FAIRFIELD, Iowa — Not far from this town’s transcendental meditation school, on the second floor of the used bookstore, a mostly white-haired group plotted Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.
Carole Simmons, a retired researcher who hosted the gathering of Warren devotees last weekend, read instructions from the state’s new Run Warren Run headquarters.
“We’re supposed to take pictures and tweet,” she said. “Who’s good at tweeting?”
Iowa is on the front line of the draft-Warren movement, a $1.25 million effort funded by the liberal groups MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, which have chosen the country’s first caucus state as a cornerstone for their push.
This “house party” — one of 11 in Iowa and more than 200 nationwide last weekend — embodies the effort: scrappy, earnest, ambitious.
And, quite possibly, pointless.
The shadow campaign’s greatest challenge is Warren herself. She has repeatedly stated that she will not mount a White House bid, so these supporters are left to prove they are anything more than a doting fan club of wishful thinkers — political freelancers who are dedicating numerous hours to organize ground troops and raise large sums of money in the name of a noncandidate.
“Elizabeth Warren is a ridiculous long shot, but you can call that a sense of desperation,” said Patrick Bosold, a 65-year-old software engineer at the meeting who made a retching sound to explain his distaste for corporate interests. “We are not being terribly politically realistic, and I don’t care.”
Warren’s national profile has shot up in recent months, after she knocked out President Obama’s pick for a key Treasury Department post and nearly blocked a major spending bill because she objected to a provision that eased financial regulations. Her laserlike focus on income inequality and corporate greed have triggered a groundswell of liberal support, and pleas from some of her biggest backers that she run for president.
It does not seem to matter that Warren has said she will complete her Senate term, which ends in January 2019. Her refusals have only prompted more organized draft efforts.
Ready for Warren, a super PAC that can spend unlimited funds, was launched in July and has raised nearly $99,000. The political action committee for MoveOn.org, an advocacy group started in 1998 to defend President Bill Clinton from impeachment, pledged $1 million to a Run Warren Run movement in December. Democracy for America, a political action committee founded by former Vermont governor Howard Dean, has vowed to assist with at least $250,000.
But many Iowa Democrats take her multiple refusals at face value. She visited the state only once last year, to stump for a Senate candidate, Bruce Braley. He lost. No prominent Iowa advisers are providing their services. Party officials have yet to come forward and endorse a potential Warren candidacy.
“It’s good that people are organizing and taking action, but I can’t imagine this is fruitful,” said Scott Brennan, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman who stepped down in January. “There’s not a point.”
The last effective presidential draft movement took place more than a decade ago, when “Draft Clark” supporters helped encourage an eager Wesley Clark to run in the 2004 race. He backed out several months later and endorsed John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat.
‘It’s good that people are organizing and taking action, but I can’t imagine this is fruitful.’Scott Brennan, ex-Iowa Democratic party chairman
The young faces in the draft movement’s state headquarters in Des Moines believe Warren will prove the next success.
Iowa’s Run Warren Run headquarters opened in an office warehouse space last Thursday with a crowd of about 30 people, a potluck that consisted largely of prepackaged sweets and unwavering assurance that activists could sway the Massachusetts senator.
One of the five paid staffers recruited his father to help with telephone calls. They encouraged visitors to fill out postcards for Warren and promised to run a “100 percent positive campaign,” despite a general distrust of presumed primary front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton and her support from Wall Street interests. In the 2008 Iowa caucus, Clinton came in third.
The embryonic Warren movement, only two months in, has tapped into a deeper discontent with the Democratic Party’s agenda and given liberals a rare sounding board.
“What we are trying to do is not just draft Elizabeth Warren, but we are trying to model what a Democratic campaign should look like,” said Charles Chamberlain, Democracy for America’s executive director.
The Iowa garage operation represents one piece of a sophisticated national fund-raising effort that could benefit the groups, even as it helps Warren.
A Run Warren Run website asks donors to click on boxes from $5 to $1,500 and sends the money to MoveOn.org’s coffers.
The group, whose members voted to support the draft, has not created a separate pot for the funds it gets from the Warren recruitment efforts. Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, declined to discuss how much the group has raised off the Warren brand but said those who contribute “can see the resources being invested by grass-roots donors are going to the service of drafting Elizabeth Warren for president.”
Warren has ignored the latest campaign, though her attorney wrote to the Federal Election Commission last year, making it clear she did not “authorize, endorse, or otherwise approve” of Ready for Warren.
A Warren spokeswoman said the senator does not support MoveOn.org’s and Democracy for America’s fund-raising efforts, either. Ready for Warren, because it can raise unlimited money, has different legal requirements. But her office declined to explain why she has not formally distanced herself from the latest effort.
MoveOn.org has brought on two senior advisers to guide its national draft-Warren campaign. A New Hampshire office will open in coming days. And more than 90 artists signed a letter on Tuesday encouraging a Warren bid, including celebrities Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, and Ed Norton.
They don’t seem to notice that Warren keeps saying no.
“We will show her so much momentum she will get into the race,” said Blair Lawton, the campaign’s Iowa field director.
Advocates note it took a similar effort to draw Warren into the 2012 Senate campaign in Massachusetts.
A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll last week showed Clinton receiving 56 percent of the vote from Iowa Democrats and Warren taking second place at 16 percent, up from 10 percent in October.
The half-frozen Des Moines River separates the Run Warren Run headquarters from Ready for Hillary’s Iowa office near the gilded State Capitol. Clinton supporters, buoyed by Warren’s refusals, don’t consider the draft campaign much of a threat.
“Someone is spending a lot of money to push a person that doesn’t want to be pushed, so what is their mission?” said Bonnie Campbell, a former Iowa attorney general, gubernatorial candidate, and current Clinton backer.
Ready for Hillary, a super PAC with which Campbell volunteers, was launched two years ago and has raised nearly $13 million, 130 times that of Ready for Warren.
Two hours away, at the exit with a hand-written “Dump Obama” sign, the Fairfield group sat above a cafe that offered organic elk burgers and devised a plan.
They decided on an open house at the public library, considered finding local leaders to discuss their support, and talked about a weekend celebration. To celebrate what wasn’t exactly clear — as host Carole Simmons pointed out.
“We should have a party,” she said, “when she decides to run.”Jessica Meyers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessicameyers.