When Senator Elizabeth Warren took the stage in the waning light of a frigid winter evening in western Iowa for her first presidential campaign event in the state, Lisa Koch declared she was “all the way in” for the Massachusetts liberal.
But for Koch, an attorney who lined up outside the bowling alley in Council Bluffs well before the event inside began, mixed in with her excitement was concern about the breadth of Warren’s potential appeal as a presidential candidate — in other words, her electability.
“Older white men are not going to like her. There’s going to be women who don’t like her either,” Koch said. She added: “I hope she has a chance.”
More than a year later, as Warren stood onstage in a school on Saturday in Mason City, Iowa, a question from a volunteer who had been knocking on doors for Warren showed how those nagging electability concerns were alive and well.
“I talked to a lot of people today who really, really like you,” said Kristen Marttila, a lawyer who had traveled from Minneapolis. “They might even like you the best, but they are really scared to vote for who they like the best, because they’re worried that not enough people feel the same.”
Since the beginning of the presidential campaign, Warren and her rivals for the nomination have been assessed by nervous Democratic voters for the hard-to-define and harder-to-quantify attribute of “electability.” Desperate to beat President Trump, Democrats have looked to the polls and pundits to tell them which candidate has the best shot against him, a process that has boosted former vice president Joe Biden and put Warren at a disadvantage.
“I think some of the other candidates, and I’m looking at you Joe Biden, are perceived as being safe,” said Kurt Meyer, the chair of the Tri-County Democrats in Iowa, who has not endorsed a candidate. “I don’t think electability is one of those beacons that emanate from the Warren campaign.
Electability concerns about Warren were stoked anew by months of criticism from her rivals over her embrace of Medicare for All that slowed the momentum she built over 2019. With just weeks before Iowans vote, Warren and her allies are responding directly to skepticism that she can win, seeking to present the senator’s muscular policy agenda not as a liability but an asset in the primary and beyond.
“A lot of people just want to beat Donald Trump,” Warren said in Mason City, “but here’s the thing. Fear doesn’t win, courage and vision win.”
There and at recent events elsewhere, Warren has ventured directly into political strategy, warning that Democrats will lose if all they offer is “business as usual” after Trump. Last week in Davenport, she pointed to her experience beating Scott Brown in her 2012 Senate race, calling herself “the only person who will be on the debate stage who has beaten a popular incumbent Republican any time in the last 25 years.”
And in recent days, Warren’s allies have taken the electability pitch one step further, describing her as a “unity candidate” who is uniquely positioned to bring progressive and moderate voters together to take on Trump. She has touted endorsements from the liberal Working Families Party while also taking moderate positions, like her support of the new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, which progressive rival Senator Bernie Sanders has rejected.
“More than any other candidate in this race, more than any other candidate that’s going to be on that debate stage in a few days, Elizabeth Warren is the candidate who can unite the entire Democratic Party,” said Julian Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary who ended his own presidential bid this month and endorsed Warren, at an event in Brooklyn on Tuesday.
“They’re now openly speaking about how they see their path as sort of melding these two wings of the party — I think it’s smart to talk about it,” said Brian Fallon, an aide on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. “Voters want to see a theory of electability.”
The unity pitch is in contrast with the image Warren has cultivated over the years as a crusading Democrat willing to clash with President Obama, even calling out her Democratic colleagues in the Senate when they supported a rollback of banking reforms to which she was adamantly opposed.
She may be betting that her status as a top second choice in polls will burnish her image as a candidate everyone can get behind, especially since Biden and Sanders are at the moment leading the pack of Democratic contenders from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
But it is not clear that unity is a top-of-the-mind concern for Democrats, who know they will eventually have to work together anyway to take down Trump.
“I’m not sure anybody’s sitting there going, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to bring half the party together’ right now,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran of presidential campaigns who ran Howard Dean’s ill-fated effort in 2004, adding that every candidate’s electability will be under the microscope for the foreseeable future.
“It’s the fear of losing to Trump that makes those early doubts resurface as we’re getting closer to a vote in Iowa,” Trippi said.
On the campaign trail, electability can be a conundrum: How can a candidate ever become electable if all voters worry about is about her electability? And the question itself at times seems to benefit white male candidates over women or candidates of color.
An aide to Warren said all of the top candidates have potential limitations in their ability to energize the Democratic base, such as Biden’s weakness with young voters, Sanders’ with older ones and Buttigieg’s with people of color, and pointed out that Trump and President Obama each claimed the presidency despite persistent questions about their electability.
But that does not keep voters from obsessing over it.
“I’d like to see a woman president,” said Allan Geneva, 63, a retired aluminum production worker deciding between Warren, Biden, and Sanders. But he said he thought the former vice president had the best chance of beating Trump.
“He’s just a bully, that I see,” Geneva said, as he waited for Biden to take the stage in Davenport. “I don’t know if Warren could handle that bully-ness, where I know Joe Biden probably can.”
One substantive electability problem for Warren and other candidates is her lagging support from black voters, who are a backbone of the Democratic Party and whom polls show overwhelmingly back Biden. A recent poll showed her with 9 percent support from black Democrats, while Biden had 48 percent and Sanders 20 percent. Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg posted a dismal showing with that group.
For Warren, voters’ questions about her ability to beat Trump have shifted shape over time. When she took the stage in Council Bluffs last year, with low polling numbers and slow fund-raising, some people still reeling from Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 worried Warren’s gender made her less electable; others speculated that her previous claims of Native American heritage made her an easy target for Trump and thus unlikely to win.
Over the past year, Warren methodically worked her way up to the top tier of candidates using policy, discipline and unapologetic progressivism as building blocks for an ascendant campaign that seemed, as the summer wore on, to have found a balm for the concerns about whether she could actually win.
The concerns about her Native American claims seem to have receded, but, the Medicare for All criticisms have reopened concerns that Warren is simply too far left to win.
“Her self-titled big ideas, it might seem scary to some,” said Martha Bonte, a voter who saw Warren speak in Cedar Rapids in late December but said she was considering “more centrist candidates.”
“I’m actually much more progressive than the candidates I’m leaning toward,” said Bonte, “but I am really concerned about electability.”
In addition to forcefully pitching her ideas as a key to beating Trump, Warren has injected a new urgency into her stump speech, urging voters to be unafraid to vote for her.
“The door has opened just a crack for big change — and when that opportunity presents itself, you lower your shoulder and run as hard as you can at it,” she said at a canvassing kickoff in rural Maquoketa, Iowa, last week.
Warren has built a formidable on-the-ground organization, particularly in Iowa, that is consistently praised within the party as the best in the field. At the canvassing kickoff, voter Marilyn Schroeder had a lunchtime meeting with the campaign’s local organizer etched into her calendar all the way back in October. More recently, she had hosted an eventwhere about 15 local voters listened for severalhours as Warren’s Iowa policy director, Spencer Dixon, talked them through her Medicare for All plan — part of an effort by the campaign to educate voters around the state.
Warren’s campaign is hoping that organization will power a strong showing in Iowa that could help put at least some electability doubts to bed once and for all.
“If we get behind her as a party,” said Val Maines, a bus driver who traveled from Illinois to see Warren speak in Dubuque last weekend, “then she’s electable, yeah.”