Michael SchererLANSING, Mich. —
Midway through Elizabeth Warren’s stump speech these days, her fans start jumping from their seats like pistons, firing with cheers and applause each time she rattles off another new policy punchline.
“Here’s a good one,” the senator (D-Mass.) said last week at a community-college gym filled with about 1,700 people. It was a plan to impose new ethics rules on Supreme Court justices. “I really could do this all night long. But let me do — let me do just one more.”
She did a dozen more, each greeted with an ovation: A law to force the release of politicians’ tax returns. A wealth tax on those worth more than $50 million. New rules to limit company size. And on and on.
Six months after launching her candidacy amid blundering apologies for her longtime claims of Native American ancestry and nagging questions about whether she could compete on a national stage, Warren is experiencing something unusual in the crowded Democratic field: momentum.
It is not showing up in national polls, which have remained largely steady with Warren in the single digits, far behind former vice president Joe Biden.
But energized crowds have been flocking to her events in early-voting states. Her nonstop stream of policy positions, which add up to what would be a restructuring of American capitalism, has helped shape the broader debate.
Some state-level surveys show Warren near Biden at the top of the field. A poll by the Des Moines Register, CNN and Mediacom, which published over the weekend, combined probable caucusgoers’ first choice, second choice and candidates they are “actively considering” to show that Biden and Warren are evenly matched by this measure with 61 percent each.
Biden has the edge in the “first choice” category, with 24 percent. But Warren’s performance on that front — 15 percent described Warren as their first choice, compared with 16 percent for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and 14 percent for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — reflected a stronger position for Warren than she held in previous Iowa polling.
Warren has captured the attention of many voters on the ground, both with her policy proposals and her willingness to make unequivocal statements that often seem to rise above the din of the campaign. It took only a few hours after the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, for instance, as other prominent Democrats hesitated, for Warren to issue a Twitter thread explaining why, after reading the document, she believed it was time for impeachment proceedings against President Trump.
Many voters have been skeptical of whether she has the “gumption” to take on Trump, said Craig Wellman, 71, of Clear Lake, Iowa, who attended an event over the weekend for former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. But Wellman said he was now excited by Warren because of the way she has “fought her way back” and shown herself to be “undaunted” by the president’s attacks.
“She’s got chutzpah,” Wellman said, before stopping to choose a different word. “Forgive me, but she’s just got balls.”
Warren has presented her vision for taxing the super wealthy to shift money to programs aimed at boosting economically struggling and middle-class Americans as a path to make gains with some previously pro-Trump voters, and has traveled to conservative areas such as rural West Virginia to make her case.
Even as she rejected a Fox News invitation for a town hall, calling the network a “hate-for-profit racket,” one of its pro-Trump hosts, Tucker Carlson, recently praised Warren’s notion of “economic patriotism,” saying, “She sounds like Donald Trump at his best.”
The blueprints have convinced voters such as Tina Pyzik, 60, a resident of Kalamazoo, Mich., who has two grown children. Pyzik walked into a recent Warren event having donated to six Democratic presidential candidates, and left with her mind made up.
“Most of the people that I love that are running have the same beliefs that I do, the same ideas that I do, the same changes that they want to see — but I haven’t heard clear-cut ideas,” she said. “This just solidified it for me today that I am going to work on her campaign in Michigan. I’m all in. She has clear ideas and she wants to put them into practice.”
Warren’s apparent rise stands in contrast to some of her rivals, most notably former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who have struggled to maintain early momentum and settle on a defining message.
At multicandidate forums — most recently, one by the California Democratic Party — Warren is regularly earning the loudest cheers. Her “I have a plan for that” slogan has become a recognizable meme, featured on the campaign’s popular T-shirt.
How high Warren can go remains an open question. She is splitting the party’s more liberal voters with Sanders, and many Democrats wonder whether she would be the strongest candidate to take on Trump, given her left-leaning ideas and the president’s seeming ability in the past to get under her skin. Recent surveys measuring potential head-to-head matchups against Trump show Biden with significant leads and Warren in a closer contest.
One early setback — when Warren faced backlash to her announcement that she’d taken a DNA test showing that she had slightly elevated markers for Native American ancestry — still hovers over her campaign.
What had been intended as evidence of her heritage was criticized as a tone-deaf claim of cultural identity. The senator ultimately apologized for calling herself Native American over two decades, but the matter prompted concern among Democrats that she would struggle to defeat Trump, who has mocked her with the racially insensitive epithet “Pocahontas.”
On a recent appearance on “The Breakfast Club,” a popular morning radio show that draws a largely young, African American audience, Warren was repeatedly questioned about her past claims of Native American ethnicity, with one host comparing them to a white woman pretending to be black.
Warren said she had been told of this ostensible background by her relatives. “This is what I learned from my family,” she said.
Recent positive coverage of Warren’s campaign has especially rankled Sanders allies, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s inner workings who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to speak publicly. Sanders’s team privately complains that Warren has gotten credit for ideas it says he pioneered years earlier, such as making it easier to join unions.
In other presidential campaign cycles, the “candidate of ideas” label has sometimes been a ticket to nowhere, as Democrat Bill Bradley found in 2000 and Republican Ron Paul in 2012. Democrats for the moment appear to want assurances that a candidate has plans for cementing liberal change and reversing Trump’s policies.
“Not all voters will be comfortable with her policy positions, but I think she earns respect from voters for being specific and continuing to grind out more and more solutions,” said Jennifer Palmieri, an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and John Edwards’s 2004 and 2008 efforts. “You win people over slowly. It’s more of a tortoise than a hare strategy.”
Warren’s slow-and-steady approach has been a mantra for her campaign, partly out of necessity. The senator passed on what could have been a sizzling fight in 2015 against Clinton, only to face the reality in 2019 of a more crowded field with contenders who may have a fresh-faced appeal.
Warren has been boosted by an extensive organization and a relentless schedule. She used more than $10 million from her Senate reelection fund for an early investment in Iowa, where she has the largest staff of any campaign.
She dismissed her high-dollar campaign fundraiser and decided not to hire a traditional pollster, instead embarking on a blistering campaign schedule. By her campaign’s count, she had held 95 town hall meetings in 20 states and Puerto Rico through Wednesday, taken more than 422 audience questions, held 65 media availabilities and posed for selfies with more than 28,000 voters.
In the mode of Howard Dean’s losing 2004 campaign and Barack Obama’s winning 2008 effort, Warren has focused heavily on grass-roots organizing, creating a social media network for supporters and hitting up everyone who emailed, texted or appeared at a campaign event.
Two rudimentary policy calculators on her site, which let voters estimate how they would benefit under her student loan and child-care plans, have proven popular and serve as another recruiting tool.
To attend her events, which have grown larger in recent weeks, attendees must submit to placing colored stickers on their lapels, which mark them as a person for whom information has been gathered. Campaign aides ask attendees at every event to text their Zip code to a campaign database, capturing their phone numbers. The reward for giving up your data is a reply text with a photograph of Warren’s golden retriever, Bailey.
Campaign workers then reach out, often repeatedly, to recruit these people to volunteer.
Many of Warren’s backers cite her policy specifics and her ability to explain them. “She is better than most college professors,” said John Godfrey, an academic administrator in Ann Arbor, Mich. “She has managed to do it without being a wonk. She is able to craft a narrative.”
David Weigel and Holly Bailey in Iowa contributed to this report.