Elizabeth Warren is the best candidate for president. Why isn’t she higher in the polls?

Warren’s policy proposals far outstrip her rivals in depth and breadth. But she is forced to compete in a “likeability” primary which her male opponents don’t have to face. 

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Elizabeth Warren began the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination as one of the nominal favourites. As Vox’s Ezra Klein points out, she is the only 2020 candidate with the experience of setting up a regulatory agency from scratch. Her experience – as an academic heavyweight, in the Senate, and as an advocate for consumer rights and corporate accountability – means she is not just one of the foremost experts in America’s economic problems: she is also uniquely placed to offer solutions as well.

And she’s offering them in spades. Warren has released far more in the way of detailed policy proposals and ideas than any of her primary competitors. She is also one of the gutsiest candidates in the field. She was one of the first – along with former housing and urban development secretary Julian Castro – to take a strong line on impeachment following the release of the damning Mueller report last week, a stand many in the Democratic field have been unwilling to take. Last year she introduced a strong anti-corruption bill in the Senate, aimed at curbing some of the Trump administration’s worst abuses of power. She has rejected money from Political Action Committees (PACs) – so-called “dark money.”

If this were a job interview, as opposed to a deeply flawed state-by-state popularity contest, she would be streets ahead of the competition. But it is starting to seem like the Democratic primary is snubbing Warren even as her opponents copy all of her policy homework. In the latest polls, despite the fact that this cycle’s Democratic field boasts more highly qualified female candidates than any previous presidential primary in history – Warren, as well as California senator Kamala Harris, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar – the top three candidates are all white men: former vice-president Joe Biden, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, and South Bend mayor (and viral sensation) Pete Buttigieg.

None of them can boast anything even close to the sheer weight of policy proposals Warren has set forward. She recently told a CNN town hall event that “if we put a 2 per cent tax on the wealthiest families in the country, we can provide universal Pre-K, universal free college, knock back student loan debt for 95 per cent of Americans – and still have a trillion dollars leftover”. It’s not just a good soundbite: her education plan – published in full – is incredibly detailed.

In similarly meticulous fashion, she has laid out a plan for breaking up Silicon Valley’s behemoth tech monopolies. She has a plan for universal childcare. For affordable housing. For environmental protection. For electoral reform. Along with Sanders, she has been calling for radical reforms to America’s healthcare system since way before it was cool, but unlike Sanders she has also shown that she recognises the complexities of such reform: she is pro-Medicare-for-all style policies, but also has introduced legislation to iron out some of the flaws in the Affordable Care Act, too. Warren is the real deal.

The problem is that being a detail-obsessed policy wonk doesn’t make Warren an exciting media story. Many of her opponents are running based on who they are – as opposed to what policies they would enact. Buttigieg, for example, who is currently enjoying a spectacular surge in the polls, recently said that the policy section of his website would “pull video on what [he’s] said on a particular issue”. An interview in Vanity Fair with former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke – another Democratic contender who started the race with a lot of buzz – contained the deeply insubstantial rationale for running for president that O’Rourke felt he was “born to be in it”. Candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, too, have tended to lean on platitudes about unity rather than an in-depth proposed legislative agenda.

Even in the 2020 Democratic field, Warren’s presidential CV is unsurpassed. Before she became senator for Massachusetts, she was a prominent Harvard professor focusing on bankruptcy law. In November 2008, following the financial crash, she was appointed to the board overseeing the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. She was key to the creation in 2011 by the Obama administration of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CPFB), and only lost out on being its first chair because her politics were considered too progressive at the time.

But (and this is true of Sanders as well) the Democratic Party has swung left towards Warren’s politics. She is radical, but also practical. Her in-depth policy proposals, as well as the legislation she has proposed in the Senate, add up to what is by far the most detailed vision for how to fix America’s broken institutions.

The right are already worried by the ideas she has outlined. A column in the right-wing Washington Examiner criticised her policy of student debt forgiveness on the preposterous basis that cancelling the debt would be a “slap in the face” to those who had already paid off their loans. (The columnist was widely mocked; one Twitter user pointed out that this was like saying “antibiotics are a slap in the face to all the people who died of plague.”)

Some of the attacks she has faced have been more damaging. Trump has targeted Warren repeatedly over the allegation that she listed her ancestry as “Native American” on some university documents. The president seized on the story, which was pushed by right-wing partisan media outlets, and took to calling Warren “Pocahontas”. The line of attack is both unfair – the story has been largely debunked, though some confusion remains – and racist. But it is also true that Warren has made some unforced tactical errors in the way she fought back, and in February she was forced to apologise to Native American leaders after an incredibly ill-advised attempt to put an end to the story by publicly taking a DNA test.

That slip-up, however, must be seen in context. Warren was under sustained public attack from the president – a sign, perhaps, that he would rather she not be the Democratic candidate he has to face – and, sure, she made a mistake. But she is being judged in the media by a vicious double-standard. Compared to the ongoing furore over Joe Biden’s habit of being just-a-bit-too-tactile with women he meets, or the lingering allegations of misogyny that dog Sanders from his 2016 campaign, Warren’s slip-up wasn’t a huge deal.

But, like Hillary Clinton before her, Warren – and the other female candidates – are forced to compete in a kind of invisible “likeability” primary, which male candidates just don’t have to face. This isn’t new: a 2010 Harvard study found that female candidates perceived as seeking power caused “feelings of moral outrage (ie contempt, anger, and/or disgust) towards them”.

Some of this is the fault of the media, which seems to be repeating these (often subconscious) sexist mistakes it made in coverage of Clinton’s 2016 campaign. In January, in an article that was telling for the trope fundamental to its premise even though it framed it as a question, Politico asked: “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux – written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?” The article puts the question of Warren’s purported “coldness” to a variety of her associates, all of whom expressed little but bafflement. Still, it spread. The New York Post called her “stern, abrasive and unfriendly”. No publication is applying the same paradigm to her male rivals – not even the famously irascible Sanders.

But it’s not just the likeability index. The media, especially in the internet age, isn’t geared properly to cover a campaign based around detailed policy proposals. Modern campaign coverage is much more based around moments – O’Rouke jumping on an Iowa countertop; Buttigieg responding to a reporter from Oslo in fluent Norwegian. The problem isn’t just institutionalised sexism, it’s that the whole media ecosystem rewards shallow showboating and punishes thoughtful complexity.

It is often written, as if it would be some kind of consolation prize, that, even though her campaign is struggling to break free of the middle of the field polling-wise, Warren’s policy platform is so far ahead of anyone else in terms of detail that it will likely form the basic platform for whoever wins the primary in the end. That, perhaps, is legacy enough.

But the image of that – her ideas, her policies repackaged and presented by someone else (if current polling is an indicator, someone male) just because the media portrays them as more “likeable” – should make us uncomfortable. Let’s be honest: Warren has a really good claim to be the best candidate for the job. The whole campaign will be better – the whole country will be better – if we can somehow find a way to treat the primary as a competition of ideas, instead of personalities.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.