Elizabeth Warren Looks Back At Her Presidential Bid, And Says She's Still In The Fight

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks to the press after announcing that she was dropping out of the Democratic presidential race in March. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks to the press after announcing that she was dropping out of the Democratic presidential race in March. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A decade ago, Elizabeth Warren was a Harvard Law professor and a political novice when Democrats like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer urged her to run for the U.S. Senate.

Many Democratic leaders believed Warren had a strong chance of knocking off the popular Republican incumbent, Scott Brown. But Warren had doubts.

"Will I be able to talk to people, and what would town halls be like?" she told WBUR. "And why would the good folks in Massachusetts be willing to elect a woman to go to Washington to represent them?"

Warren's reservations only grew when she met with a prominent Democrat who told her just how much the campaign would cost.

"And I'd say, 'What?'" she said. "He hits a number in the tens of millions, and I'm starting to think: 'You know what, I can't raise that kind of money. And if that's what it takes to run for office, I'm out of here.' "

Of course, she did run. And she raised the money through lots of small online donations, an approach pioneered first by Howard Dean and then Barack Obama. In 2012, Warren beat Brown in the most expensive election in Massachusetts history.

"People really rode to the rescue," Warren said. "It was the $5 and $10 and $15 [that helped] in this race."

The account is one of the stories Warren tells in her new book, "Persist," which looks back at her unsuccessful presidential campaign — and considers why she lost. She also looks forward with a sense of optimism, and says the country is facing a real opportunity for change. (On Friday, Warren told Politico that she is planning to run for Senate reelection in 2024.)

That early experience in Massachusetts influenced Warren's run for the White House last year, a race in which she didn't seek large contributions or money from political action committees.

She said the decision to focus on small donors gave her more time to hear directly from voters in those famous photo lines that lasted for hours. It also made it easier for her to attack billionaire Michael Bloomberg during a debate in Las Vegas, which became one of the most most memorable moments of the race.

The former New York mayor made a late entry into the presidential race, hoping to use his personal fortune to leapfrog over other candidates — but Warren wouldn't have it.

"I'd like to talk about who we're running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians," Warren declared in the debate as she stood right next to Bloomberg. "And no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump; I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg."

But Warren was troubled by what happened next. Bloomberg just ignored her attack.

"When he didn't respond, it moved to another level — about every woman out there who who has wondered when they push back, 'Did this this guy even hear me?'" she said.

Warren's book includes a pitch for a long list of progressive policies, many of which are familiar to anyone who followed her presidential bid. They include a wealth tax, expanding social security, and erasing student debt. But Warren is most passionate about expanding child care — and for her, it's personal. She was fired from her first teaching job after she got pregnant. And Warren said a lack of child care nearly ended her career before it began.

"Child care came within a hair's breadth of knocking me out of the game, and knocking a bunch of women out of the game," she said. "A generation later, my daughter faced the same thing. And if we don't make change, my granddaughter will face the same thing. We have got to have child care. Child care is infrastructure."

Warren, who spent years studying the fraying of the American middle class, wrote about how women in particular are held back by a lack of federal support for services like child care.

"The single best predictor of going broke in America was to be a woman with a child," she wrote. "Not a woman alone. Not a couple with no kids. Not elderly or African America or Latina. One kid. Two kids. It didn't matter. The strongest predictor was to be a woman with a least one child."

Warren also wrote that from the start of her political career, she was repeatedly asked, "Can a woman win?"

"In 2012, I ran in Martha Coakley's wake; in 2020, I ran in Hillary Clinton's," she wrote. "In both races, I was eager to talk about what was broken in America and how my plans would fix our problems. But...before I could do anything else, I had to run against the shadows of Martha and Hillary."

That meant repeatedly facing the question, "Can she win?" Just before the caucuses, voters like Brian Kading from Ellston, Iowa, were not uncommon.

"I still have this feeling that this country's not ready for a female president," Kading told WBUR in January 2020. "I think we should be, but I really question [whether others believe that]."

By that point, Warren had a ready response for voters like Kading. Warren told them that she beat Scott Brown in Massachusetts and that women helped deliver the House of Representatives to Democrats in 2018.

"So here's how I see this," Warren declared at a rally at Iowa State University, just  before the caucuses. "Our number one job is to beat Donald Trump. Women win. Let's get this done."

After spending much of the summer and fall of 2020 among the leaders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Warren finished third in Iowa. She finished fourth in the New Hampshire primary, even though she was thought to have an advantage because of its proximity to her home state. Then, on Super Tuesday, she failed to win a single state, finishing third in Massachusetts, behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Warren suggested that one of the reasons her presidential campaign fell short was that she's a woman. She cited research showing that 1 in 4 Democrats and Independents would not be comfortable with a woman in the White House. But she also wrote, "Maybe I just wasn't good enough."

"There were things about running for president that were hard, including losing," Warren said. "A spoiler alert: when we get to the end of the book, I did not win."

On March 5, 2020, after more than 14 months of campaigning and hundreds of town hall meetings, Warren stepped outside her door in Cambridge and told the world that her campaign was over.

"I went to bed that night, and it was tough," she said. "But I woke up the next morning and I opened my door, and there, in two-foot high letters, heavily chalked [on the sidewalk] was the word "persist." And it was like a bucket of cold water in the face. I stood there on my porch and thought, girl, you're still in this fight."

This article was originally published on May 07, 2021.

This segment aired on May 10, 2021.


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Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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