Elizabeth Warren: A Populist for the Professional Class

BOSTON — It is, without a doubt, one of the most compelling stories that Elizabeth Warren tells.

She was just a girl when her father (“my daddy,” she calls him) had a heart attack. The family lost its station wagon and came close to losing its home. That is when her mother dug out “the dress.” “You know the one,” Ms. Warren says of the outfit that her mother saved for weddings, funerals and graduations. Muttering to herself “we will not lose this house, we will not lose this house,” her mother slipped it on, marched to Sears and won a minimum-wage job to keep their family afloat.

From Iowa to New Hampshire to California, most of the 100,000-plus people who have taken “selfies” with Ms. Warren have heard some version of the story, often listening in rapt silence. But Ms. Warren’s presidential campaign has never packaged the wrenching tale into a tidy television commercial for the millions of Americans who will vote on Super Tuesday, or who voted in any other state so far.

What Ms. Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, calls her upbringing on the “ragged edge of the middle class” is foundational for her progressive agenda of a more assertive federal government that helps the less fortunate: a higher minimum wage, universal child care, a wealth tax. But her Oklahoma origin story — she went by Betsy at the time — has largely been lost in a 2020 race where she has become defined chiefly as the wonkish “plan for that” candidate.

“What too many voters see,” said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist who worked on President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “is Professor Warren from Harvard Law and not Betsy from Norman, Oklahoma.”

Mr. Begala favorably compared Ms. Warren’s up-from-the-bootstraps life with his old client’s: a kid from the South who grew up amid hardship, ended up in an Ivy League institution and ultimately ran for president.

Ms. Warren’s relentless stream of erudite and innovation policy proposals — her latest would address the economic and medical implications of the coronavirus — helped lift her to front-runner status early last fall. She wowed the professional progressive class, delighted academics and activists and captured the imagination of MSNBC’s attentive audience.

But her populism and popularity never fully trickled down. Even at her peak, her strongest support came from what political operatives call the “wine track” of Democratic politics: white, affluent and college-educated voters, especially women.

“It’s both what got her to where she is but maybe prevented her from reaching beyond that,” said Joe Trippi, who served in 2004 as campaign manager for Howard Dean, another candidate in a long history of Democrats who won over the “wine track” but ultimately lost the nomination.

Now, as voters head to the polls on Super Tuesday, Ms. Warren’s campaign has all but admitted her pathway to winning the Democratic nomination outright has vanished. She enters March seeking to accumulate delegates for a potential contested convention and is most realistically hunting for them in more educated enclaves, like Seattle and Denver, where she recently held rallies and is investing heavily in advertising.

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In many ways, the arc of the Warren candidacy is the story of her cornering an upscale demographic early, only to become confined to it, and then lose her grip on it.

Senator Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialist pitch has been more effective in winning over the working class, while former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has maintained overwhelming popularity among black voters.

At her high-water mark, last October, Ms. Warren had consolidated an enviable 38 percent support from college-educated white voters, according to a Quinnipiac poll. But former Mayor Pete Buttigieg soon made serious inroads with less ideological upscale white voters and finished ahead of Ms. Warren in each of the first four voting states. Senator Amy Klobuchar sapped some support from college-educated women, particularly in New Hampshire.

The back-to-back exits of Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Klobuchar on Sunday and Monday could help Ms. Warren win back some those votes, even as both formally endorsed Mr. Biden.

In interviews with more than 20 Warren allies, former advisers, rival campaigns and independent Democratic strategists, everyone wondered how her own narrative — despite the fact that she starts almost every event with at least a speed-read of her biography — ended up as a casualty of the campaign. The clearest example, most agreed, is how little of it she put in paid advertising.

Through February, the television ad that her campaign had spent the most money to air, according to data from the media-tracking firm Advertising Analytics, was about her pledge not to appoint big donors to “cushy ambassadorships.” Four ads that at least mentioned her Oklahoma upbringing ran fewer times combined, according to the firm’s database.

The campaign said that about 40 percent of its overall television ad budget went to what it considered biographical ads, though that counted ads mostly focused on her role creating a new federal consumer agency, not her early life. A Warren adviser added that her ads were tested and the campaign aired its best-performing spots.

Of course, the days before a make-or-break moment lend themselves to 2020 hindsight, and it’s possible that a “Betsy from Oklahoma”-heavy campaign would have backfired, with rivals grumbling about authenticity.

Ms. Warren has long since graduated from her childhood economic insecurity to life with a golden retriever, Harvard tenure and a Senate sinecure. Her decision to undertake a DNA test in late 2018 to show Native American heritage haunted her candidacy in its early months, and could have complicated efforts to focus on the rest of her family story, however evocative.

The results in February plainly demonstrate the disconnect between her candidacy and the more blue-collar segments of the electorate, as her performance correlated closely with education levels, rising steadily in precincts where the share of those with college degrees was higher.

In Iowa, she emerged with the most delegates in only a single county, Johnson, the state’s best educated and the home of the University of Iowa.

In New Hampshire, exit polling showed that Ms. Warren sank into a statistical tie among those without a college degree with Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who has been mostly an afterthought in the race.

In Nevada, she again struggled among those who never attended college, earning about half as much support as Tom Steyer, the billionaire businessman who, according to entrance polling, was a nonfactor in the overall race before he dropped out Saturday. Her best demographic groups? Those with advanced degrees and regular users of Twitter.

In South Carolina, exit polls showed Ms. Warren garnering only 3 percent support among those who never attended college (the same level as Mr. Buttigieg).

From the start, Ms. Warren’s campaign has made efforts to connect with working-class and nonwhite voters. There was an early trip to the Mississippi Delta, a visit to Kermit, W.Va., to talk about the opioid crisis there, and, on the eve of Super Tuesday, a last stop in California in heavily Latino East Los Angeles.

Her own story — she waited tables at 13, dropped out of college and got married at 19, had a child at 22, was divorced at 30 — has been woven into her stump speech, too. But only a tiny fraction of the electorate will ever see a candidate in person.

“She does talk about her story on the trail, but think about who goes to rallies — well-educated activists, not noncollege voters,” said Meredith Kelly, who served as communications director for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand during her presidential campaign. “A bigger and earlier spend on television to talk about her working-class roots would likely have gone a long way.”

Ms. Warren’s most visible branding, instead, became around her many plans.

“She speaks my love language,” as Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, a top surrogate and national co-chair, liked to say when introducing Ms. Warren. “Policy.”

Some allies grumbled that such framing was an effective way to win over only postdoctoral students, not a broad-based political coalition.

Most of the contrast that Ms. Warren drew early on with her rivals was more high-minded and process-oriented than visceral. It wasn’t until Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, entered the race that her attacks turned more personal.

One of the first times she called out Mr. Buttigieg by name was to demand that he reveal his McKinsey consulting clients and open his fund-raisers to the press (there was also, along with Mr. Sanders, the “wine cave” fund-raising attack). There was the ambassadorships ad saying she was the only Democrat pledging not to appoint big donors.

And in Denver a week ago, she pegged the “big diff” between her and Mr. Sanders to be on the filibuster, talking through the arcana of how Senate parliamentary procedure is used to enact an agenda of “big, structural change.”

“‘I have a plan’ — it’s an intellectual argument,” Mr. Trippi, the Dean campaign manager, said. “Ten-point plans just don’t have as much emotional appeal.”

Mr. Begala, the former Clinton adviser who called Ms. Warren’s biography “as compelling a story as anybody in the race,” pointed to her campaign’s decision not to rely on a polling firm as a challenge that most likely made it harder to determine how the candidate best connected with voters. In 1992, he said, the Clinton campaign did not realize the power of his biography almost until deep into the race.

“You know what? I certainly hope when she goes to a doctor, she lets them use a thermometer. I’m sorry I have contempt for that view. To professionally measure and strategize is not to be inauthentic,” Mr. Begala said. “She doesn’t go with her gut on health care or Wall Street regulations. She talks to experts — and she is one herself.”

Running to be the first female president is another complicating factor. Allies and rivals alike acknowledged her gender has most likely played a role in how she was perceived.

One former Warren adviser said that while Ms. Warren’s biography and agenda should, in concept, appeal to blue-collar types, she had long produced a similar negative reaction among noncollege white men to Hillary Clinton that was “just not fair.”

“It’s an extra challenge to be a very obviously well-educated, articulate female,” said Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts representative, who also worked with Ms. Warren after the 2008 economic crisis. “There is a cultural element there and she clearly is at the more high end, as things go.”

If Ms. Warren did not aggressively blanket the airwaves with her personal story, her rivals jumped at the chance to try to define her. They cast her as either talking down to or looking down at voters, often in terms that the Warren camp viewed as gendered.

Former representative Beto O’Rourke called her “punitive.” Mr. Biden accused her of an “an elitism that working- and middle-class people do not share and branded her a “my way or the highway” politician.

Doug Rubin, a Massachusetts strategist who worked on Ms. Warren’s 2012 Senate campaign and who advised Mr. Steyer during his run, said he had been surprised how absent Ms. Warren’s telling of her own biography has been from the 2020 race.

“I don’t see that story being told to any extent at all, and given her resources that’s a surprise to me,” he said. “She is absolutely not this caricature of a Harvard professor. She is the exact opposite.”

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