in liberty green, the color her campaign adopted to symbolize its togetherness.
“One of the hardest parts of this is all those pinkie promises,” a visibly emotional Warren said, describing the “trap” of gender for female candidates.
“If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’” Warren said. “If you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’ ”
Before her exit, Warren accumulated the second-largest number of Democratic delegates of any woman to run for president in history, behind only Hillary Clinton, the 2016 nominee.
The party’s left lane is now clearer for Sanders. His supporters and other progressives have spent the past two days gingerly reaching out to Warren’s orbit and plotting in private conversations about how to keep the two liberal standard-bearers aligned.
In January, Sanders and Warren clashed in a deeply personal way after she confirmed a report that in a private meeting before the campaign began, he told her he believed that a woman could not win the White House in 2020. During a debate, Sanders strongly denied having made the remark, and Warren confronted him onstage afterward, accusing him of calling her a “liar.” Relations have been chilly since.
In her call with Biden, Warren revealed so little of her endorsement plans that a person familiar with the call remarked on her “great poker face.”
Warren arrived on the political scene in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse and shot to stardom with her indictments of Wall Street and unfettered capitalism.
In 2016, some progressive organizations mounted “Run Warren Run” campaigns and Sanders floated her as a possible challenger to Clinton, but Warren declined to run.
Joining the 2020 race, she found a changed political terrain. Sanders’ political stock had soared after his 2016 run, giving him an immediate advantage in fundraising and name recognition that complicated Warren’s electoral path.
Trump’s election seemed to shock the Democratic base into an acute focus on electability. Voters frequently second-guessed their electoral choices as they tried to game out which candidate would be best equipped to beat him.
Biden, in particular, has capitalized on this anxiety.
Warren’s allies and supporters said the electability question — who would be the surest bet to defeat the president — disproportionately hurt female candidates after Clinton’s unexpected loss in 2016.
“All they heard all along was what a risk the women were,” said Christina Reynolds, a vice president of Emily’s List, a leading Democratic women’s group that endorsed Warren this week, only after Sen. Amy Klobuchar withdrew.
Reynolds said that evaluation was as wrong as it was widespread. “The idea that that doesn’t hang around the women’s necks is crazy,” she said.
Warren’s campaign was slow to directly address questions of electability, seeming to believe her rise in the polls last year spoke for itself. But as the calendar turned to 2020, it was apparent that the issue was hobbling her candidacy as precinct captains and volunteers warned Warren that it was what they were hearing about from voters.
Warren’s decline had begun in earnest at the October debate, when she was pressed on how she would pay for Medicare for All and had no answer. It took weeks to detail her plan, but by then her perceived trustworthiness seemed to have taken a hit: The candidate with a plan for everything did not have one to finance the biggest issue of the campaign.
When she did roll out details, she was criticized by those on the left for compromising too much and by centrists for the sheer size of the plan. The episode captured a fundamental pain point for her candidacy: She was too much of an insider for those demanding revolution, and too much of an outsider for those who wanted to tinker with the system and focus on beating Trump.
As the race intensified in the fall, Warren was reluctant to strike back at her opponents, even as they undermined her image. Pete Buttigieg made deep incursions into her support among educated white voters but she did not call him out in earnest until December, even as he flooded the Iowa airwaves with a moderate message undercutting her progressive platform.
While most campaigns used the megaphone of mass television ads to cut through the media filter, Warren’s brain trust was cool to the power of commercials from the start, preferring on-the-ground and digital organizing.
At times, Warren’s campaign did not reflect the urgency of a candidacy trying to make history and promote a program of systemic upheaval that included government-run health care, free public college, student debt cancellation, breaking up Big Tech, universal child care, and tax increases on the wealthy.
But after weak finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Warren charged into the February debate planning to confront Bloomberg in his first appearance onstage. In Bloomberg, she found a rare rival she seemed truly comfortable attacking, an embodiment of the influence of money.
She slashed. He stumbled. Bloomberg would never recover. Warren’s donations surged, but her vote count did not.
She would bend a principled stand that week as well, declining to disavow a new super PAC that would air nearly $15 million in pro-Warren advertising, saying she did not want to unilaterally disarm. The irony was not lost on her opponents: The anti-big money candidate wound up with the biggest super PAC in the race to date.
In recent days, Warren had taken to speaking to voters directly about their electability fears, imploring them to tune out pundits.
“Cast a vote from your heart,” she said Tuesday.
Warren’s supporters were devoted to making the party more progressive to the end. In Illinois, where Warren’s campaign was scheduled to hold a post-Super Tuesday phone banking session, staff and supporters refused to cancel. They used their time to support Marie Newman, the local challenger running against an incumbent Democrat opposed to abortion rights.