The comparisons started early for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): Not long after she jumped into the 2020 presidential race, she was met with an onslaught of comparisons to Hillary Clinton and her failed 2016 presidential campaign. The not-so-hidden subtext was whether any woman, or at least this woman, could beat Trump.
On Monday night, at a CNN presidential town hall with New Hampshire and Harvard students, Warren was asked directly, twice, about these questions. She’s getting “Hillary-ed” — a term that’s come to encompass sexism women running for national office are experiencing — one student said, so what is she going to do about it? Another student asked Warren how she could measure up to Trump’s bullying: “In particular, are you afraid he can caricature you?”
The short version of Warren’s answer: “One might say you persist,” she told the student questioner, Ellie Taylor of Wisconsin, referencing a viral feminist catch-phrase born out of a tense moment between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Warren, in which McConnell tried to silence Warren on the Senate floor.
To combat Trump’s nicknames, Warren said, “we’re not going to win by saying ‘not Donald Trump.’ We’re not going to win by doing better name-calling than he does.”
In response to both questions, Warren told a story about her 2012 race for the Senate in Massachusetts, defeating Republican Sen. Scott Brown in one of the most high-profile Senate races that year. Warren beat Brown, who served as the senator from Massachusetts from 2010 to 2013, claiming an upset win to fill a vacant seat after Democrat Ted Kennedy’s death.
Warren has been called “aloof” for her focus on policy throughout her career, and her misleading claims of Native American heritage played a role in that 2012 Senate race. Now, ahead of 2020, it’s prompted some to question whether she, like Clinton, would be scandal-plagued.
Here’s Warren’s full exchange:
Ellie Taylor, Wisconsin: Hi, Senator. This isn’t as much of a policy-based question. Some people have voiced you getting ‘Hillary-ed’ in the election. So what lessons have you learned from 2016 that will help you to kind of navigate these situations when you might be criticized for something that’s partially motivated by sexist?
Warren: That’s a really good question, but if I can, I want to go back before 2016. Can we all just let our hair down here for a minute? This didn’t just start in 2016. Been around for a while.
I’ll tell you when I ran into it big time. I never thought I was going to be in elected politics. I’ve known what I wanted to do all my life. I wanted to be a teacher. I thought that would be my job forever. During the crash I end up down in Washington setting up a consumer agency for President Obama. After I did that for a year, the Republicans said, we’re never going to let her stay and run that thing. I came back to Massachusetts. There was a very popular Republican incumbent. He had high approval ratings, he had a bucket of money in the bank from Wall Street and he had just beaten a woman who was really good and everybody thought was going to win. So I start getting these phone calls from people and they say, Elizabeth, you should run against him for the Senate seat. You should do it. Go ahead. You should do this thing. You’re going to lose, but you should definitely do — these were Democrats calling me. Saying, you should do this. You’re going to lose. All I can say is Democrats, get a better message.
But people said to me, you’re going to lose because Massachusetts in 2011, according to conventional wisdom, was not ready to have a woman senator or governor. We never had. And people said it’s just not going to happen, not at least for another generation.
Now, you can imagine how I heard that. I heard that as, get in this race, right now, which is what I did. So I jumped in the race and sure enough, you know, the early coverage is about what I’m wearing. It’s about my hair. It’s about my voice. It’s about whether or not I smile enough. I didn’t. It was every part of that. This kept up and I thought, you know, look, I’m going to be in this race. I’m going to make something count every single day. So every day when I saw a little girl, I would come up and I’d usually get down, I’m a teacher, and I would say, ‘Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m running for Senate because that’s what girls do.’ And then we would pinky swear to remember.
And so every night when I went home, no matter what the day had been like, I would count up how many pinky swears we had done during the day. And I kept getting out there and hammering my message. I kept getting out there talking about what’s happening with working families across the country, talking about how Washington works great for the rich and the powerful, just not working for anyone else, and how we’ve got to fight back against that. So I talked about it every single day and ultimately I went from 17 points behind that guy to beating him by 7.5.
So the way I see it is here we are in a presidential, and it’s the same kind of you stay after it every day.
One might say you persist.
That Warren is being asked about going against Trump’s bullying on the campaign trail, and being compared to Hillary Clinton all comes down to a growing factor in 2020: this notion of “electability.”
According to an early February poll from Monmouth University, 56 percent of Americans prefer “someone who would be a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues.” Only 33 percent would prioritize issues, even if it meant the candidate would have a hard time against Trump.
Of course, at some point it’s all a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more you question someone’s electability, the less electable they are. And, of course, the gender of a candidate plays a role.
“Metrics like authenticity and likability and electability are just code that we use against candidates who are not like what we are used to,” Christina Reynolds, the spokesperson for Emily’s List, a political organization that supports women candidates, told Vox in March.