Behind Elizabeth Warren’s surge: Emotional punch coupled with attention to detail

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts speaks during a town hall event last week in Iowa City, Iowa.
(Joshua Lott / Getty Images)

One by one, each candidate who took the stage at an LGBTQ presidential candidate forum here got the same question and gave a nearly identical answer.

What would they do from Day 1 of their presidencies to address concerns of gay, lesbian and transgender communities, the moderators asked. Each of the first eight candidates responded with a list of positions that command widespread support among Democrats: lifting the Trump administration’s ban on transgender military service, backing passage of the Equality Act, appointing Justice Department officials committed to civil rights enforcement.

Then came Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s turn.

“I’m not going to tell you, I’m going to show you,” she said, as she pulled out a notecard and began to read: “Dana Martin, Jazzeline Ware, Ashanti Carmon …”


The auditorium fell silent as the litany of names continued. “... Bee Love Slater, Ja’Leyah-Jamar: Eighteen trans women of color who have been killed so far this year,” she said. “It is time for a president of the United States of America to say their names.”

The room broke into loud applause. Within moments, Warren’s hyper-efficient social media team had tweeted out the list to her followers. A short time later, when her time onstage ended after several more questions, the crowd — many of whom wore T-shirts and carried placards identifying themselves as supporters of Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind. — stood and cheered.

On the campaign trail, Elizabeth Warren rarely mentions her two decades teaching at Harvard, preferring to dwell on her humble roots in Oklahoma. Her path to the White House may depend on which version of her voters accept — prairie populist or Ivy League elitist.

Sept. 22, 2019

Afterward, it was clear the Massachusetts senator had added more converts to her growing list.

“Pete was fine,” one Buttigieg supporter was overheard saying to a friend. “But you can’t let yourself be out-energized by the grandma in the race.”

Warren has out-energized a lot of rivals over the last few months.

At a point when the still-large Democratic field has started to shrink, with candidates facing a third-quarter fundraising deadline that will probably drive more from the race, and when voter opinions have begun to gel, Warren has put herself in position to win this state’s caucuses and grab the mantle of front-runner.

The latest Des Moines Register poll, released Saturday night by J. Ann Selzer, the state’s most respected pollster, showed Warren in the lead for the first time, narrowly ahead of Joe Biden, 22% to 20%. Her rival on the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who nearly won here in 2016, had slipped to third, at 11%, with Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris of California trailing further behind at 9% and 6%, respectively. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey, both at 3%, were the only others with more than 2% backing.


More than four months remain before voters attend Iowa’s caucuses Feb. 3, the primary season’s first contest, and almost two-thirds of the likely voters in the poll said they could still change their minds. So Warren’s lead is hardly written in stone.

But the survey gave evidence her support could grow further: 71% said they were at least considering Warren, significantly more than the 60% for Biden and more than any other candidate.

As Friday night’s forum showed, Warren has attracted support by combining two skills often not found together — careful preparation and attention to details on the one hand, and, on the other, an ability to connect emotionally with her audience.

Elizabeth Warren entered politics after honing her skills on “Dr. Phil,” a staple of daytime confessional TV.

Aug. 27, 2019

In her rallies, Warren taps into much of the same voter anger toward government and the political system that President Trump feeds on, while offering a dramatically different solution.

Where Trump plays off his supporters’ resentment of “the elites,” Warren denounces the corrupting power of money. She has honed her case into a succinct argument that she laid out this way at an event Thursday evening in Iowa City:

“Whatever issue brought you here tonight, whether it’s gun violence, healthcare, education — whatever brought you here — there’s a decision to be made in Washington: I guarantee, it’s been influenced by money.


“When government works for the wealthy and the well connected, when government works for those who have money, when government works for those who hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers and is not working well for everyone else, that is corruption pure and simple, and we need to call it out for what it is.”

She studiously avoids mentioning her rivals by name but offers an unmistakable contrast with Biden when she declares that “we’re not at a moment where you can say, ‘I know, I’ve got two statutes over here and one regulatory change over there, and we’ll change the head of a department over there.’ No, we need big, structural change in this country.

“How do we get there? I’ve got a plan.”

 Presidential candidates attend Polk County Democrats' steak fry in Des Moines
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren runs to the stage before speaking at the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry on Saturday in Des Moines.
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Biden more directly, although politely, criticizes “my friend Elizabeth” — most specifically over her support for “Medicare for all,” which he attacks as a politically unfeasible project that would require a huge, unsustainable tax increase that Warren, unlike Sanders, has never acknowledged.

“You can’t beat Trump by not being straightforward,” Biden said Friday at a town hall event in Cedar Rapids when he was confronted by a voter who supports Medicare for all. “Tell Elizabeth to tell it’s going to cost a lot of money, and she’s going to raise people’s taxes doing it.”

More broadly, he defends an approach to government that his critics consider overly cautious and incremental.


“You can’t leave out entire segments of society and expect to get things done; you’ve got to know how to negotiate, you’ve got to know how to bring people together, generate consensus,” he said in answer to a question about climate change and the disastrous floods that have hit the Midwest in recent years. “That’s something I’ve spent my whole life doing.

“And I know everybody says, ‘Well, you know you can’t cooperate anymore,’ but if you can’t cooperate anymore, get ready, get your flippers out and your wetsuit.”

That call for compromise appeals to many of Biden’s supporters.

“He knows how the system is supposed to work — and that’s very important right now,” said Dow Bates, 84, a chiropractic physician from Des Moines, as he waited with his wife for the speakers at a multi-candidate event known as the Steak Fry.

Bates, recalling how the tea party movement dragged Republicans, including Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, to the right, said he feared a similar dynamic could make the Democrats more radical.

“We need a viable democracy where we can work things out. And we’ve lost that,” he said. “We don’t have a real Republican Party now. I hope that a similar schism on the left doesn’t make it so the Democrats can’t get anything done even on their side.”

Along with their contrasting views, the two candidates offer a sharply divergent subtext to which voters respond: People go to Warren rallies seeking excitement; they attend Biden events for reassurance.


“We’d like someone moderate,” said Dave Nelson, 76, a resident of Hiawatha, a suburb of Cedar Rapids. He was one of about 200 voters, mostly middle-aged and older, at Biden’s event.

“We have to make sure we don’t have an extreme liberal as our candidate; that just gives people an excuse to vote for Trump,” he said as he and his wife, Orla, waited for Biden to speak.

Joe Biden is carrying a 20th century voting record into a 21st century political dogfight.

March 18, 2019

The two admire Biden, said Orla, 75. “He’s got a lot of wisdom.” But they worry about him, too, and hope he picks a strong running mate if he becomes the nominee.

“We need someone like Amy [Klobuchar] in there to back Biden up if his energy fails him,” she said. “He’s got to be really careful about who he chooses.”

Although Warren, who turned 70 in June, is only 6 ½ years younger than Biden, who will turn 77 in November, voters don’t seem to view the two as similar in age. Her rallies, from the jogging onstage that invariably opens them through the lengthy selfie line that ends them, convey a message of vigor.

The crowd at her Thursday evening event was about 10 times larger than Biden’s, and about 900 stayed for as long as an hour and a half afterward to get selfies with the candidate.


Susan Futrell and Flora Cassiliano, neighbors in Iowa City, were near the end of the line. Both said they were still weighing several candidates but praised Warren’s energy and stamina.

Biden and Sanders “are tremendous public servants,” said Futrell, who noted that her first Iowa caucus was for George McGovern in 1972 when she had just turned 18.

“I like to respect them for that,” she said, but “I don’t believe that an old, white guy is the only safe choice. Why would we look backward?”

She had hesitated about Warren because “I worried about her being a heady professor, a policy wonk,” she added. “Instead, what I see is she’s really able to tell her story.”

Times staff writer Melanie Mason in Des Moines contributed to this report.