A lot of people I know are voting for Elizabeth Warren on Super Tuesday. They’re doing so even though they’re aware she’s way down in the polls and that her hopes for becoming the Democratic nominee rest on various contested convention scenarios that would almost certainly be bad for their larger project of defeating Donald Trump.
Her supporters feel somewhat baffled: How did she evaporate from the top tier of contention, especially since so many of the people they know also like her?
There are specific tactical decisions (by both her campaign and her rivals) that brought her to this point. But a larger context to understand is that if you, like many of my friends, find the situation puzzling, that is probably because you know a lot of people who are demographically similar to yourself. I’m a highly educated white person, and most of my friends and acquaintances are also highly educated white people. Elizabeth Warren is very popular with people like us.
The reality is that there aren’t that many people like us — and there’s a valuable lesson in that, not just about the Warren campaign specifically but about some of the larger dynamics in American politics.
People like me love Elizabeth Warren
These charts from the Economist’s polling aggregator tell the tale. Even at a time when Warren had, in its estimate, fallen to fourth place in national polling, she was first with white college graduates and first with Democrats who have advanced degrees.
Warren’s fans often praise her intelligence, which I think is undeniable. Before she was a politician, she worked her way up through the hierarchy of legal academia to get a tenured post at Harvard Law School.
She’s written several books — actually wrote them, not just slapped her name on something done by a ghostwriter — ranging from dreary academic tomes to highbrow nonfiction written for a general audience. I’ve read a couple of her books, and they’re good. There are a lot of bright, hardworking people in the United States Congress (I promise), but Warren’s intellectual achievements leave many of her colleagues in the dust, to the point where she was an influential policymaker before she ever won an election, thanks to her powers as a thinker and an advocate.
Warren seems like she could do my job really well (and, indeed, we briefly overlapped as TPMCafe bloggers years ago). She’s the most interesting person in the field to talk to, and I don’t find it even slightly surprising that most people I know find her to be incredibly appealing and admirable.
The problem is that politics is a numbers game, and we are not in the majority.
It’s a working-class country
Warren stands head and shoulders above her colleagues in Congress in part because her achievements are impressive but also, in large part, because these are not achievements that are normally rewarded in the political process.
One reason for that is the overall level of educational attainment in the United States is simply lower than many college graduates seem to realize.
Validated data from the 2016 election, for example, suggests that only about one-third of 2016 voters had college degrees. The share among Hillary Clinton voters was higher, at 43 percent, but even among the more educated in the party, most people haven’t graduated college. And among college graduates, about 75 percent attend schools that accept more than half of applicants, rather than the kind of state university flagships or elite private universities whose graduates dominate the media. In my friend group, it’s not unusual for someone to be a lawyer or a doctor or to have a master’s degree in something or other. As a policy journalist, I speak to a lot of experts in academia or the think tank world who have advanced degrees.
But in the actual American population distribution, there are more high school dropouts than people with master’s degrees. The median American under the age of 30 has $0 in student loan debt, not because the median young person is superrich but because most people didn’t attend expensive higher education institutions in the first place.
Too many fish in a small pond
It’s hard to know exactly why Warren is so much less popular with the people who make up the majority of the Democratic Party. Part of the problem is simply that she’s been running against two people — Sanders and Biden — who started the race better-known than she was and who are both well-liked by most Democrats. But it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to posit that what makes her so impressive to some is precisely what doesn’t resonate with the bulk of the population. After all, if voters wanted to elect writers and intellectuals to office, we would have more of them. Warren is a strong fit for her adopted home state of Massachusetts, which famously has the most educated population of any state.
Warren has been further hampered in 2020 by the fact that two other candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, were also occupying her same “educated white people” lane, albeit with more moderate ideological profiles. If you think about politics in highly ideological policy-oriented terms, that may seem odd, but the fact is a lot of people just aren’t that ideological and, to an extent, the primary sorted into a Biden/Sanders working-class camp and a Warren/Pete/Klobuchar white-collar one.
Buttigieg, famously, is almost ostentatiously smart — speaking a little Norwegian and checking all the boxes on the high-achiever résumé before becoming mayor of South Bend, Indiana. And Klobuchar, like Warren, is actually the author of a good serious book, Uncovering the Dome, a case study in the corrupt politics of municipal stadium deals.
Within that electoral niche, Warren has done the best (and is still in the race). Unfortunately, she split the educated group three ways while Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden divided up the larger working-class bloc along age and ideological lines.
If you feel like Warren is very impressive and lots of people you know feel the same way, you’re not imagining it — lots of people just like you all across the country feel the same way.
It’s just that most Democrats aren’t all that much like you.
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Every other Saturday from now to Election Day, Vox co-founders Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein will sit down to discuss the most important elements of the 2020 race to the White House. Subscribe to The Weeds, Vox’s podcast for politics and policy discussions, on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you like to listen.