Elizabeth Warren hadn’t visited Iowa since 2014 — a long time away, for someone who seems to have been pondering a presidential bid for a while now. But she traveled there immediately after announcing her presidential exploratory committee, crisscrossing the state from Friday to Sunday to hold five public events. I’ve been following Warren throughout, from Council Bluffs to Sioux City to Storm Lake to Des Moines — and I’ve picked up on a few key themes that anyone interested in Warren’s nearly-official presidential campaign would do well to ponder.
1. She’s an extremely good retail politician
At every stop on Warren’s Iowa trip, more people have turned out to see her than can actually fit in the venue in the town she’s in. It’s a good problem to have, obviously, but it also keeps a lot of potential supporters from hearing what she has to say. So Warren’s been doing something very smart: She stops to visit the overflow crowd before speaking to the people inside, apologizing to them that they don’t have seats and then delivering a distilled version of her stump speech. She then takes questions from the audience, and if there’s time, lets people snap some selfies with her before heading into the main event.
All of which points to a bigger conclusion: In an environment like Iowa (and New Hampshire!), which puts a premium on face-to-face campaigning, Warren is a natural fit. She seems to feed off her interactions with voters in a way not every politician does, drawing energy from the back-and-forth they have and then, in turn, imparting that energy back to them in a virtuous cycle. Given that Warren’s a law professor known for her skill in the classroom, this isn’t necessarily a surprise. But in Iowa, people who’ve only seen her on TV, or haven’t really seen much of her at all, have said told me she was better in person than they expected. After Warren’s kickoff event in Council Bluffs, Roger Utman of Papillion, Nebraska said: “I’ve heard [Warren] talk a lot of different times on television, but I was really impressed with her…. She’s very personable.” His wife, Nancy, added: “Her sense of humor came out tonight…. I think she’s an intense person, and sometimes I think the intensity that she comes across with doesn’t show the warmth that I saw in person.” (Some go-to Warren laugh lines: being told she was a “surprise” by her mother and not knowing what that meant until she was 30, and imprudently getting married at the tender age of 19 — “following looooooooove,” as Warren put it at one point.)
2. The Ancestry Issue Hasn’t Gone Away
In Sioux City, Warren’s first question came from someone who wanted to know why she released the results of a DNA test that seems to confirm her claims of at least some Native American ancestry. The move, the questioner said, simply gave President Donald Trump — who’s repeatedly taunted Warren as “Pocohantas” — a “chance to be a bully.”
“I am not a person of color,” Warren replied. “I am not a citizen of a tribe. ... Tribes and only tribes determine tribal citizenship, and I respect that difference.” She went on to say that she’d heard tales of Native American ancestry while growing up in Oklahoma; that Republicans started making this an issue when she ran for the Senate in 2012; and that she finally decided to make all relevant material available to the public so they could decide for themselves what to think. “Just put it all out there — all my hiring records, including the DNA test, it’s out there; it’s online. … I can’t stop Donald Trump from what he’s going to do. I can’t stop him from hurling racial insults.”
That response might appease critics on the left who’ve accused Warren of questionable appropriation of Native American identity. But it omits one key detail: Warren’s decision to identify as Native American for several years in a national law-school directory, something she later stopped doing. And that omission, in turn, suggests that Warren hasn’t quite figured out how explain that facet of her story. She’ll need to, because it’s going to come up — maybe in the Democratic primaries, but certainly if she’s the Democratic nominee.
In the interim, it’s clear that concern over Warren’s handling of this particular issue isn’t just a concoction of the elite coastal media. It wasn’t mentioned by everyone I spoke with here. In fact, only a small minority brought it up. But it’s out there.
“What concerns me is, I think this gene test may come back to haunt her,” Vincent Bjork of Lake City told me as he waited to see Warren in Storm Lake. “It’s something that they can ridicule her about. ... The results — I don’t remember right off the top of my head, 1/10 of 1 percent or whatever. There’s all kinds of possibilities for ammunition there.”
3. Some Of Warren’s Other (Alleged) Negatives Might Be Non-Issues, At Least In the Primary
When the Boston Globe ran its preemptive anti-endorsement of Warren’s presidential bid back in December, it said she’d become a “divisive figure.” But this concern was barely mentioned by the voters I spoke with. If memory serves, it was mentioned by one woman who went on to say that Warren’s stump speech had alleviated her concern. In any event, my unscientific polling suggests it’s a cause for markedly less voter ambivalence than the DNA/ancestry issue. The caveat, obviously, is that I’ve been talking with Iowans who are (at a bare minimum) considering supporting Warren in 2020. More conservative voters here and elsewhere might agree with the Globe’s characterization. But it doesn’t seem likely to hurt Warren in the Iowa caucuses.
Another lingering Warren question, at least according to many in the political media, is whether a Harvard Law professor who lives in Cambridge (!) can connect with voters in Middle America. As I mentioned earlier, it’s already clear that she can. It’s also clear that Warren’s been doing some hard thinking about how to pitch herself to more moderate and conservative voters. She references the fact that she’s from Oklahoma; she says she has three brothers, only one of whom is a Democrat; and she argues that Democrats and Republicans really aren’t that far apart. “It’s not just Democrats who want to educate their children and see their kids do well,” she said in Sioux City. “It’s not just Democrats who worry about serious health problems occurring. It’s not just Democrats who are staring down a retirement and wondering where the money’s coming from.”
Bear in mind, too, that there are plenty of people in Middle America who already see Warren’s academic bona fides as a reason to support her. “I’m an academic, and most of my friends are academics, so we like that,” Laurie Furlong of Orange City told me on Saturday. “I’ve always been attracted to candidates that are more intelligent than I am,” her husband, Jamie, added. “I kind of resist that approach that we need Joe the Plumber as president of the United States.” For the record, I can’t recall speaking with anyone who voiced concern that Warren would be seen as an East Coast elitist, or words to that effect.
4. Warren’s Prospective Supporters Are Thinking About The Politics Of Gender — But They Don’t Necessarily Agree
In Sioux City, a woman named Teresa Piersman told me, unprompted, that Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 had them concerned that Warren might not get a fair shake as a presidential candidate due to her gender. “I’m not sure [about] a woman candidate, after the whole Hillary thing, and I supported Hillary,” said Piersman. “I think Warren might be a better VP candidate, just because she is a woman, which is terrible to say.” Her daughter Devon, though, was far less concerned. “Warren’s at the top of my list,” she said — adding that gender alone is no guarantee that Warren’s campaign will be a mirror image of Clinton’s.
For other potential Warren supporters, meanwhile, the prospect of supporting another female candidate is something they relish, not something that gives them pause. “Bull—,” Maureen Haley of Sioux City said when I told her about Piersman’s misgivings. “I think it’s more likely than ever in the history of this country for a female to win.”
It’s an argument that’s bolstered, here in Iowa, by the results of the 2018 midterms. “We just had a cycle — we now have a female governor, although I didn’t vote for her; we just got two very good Iowa congress[women] in for the first time,” Claudia Koch told me after Warren’s event in Storm Lake. “And then, in our local county we just got in two new women in office. .... That, to me, states that Iowa is very ready for women.”
5. It’s Way, Way, Way Too Early To Start Handicapping The Caucuses
In my first dispatch from Iowa, I noted that Warren recently placed fourth in a recent poll of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers. But that number comes with a big caveat. While there are people here who’ve followed Warren for years, read her books, and love what she has to say, there are also people whose knowledge of Warren was limited or nonexistent. After Warren’s event in Des Moines Saturday night, which drew about 1000 people to a venue downtown, one woman raved about Warren’s performance — and admitted she’d learned about her via Wikipedia a few hours earlier. This, I should be clear, is no knock on Iowans — just a reminder that across the country, there are plenty of smart, civically minded men and women who don’t pay obsessive attention to politics, and are just now beginning to size up their options for 2020.
What’s more, there’s a dynamic at play in Iowa that resembles the one you see in New Hampshire: They take great pride in their early, outsized role in the presidential-nominating process, and they’re loathe to commit to a given candidate until they’ve had a chance to see as many members of the field as possible. I was told repeatedly by Iowans who like Warren that OF COURSE it’s very early, and they’re going to do as much research as they can before they pick a favorite. The next time someone like me cites a poll that makes Warren or any other candidate look strong or weak, bear this in mind.