Skip to navigationSkip to content

Elizabeth Warren’s coverage proves the media learned nothing from 2016

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Some things never change.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Democratic US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is qualified, capable, running an effective campaign, and has a plan for everything. So why is it that the conversation about Warren appears wrapped in a layer of doubt, or somewhat incredulous amazement at her success?

No one in the race is gaining grounds as significantly as she is. According to polls collected by FiveThirtyEight, three of the Democratic frontrunners have grown in popularity since March: Joe Biden, who is leading the race and has gained 2 points to become the favorite among 31% of likely Democratic voters, up from 29% in March; Pete Buttigieg, who with a 7.7% share is polling on average 5.1 points higher in June than he was in March; and Warren, whose support has grown an impressive 6.4 points, advancing her as the top pick for more than 12% of voters versus 5.7% in March.

Ignoring the criticism that she is too “wonky,” Warren has relentlessly shared policy proposals for everything from prison reform to child care. Her approach seems to be more effective than that of the leading progressive candidate, Bernie Sanders, who since March has lost essentially as much ground as Warren has gained, with Sanders getting support now from close to 16% of voters versus 21% in March.

Asked about Warren’s rise, Sanders suggests “there are a certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected.” Similar arguments have been advanced in the past, but with limited substance. Though it appears a majority of Democratic voters would rather the next president wasn’t an older white man, only 31% of them, according to the Pew Research Center, express a strong preference for a woman.

If anything, despite the great progress made in female representation in recent US elections, it seems being a woman continues to be a disadvantage for Warren, at least when it comes to media coverage. Meg Heckman, an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism in Boston, has found that two-thirds of national stories about the 2020 presidential race were written by men. Is it any wonder that politics for so long has been seen as a man’s world in which women are treated as odd intruders, whether by men who have written the articles or women who have absorbed their framing?

Warren recalls being subject to overtly sexist coverage when she ran as a US senator (it was “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,” she remembers). Recent articles about her presidential campaign betray a more subtle sexism, expressed through doubts about her chances to win, questions about her qualifications, or the ever-present comparisons drawn between her and Hillary Clinton.

Is she for real?

“Is Elizabeth Warren a Serious Contender After All?,” New York magazine asked in May. It’s hard to picture a man with similar qualifications and as robust a campaign strategy being treated with equal skepticism. By channeling the suspicion that the country may not be “ready” for a female president, the media makes it stronger.

“Elizabeth Warren is completely serious,” The New York Times answered the next month. The article listed the things she is serious about: income inequality; corporate power; corrupt politics; being America’s next president. It is the kind of excusatio non petita which affirms the very doubt it tries to remove—the idea that there is something intrinsically far fetched in a female candidate.Meanwhile, comparatively inexperienced Beto O’Rourke’s presidential hopes were immediately taken seriously by the same publication (and several others), which predicted he could “upend” the race.

“Can Elizabeth Warren win it all?” The New Yorker asked in June, echoing the old question of whether women can have it all, in another thorough profile offering reason aplenty to consider the question moot.

Does she really know all that?

A common critique of Warren, a former law professor who created the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is that she is too much of a “wonk,”  and too academic in her approach. Yet at the same time, she keeps finding her qualifications questioned. According to the Wall Street Journal, which dubs her “the ‘ideas’ candidate” (“ideas,” somewhat patronizingly, in air quotes), “Elizabeth Warren doesn’t understand wealth taxes,” and “Elizabeth Warren isn’t qualified to teach history, either.” (The same paper thinks Sanders, who shares many views with Warren when it comes to history or taxes, “could win this time“).

In a different but equally patronizing way, socialist publication Jacobin likes to highlight the ways in which Warren “should” be different, or do better. It belittles her approach by calling it a “policy blitz,” which it argues “we shouldn’t see … purely as a sign of strength” but also as “a panicked response to her campaign’s shortcomings in the field of mass politics.”

Just another overqualified woman running for president

What might be most telling about the sexist attitude toward Warren is the frequent comparison with Clinton—one that would scarcely hold were they not both women. Clinton was an establishment candidate, Warren is not. Clinton is a moderate, Warren is progressive. Clinton is a life-long politician, Warren turned to politics out of outrage.

And yet: ”Warren battles the ghost of Hillary Clinton,” Politico declared, writing that “advisers and allies project confidence that perceptions of her as cold or aloof will fade once people see her campaign.”

So why does the need to compare Warren to Clinton continue to arise?

The National Review provides an answer that is at once insufficient and perfect. In describing the parallels between the two women, it notes:

Both have friends and colleagues who insist they are warm and personable in private; both face accusations of being cold and stiff and inauthentic on the campaign trail. (Recall Warren’s beer chat on Instagram.) Both face the criticism that they’re not “likeable,” and both have allies insisting that criticism is sexist. Warren may face the accusation that her speeches have a lecturing tone, but for most of her adult life, she’s been employed in a job that involves giving lectures.

And, of course, they’ve both had to campaign in a system so tinged with sexism that it’s impossible now not to see it.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality in the workplace and beyond. Read more stories here.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.