What's So 'Off-Putting' About Elizabeth Warren?

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The Los Angeles Times published a piece looking back at Senator Elizabeth Warren’s past life as an occasional guest on Dr. Phil, where she provided sound, authoritative advice for financially struggling Americans—a contrast to Dr. Phil, who reveled in lambasting guests’ shortcomings. It was a fun exploration of how Warren used television appearances, from Dr. Phil to The Daily Show, to cultivate an image of a relatable woman—a champion for the middle class, a foe of big banks—despite the Harvard pedigree.

But there was a sliver of a sentence that gave me pause (emphasis mine):

[Warren] has risen steadily in the Democratic field partly because of her ease answering questions from voters in town halls — 128 such events so far — a format that echoes the give-and-take she learned on the talk shows.

Although critics find her style off-putting, Warren has shown an ability to connect with audiences, distilling her complex policy plans into simple concepts and slogans.

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I’m not sure what “off-putting” refers to, the author doesn’t expand into specifics. The piece goes on to specify Warren’s ability to dilute complex policy into bite-size, easy to comprehend pieces, her biggest asset on the campaign trail. It’s made her a rare candidate who can translate the granular aspects of legislation into concern for voters’ lived experiences.

I would love someone to explain this to me like I’m five: What, exactly, is “off-putting” about Warren’s campaigning style?

Putting aside the obvious—that exhausting sexism means women candidates are often cast as scolds, the Hillary Clinton effect—there are a few aspects of Elizabeth Warren that I’d consider less than ideal in a candidate: she’s currently on an apology tour to grapple with prior claims of Native American ancestry; she, despite going after corporate institutions, describes herself as a capitalist to her bones. Still, none of this has to do with her actual campaign style.

“Off-putting” is a vague stand-in for other words that have coalesced around Warren since launching her presidential campaign—uncharismatic, unlikable, unelectable—words that play into obviously sexist stereotypes. As The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart noted in April, according to researchers, women candidates face extra hurdles when they’re perceived as competent because they’re less likely to be seen as inspiring: “Now that Warren is running for president, many journalists have decided the charisma is gone.”

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The following anecdote was particularly grim:

In February, however, when the University of New Hampshire asked Granite State voters which candidate they considered most “likable,” 31 percent chose Joe Biden and 20 percent chose Sanders. Beto O’Rourke, who hadn’t yet announced his candidacy, received 9 percent. Warren, despite being a well-known senator from a neighboring state, garnered only 3 percent.

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In June, a Slate piece following Warren on the campaign trail also touched on her perceived lack of charisma:

Warren is hoping voters are willing to engage with a persona that is competent and sober, qualities they persistently say they value when speaking to pollsters but tend to reject in favor of charisma at the ballot box. But she is proof that competent and sober does not have to mean cold and impersonal on the trail.

[...]

[Warren] leans less on charisma or charm, or even emotion, than on that elaborate PowerPoint she keeps stowed in her head. It’s a different approach from the men out in front of her. A warm and effusive Joe Biden has been coronated the favorite without having to break a sweat. Bernie Sanders has long had some of the most loyal supporters around, in part because he is so unabashedly “himself.”

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But it’s August now, and despite this apparent “lack of charisma,” Warren has steadily surged in the Democratic primary polls: A new Monmouth University poll shows her in a virtual tie with Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Not only is something clearly working, but there’s obviously something flawed with this idea of Warren lacking charisma in the first place.

I’m not convinced that Warren’s surge comes in spite of a lack of charisma. Rather, the idea that she was uncharismatic was a red herring from the jump. If she wasn’t charismatic, she wouldn’t be drawing big crowds or routinely dominating the debate stage. She would instead be more of a dull afterthought like Amy Klobuchar.

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Warren doesn’t need to have the “charming” drawl of Bill Clinton or the self-deprecating humor Barack Obama to be charismatic. Warren’s charisma comes from her passion to tweak some of the most harmful status quos of American society. And at a time when everything feels on the brink, that kind of charisma is just fine.

This post has been updated to correct a grammatical error. 

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About the author

Ashley Reese

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.