CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — She rolled into her campaign event here in a bus plastered with her face and the words “Hope Over Fear.”
That’s exactly the message Senator Elizabeth Warren, armed with an adorable golden retriever and a bubbly reality TV star, brought to Iowa’s famously late-deciding caucus-goers, hundreds of whom packed into the marketplace to hear her calm their fears about female electability.
“Guys, we just have to face this: Women candidates have been out-performing men candidates in competitive elections ever since [Trump’s election],” Warren told the crowd just eight days before the caucuses. “I just want to be clear: Women win.”
As her standing in Iowa polls has slipped behind rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, Warren is now tunneling headfirst into nervous voters’ psyches, attempting to persuade them to set aside their worries that a woman can’t win, particularly since President Trump happened to defeat a female candidate last time around.
Her unusually explicit argument for her own ability to beat Trump began earlier this month during a clash with Sanders at the Democratic debate and comes after months of shying away from any questions about her path to victory. Biden, in contrast, has made his own hypothetical electability core to his campaign message from day one.
“Let me tell you why I think you should caucus for me: I know how to fight and I know how to win,” Warren said on Sunday, before outlining her victory in Massachusetts over Senator Scott Brown in 2012 in detail.
“He was telegenic, very popular, had a great story to tell — none of which applies to Donald Trump,” Warren said to laughter. “People said to me a woman can’t win … I ended up beating that guy by 7.5 points.”
Warren’s request for Iowans to “choose courage over fear” is a big ask, given that many voters say they feel terrified by the prospect of four more years of Trump and are still frightened that Warren’s gender could be a drag on her chances.
“As bad as it may sound, I’m not sure a female can win,” said Marsha Stern, 70, who came to see Warren speak earlier on Sunday in Davenport. “I wish she could.”
Mary Burke, 55, said she’s been “scared” for three years about Trump’s possible reelection and only recently was able to decide to vote for Warren despite that anxiety. “Acting out of that fear has been a big temptation,” Burke said. “I finally was able to calm myself down enough to realize that my support needs to be about who will lead the best.”
Warren told reporters after her Cedar Rapids event that convincing voters that a woman can beat Trump is “a big part” of her closing pitch. “This can’t be a hidden question,” she said. “If they ask about it, I’m glad to talk about it right up front. Women win.”
Warren also emphasized her gender more than usual on the stump in other ways aside from her direct argument that women outperform men in races.
“On day one I’m going to do — Oh, I love saying this! — what a president can do all by herself,” Warren said, appearing to bask in the idea of a female president as she outlined the executive actions she would take if elected.
Warren’s pivot to emphasizing her own electability began at the Jan. 14 Democratic debate in Des Moines, when she clashed with Sanders over her claim that he told her in a private meeting last year he didn’t believe a woman could beat Trump. (Sanders denied he told her this.) After the debate, the two argued, and Warren would not shake Sanders’ hand.
That dust-up led Shannon Mullan, a 53-year-old medical assistant who caucused for Sanders in 2016, to lean more strongly toward Warren.
“Elizabeth had a little tiff or whatever and she was like, I’m not shaking your hand — I thought that was great,” she said after Warren’s Sunday town hall. “She’s a woman and she’s not going to put up with that crap.”
Mullan said she views Warren’s gender as an asset, not a liability. “We’ve tried enough men,” joked Mullan.
Warren’s hard sell coincided with a charm offensive from “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness, who used his catchphrase “gorgeous” to describe the rally crowd as he introduced Warren and her golden retriever Bailey. Both sidekicks took photos with voters after Warren’s event.
The senator could only spend a day and a half campaigning in Iowa before she had to fly back to Washington for the ongoing impeachment trial, which has kept her and rivals Sanders and Senator Amy Klobuchar tied up in the crucial final days before Iowans make their picks next Monday. Biden and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is also polling in the top four in the state, will crisscross Iowa in the coming days while the senators are back in Washington.
Warren, who nabbed the coveted endorsement of the Des Moines Register on Saturday, brushed off recent polls that show Sanders surging ahead in Iowa and Warren falling back to third and fourth place in the state where she once led over the summer and early fall.
“Since I got into this race a year ago I have not focused on polls,” Warren told reporters Sunday. “I’m out here talking to people all across Iowa, when I can be here, and I love this.”