WASHINGTON – Elizabeth Warren has been climbing in the Democratic presidential contest by using a stream of policy blueprints and hours of selfies with voters to chip away at her immediate target: Bernie Sanders.
Warren’s path to directly challenging front-runner Joe Biden runs through Sanders, her main rival for progressive voters and the candidate who’s steadily held the No. 2 spot in most polls.
The Massachusetts senator is making inroads and attracting voters with a flood of detailed proposals on issues from taxing the ultra-wealthy and offering universal child care to breaking up big technology firms and investing in a green economy. She eschews high-dollar fundraisers as a way to bolster her anti-establishment credentials and free up time for virtually limitless conversations with voters at campaign events.
“There’s nobody even close to nipping at the heels of Elizabeth Warren” when it comes to outlining specific policies, said Ron Abramson, a 50-year-old immigration lawyer from Bow, New Hampshire.
Abramson is the type of voter that Sanders should worry about. He was a Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and held a house party for the Vermont upstart. A sweeping victory in New Hampshire, a key early state, vaulted Sanders into a serious threat to Hillary Clinton. But now Abramson is supporting Warren.
“I still have a lot of admiration and respect for Bernie,” he said. “But I feel like 2016 may have been his time and 2020 is not.”
Warren also has to fend off Kamala Harris, a competitor for support from women who want a female standard-bearer for the party going into the 2020 election.
On Harris’s home turf of California, Warren drew a crowd of 6,500 people last Friday in Oakland, one day before firing up the state Democratic convention across the bay in San Francisco. Her raucous reception stole some thunder from Harris, as Warren vowed to “save our democracy” and root out corruption.
And at a Wednesday night town hall in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that was broadcast on MSNBC, she delivered what has become a signature applause line: “You can’t just wave your arms. You really gotta have a plan. And I do have a plan.”
Conversations with voters in recent weeks show that Warren’s slogan has caught on.
“She has plans! To address problems that are real! What an inspiring idea!” said Lynn Faris of Alameda, California, who also plans to support Warren.
Erin Sanders, 42, of San Francisco, said she’s leaning toward Warren over Harris, who has roots in the city as a district attorney. She likes both, but prefers Warren because Harris is “trying to be all things to all people” whereas Warren is willing to “take a stand firmly.”
“She’s really stayed on point. Every time there’s a bad news report she’s got a plan for us,” she said of Warren. “She’s not the shiny thing but she’s the smart thing.”
Warren’s bet is that her brand as a policy wonk seeking to transform the U.S. and bridge inequalities will outmatch Biden’s pitch to return to a time of consensus-building and moderation. Several surveys show her gaining ground among self-identified liberals and jumping into double-digits while Sanders slips from the mid-20s to the teens.
Though most polls show Warren still in third place behind the better-known Biden and Sanders, a CNN survey released Tuesday found that more Democrats are giving her a look: She was the “second choice” for more primary voters than anybody except Biden.
Most polls show Warren neck-and-neck with Harris, though the California senator’s support has dipped modestly in recent months.
Warren and Sanders are favorites of liberal activists — they support Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and have scars to show from enemies on Wall Street. Many of their differences come down to branding: While Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist to appeal to those disenchanted with free markets, Warren says she’s a capitalist who wants to wield government to shield people from rapacious corporations.
So far, Sanders hasn’t gone after Warren, instead focusing his fire on Biden. At a CNN town hall in April, he responded to a question about Warren’s student debt cancellation plan by saying, “Elizabeth and I end up agreeing on a whole lot of issues.”
Warren’s rise comes after an early blunder involving her claim to Native American heritage that drew mockery from President Donald Trump and sparked fears among Democrats that she isn’t ready to take him on.
Her advisers recognize she still has a major hurdle: a perception that she’s unelectable that has taken hold among older voters.
Many Democrats are desperate to defeat Trump at all costs and worry that a woman who, like Warren, has sharp elbows and is unafraid to be confrontational, will alienate general election voters. They worry she’s vulnerable to caricature by a president with a knack for derisively branding his foes. Some say they like Warren but won’t vote to nominate her because they think the U.S. won’t elect a woman president.
“I love everything she stands for but I think she just pisses too many people off,” said Eric Leith, 58, from Litchfield, New Hampshire.
Adam Jentleson, who was a deputy chief of staff to former Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, said negative perceptions of Warren are based on “people just believing the caricature of her that’s been painted on Fox News and other places, and not having a lot of exposure to her.”
Warren has plowed money into hiring a large and expansive staff, with a heavy focus on the first two nominating contests of Iowa and New Hampshire. Some analysts have questioned whether her first quarter burn rate, combined with refusing big fundraisers, is sustainable.
Morgan Shidler of Oakland said she prefers Warren’s style over Sanders’ and plans to vote for her in California, which looms large in the contest with an early primary and mail-in voting that begins on the day of the Iowa caucuses.
“All he does is point out problems,” Shidler said. “She has solutions.”
Warren consistently uses policy rollouts to address topics in the news. When Alabama passed a measure criminalizing nearly all abortion, Warren released a proposal to codify Roe v. Wade protections into law. After special counsel Robert Mueller said Justice Department policy prohibited him from charging a sitting president with a crime, she offered a plan that would remove that constraint and let a sitting president be indicted.
She recently visited West Virginia, the heart of Trump country, and drew applause as she pitched her $100 billion plan to combat opioid addiction.
Warren wrapped up a swing through Michigan and Indiana on Wednesday to pitch yet another plan: She proposed eliminating the Commerce Department and replacing it with a new Department of Economic Development that would be tasked with creating and protecting American jobs.
Rivals have taken note of her policy focus.
“I think she’s on to something,” Harris said Saturday when asked by a reporter if she supports Warren’s wealth tax.
Then she pivoted to her own plans to cut middle-class taxes and bridge the gender pay gap.