WASHINGTON — Is “persisting” paying off for Elizabeth Warren?
The senator from Massachusetts had a slow start in the Democratic presidential race, struggling with lackluster fund-raising and middling polls in the first few months of her campaign while watching rivals such as Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg each take a moment in the sun with bursts of support and surging contributions.
But now, there are early signs Warren’s relentless focus on policy detail and diligent face time with voters may be leading to a boost of her own, one that could help her break into the top tier of candidates that has been dominated by white men in early polls.
On Tuesday, four national polls conducted at the end of April showed Warren gained an average of 3 percentage points on her previous performance in those polls. One, from Quinnipiac University, placed Warren second in the sprawling field, at 12 percent, behind only Joe Biden, who had 38 percent. That’s a jump of 8 percentage points since the same poll was conducted a month ago.
It is only a small gain, and other recent developments underscore just how far Warren — who was once expected by some Democrats to have front-runner status — has to go. A Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll of New Hampshire also released Tuesday showed her mired in fourth place in her neighboring state. Biden, who officially jumped into the race last Thursday, is far ahead of Warren in every national poll. And voters still express far more confidence in other candidates than Warren to defeat President Trump.
In a field of 21 candidates, with 10 months to go before the Iowa caucuses, the race seems likely to shape-shift numerous times before Democrats decide on their nominee. But Warren’s gains in the polls — even if they are slight — signal an uptick in her momentum from a couple of months ago, when she was battling questions about whether her widely criticized decision to release a DNA test to address her claims of Native American heritage made her too controversial to get elected.
“I think Elizabeth Warren has found her footing,” said Mark Longabaugh, a former adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders who is not yet aligned with a candidate for 2020.
The bump comes after arguably one of the best weeks of Warren’s campaign. She stood out from her rivals in three high-stakes “cattle calls” featuring multiple candidates, drawing enthusiastic reviews from the activists at forums for college students, women of color, and union members.
Last week, at the She the People Forum in Houston, Warren was one of eight candidates to address a crowd of mostly women of color. She announced a plan to bring down maternal mortality among black women, addressed her proposals on the housing crisis and reducing student debt, and wove those in with biographical details, leaving women who said they had previously given her little consideration deeply impressed.
“I did not expect that from Elizabeth Warren. I was not prepared. I was completely shook. It was amazing,” said Nadia Tamez-Robledo, 31, a digital content specialist at a Latino-focused political activism group called Jolt. “She had a plan for everything!”
Warren’s focus on policy, far from being seen as too wonky or remote, is becoming her calling card in a crowded field — and the words “I’ve got a plan” have become an applause line on the stump.
“She is responding to the Janet Jackson question around, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ” said LaTosha Brown, a cofounder of Black Voters Matter, who said she believes interest in Warren is growing among black voters.
The campaign has embraced the excitement around her policies, selling “Warren has a plan for that” T-shirts and tote bags along with the “Persist” items highlighting a 2017 clash with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell that became a rallying cry for liberal women.
Warren’s campaign has been strategic about which policy proposals to release and when, tying them to specific campaign events. Last week, on the morning of a CNN town hall in Manchester, N.H., focused on college students, she announced a plan to forgive $50,000 in student loans for most people who have college debt. Rivals Sanders, Senator Kamala Harris, and Buttigieg were each asked to respond to her plan during the town hall, creating the impression that Warren is setting the policy agenda within the field.
Adding insult to injury, Sanders, who is battling with Warren for the allegiance of the populist left, was also asked about Warren’s announcement, a few days earlier, that she supported impeaching the president.
“She was in command of her facts, her policy, where she wanted to go,” Longabaugh said. “You start stringing all those together and a campaign starts to gain traction.”
Joe Trippi, a political consultant and former campaign manager for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, said Warren has benefited from diving into specifics while other candidates, including Harris and Buttigieg, have been pressed to offer more detail, particularly during the CNN town hall.
Warren may also be drawing support from some female Democrats who are frustrated by the fact that the field’s women candidates are lagging behind the men in polling and — in many cases — fund-raising.
“Her sheer doggedness and how substantial she’s been has sort of provoked a [question of] hey, you know, what’s up with three white guys being at the top when this woman’s busting her tail and hasn’t caught on yet?” said Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.
But despite the glimmer of good news for Warren this week, the polling continues to show voters are concerned about her ability to beat Trump. Only 3 percent of voters in the Quinnipiac poll named Warren as the candidate with the best chance of defeating the president, compared to Biden’s 56 percent and Sanders’ 12 percent. That’s a dire statistic for any candidate in a race in which Democratic voters consistently say “electability” is on the top of their shopping list for a nominee.
And even if Warren is having a bit of a moment, any burst of support can be hard to sustain, as O’Rourke’s experience shows. Harris, who out-raised every Democratic candidate except Sanders in the first quarter and surged in some national polls after her well-attended presidential announcement, also has fallen back to earth in more recent polls.
Now Biden, the former vice president who just entered the race, may draw a rush of interest from voters, which could eat into Warren’s support.
“You don’t get through this without a bunch of ups and downs all the way through it,” Trippi said.
Liz Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Jess Bidgood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jessbidgood.