DAVENPORT, Iowa — The polls may be middling, the fundraising so-so, but Elizabeth Warren has one key asset in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — a campaign plan more clearly defined than that of just about any other candidate.
While many of her rivals are recalibrating their strategies and looking for new ways to stand out in a huge field largely eclipsed by former Vice President Joe Biden, Warren is pressing ahead, tortoise and hare style.
She is unfurling one carefully honed policy proposal after another — child care, student debt relief, a tax on giant fortunes, combating opioid addiction.
“I’ve got a plan for that!” is her stump speech mantra.
Warren has also invested heavily in campaign staff in Iowa and other states with early primaries. She has a crisp, unchanging populist message rooted in years of arguing, as a professor and politician, that the government now works for people with money and power, not the middle class.
“This is my life’s work,” she said in a phone interview while traveling in Ohio recently. “What happened to the American middle class has been the central issue I’ve worked on for decades. This presidential primary gives me a chance to get out and talk about what’s broken and how to fix it.”
Warren has been on a roll over the last month, in a series of well-received performances at candidate forums — on CNN, before women of color and other black activists, at a labor-backed event. For the first time, a national poll in April showed her in second place — albeit just barely, and way behind Biden. She is on the cover of this week’s Time magazine.
“People are coming off the sidelines,” she said in the interview. “When I talk about what’s broken, they get it. When I talk about how to fix it, they get it.”
But most polls still show her lagging, and two gigantic boulders block her path.
One is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, her ideological soul mate, who has dominated among progressive voters who might otherwise have been her base.
Even if Warren were to surpass Sanders as the left’s principal alternative to Biden, however, the other impediment looms. She is being held back by a peculiarity of this year’s Democratic primary electorate: Voters, more than ever, are acting like pundits and basing their own candidate preferences on “electability” — their guesses about how candidates will fare in a general election more than a year away.
“I love Elizabeth Warren’s energy,” said Rosa Wilson, president of a Communications Workers of America local in eastern Iowa, who heard Warren speak at a Democratic Party dinner here but supports Sanders. “But I don’t think she’ll be able to beat Trump. The old money is not ready for a woman.”
Standing out and gaining voter attention in a field of more than 20 poses a challenge to all the candidates who are not named Biden or Sanders.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California recently seized an opportunity to shine again in her signature tough-questioner role, confronting Attorney General William Barr in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas traveled to Yosemite National Park to roll out a climate change plan. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey tried to up the ante in the gun safety debate by calling for firearms to be licensed.
But Warren’s struggles have been particularly perplexing because she entered the 2020 race with far more political assets than most of her rivals. She had a big national fan base for her work as a consumer advocate. She was a darling of the left in 2016 when progressives begged her to run against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.
When she didn’t run, progressives flocked to Sanders — and many still harbor resentment against Warren for refusing to endorse him in his primary fight against Clinton.
Warren and Sanders, long-standing allies in progressive causes, have avoided taking shots at each other now that they are rivals in the Democratic Party’s left lane. Asked after a campaign event in Iowa why progressive voters should support her over Sanders, Warren dodged the question. “All I can do is tell you what I am fighting for and my plan to get there,” she told reporters.
But there are clear contrasts between the two. Sanders, a democratic socialist who criticizes some in the party establishment and is still not registered as a Democrat, paints mostly in broad thematic strokes when he campaigns for his signature issues of “Medicare for All,” free public college and a higher minimum wage.
Warren proclaims herself a capitalist who thinks markets should be firmly regulated, not abolished. She is presenting herself as a less divisive candidate with a much more policy-specific, concrete vision.
At a candidate forum held by She the People, an organization for women of color, Warren got a standing ovation for speaking bluntly about racism and her specific plans to remedy it in health care, housing and other areas. Sanders drew some jeers from the same audience who thought him insufficiently focused on the concerns of people of color.
Early polls can be volatile, but polling averages calculated by the nonpartisan RealClearPolitics website show a clear trend in national surveys: Sanders has outpolled Warren by wide margins, but since Biden got in the race, the edge has narrowed. Sanders and several other candidates have lost ground; Warren has remained stable.
Warren may have more room for growth than Sanders among potential primary voters, according to a survey in late April by two progressive groups, Data for Progress and YouGov Blue. Asked which candidates they were considering or ruling out, the survey found that 13% said they were not considering Warren and 40% were considering her; 28% were not considering Sanders, and 36% were.
She brought her message to red states late last week by traveling through West Virginia and Ohio to promote her new initiative to combat opioid addiction.
Warren’s camp has sought to rebut the idea that she’s less electable than a candidate like Biden. Roger Lau, her campaign manager, put out a memo earlier this spring challenging the assumption that cautious, centrist ideas would be more successful in 2020 than a bolder progressive agenda.
“This is not a moment for incrementalism or timidity; it is a moment for moral clarity about the structure of our economy, our society, and our democracy,” he wrote. “Elections are not won by nominees chosen to appeal to or pacify the other side: elections are won by candidates who inspire their party’s voters to turn out on election day and who have an effective organization to drive it home.”
Another source of doubt comes from a common belief, even among many women, that after Clinton’s defeat in 2016, Democrats risk another loss if they nominate a woman.
When Warren was asked about that at the Houston forum, she took a deep breath, edged forward in her chair and answered with the passion of someone whose campaign depended on this point.
“Are we going to show up for people that we didn’t actually believe in because we’re too afraid to do anything else?” Warren said. “That’s not who we are.”
She also reminds voters that she faced similarly deep doubts when she ran for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 2012 against a popular Republican incumbent, Scott Brown. People warned then that the state was not ready to elect a woman.
“I’ve been around this block before,” she said. “When I first ran for Senate in Massachusetts, reporters wanted to talk about my clothes. Pundits wanted to talk about my voice.”
Indeed, some voters still comment on her voice and speaking style. She is often described as schoolmarmish and shrill even by some admirers, reacting to a presentation style of a woman who spent years in teaching before coming to the Senate.
But Warren has formidable skill in retail politicking that could help her counter negative perceptions one selfie at a time.
She can rivet an audience with her life story. She tells how her financially strapped Oklahoma family got by “on the ragged edge of the middle class” after her father died young; how she dropped out of college at 19 to get married; how she realized a childhood dream when she became a special education teacher. She seldom mentions Harvard, where she taught law before becoming a senator.
“Her story could have been my story,” said Julie Ann Nealy, a 72-year-old from Delmar, Iowa, who heard Warren in a community center gym.
At a typical event, after her stump speech, Warren takes a few questions, then sticks around for photos with as many people as want them. (She’s taken more than 20,000 selfies, by her campaign’s count.) That’s the treatment that may have won over Deborah VanderGaast, director of a child care center in Tipton, Iowa, who attended a recent Warren event in a local restaurant.
VanderGaast supported Sanders in 2016 but is now impressed by Warren’s thick portfolio of policies to help the middle class, by her specific answer to a question she asked about child care, and also by her willingness to take time to connect with voters one on one.
She remembered that Sanders had been prickly and impatient when she met him in a photo line in 2016. By contrast, she said, Warren took multiple photos with her and “was so animated, so engaged.”
“She didn’t seem like this person on an ivory tower,” she said.
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