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Warren’s latest campaign bet: A ground game in late-voting states like Michigan

Senator Elizabeth Warren joined members of the United Auto Workers and supporters as they picketed in Detroit in September.
Senator Elizabeth Warren joined members of the United Auto Workers and supporters as they picketed in Detroit in September.JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images

DETROIT — Six hundred miles away from Des Moines, with just days to go before the Iowa caucuses, Quentin Turner had an urgent message for the dozen or so volunteers who had taken off their headphones and posed gleefully for a photo after a morning of phone banking on behalf of Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“The Michigan primary is 46 days away,” he said, “and every day counts.”

The flurry of activity in the Warren campaign’s Michigan headquarters here last weekend provides a glimpse into a critical bet Warren has placed in the Democratic race. Even as her poll numbers lag in crucial early states, the Massachusetts senator has built up organizations in places like Michigan, where her campaign was the first of any Democrat to open an office, in a bid to ride out a long nomination fight no matter what happens Monday in Iowa.

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It’s hard to overstate how unusual it is for Warren to have such a large footprint in this Midwestern state, crucial as it is in the general election. Michigan is not one of the four early voting states. It is not even one of the 14 states that vote after them on March 3, better known as “Super Tuesday.” The state’s primary isn’t until March 10.

But Warren has Turner, an organizer, and 20 other paid staffers in the state working on the next prong of her campaign strategy: accumulating delegates over a potentially long primary slog through states that usually are an afterthought in the presidential nominating process.

The effort is unfolding in a one-story campaign office in the Mexicantown neighborhood with a mural that says “Detroit hustles harder for Warren” on the wall, where volunteers like Alistair Stephenson, 30, told voters Warren is the most “electable” candidate, and on slippery sidewalks around the state, where staff and volunteers are trying to be the first to make an impression on unsuspecting voters.

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Aside from Warren, only Michael Bloomberg, the self-funding billionaire, has an extensive presence in the state, with a staff of more than 60 and a major buy of TV ads. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who won the Michigan primary in 2016, has a field director there, according to his campaign, but most of the top-tier candidates are focusing their energies on the first four states — the traditional way to launch a campaign to victory. (Bloomberg has decided to skip the early states altogether.)

The Warren campaign is heavily invested in Iowa, but now it is counting on a long-game strategy powered by 1,000 staffers in 31 states to carry it through. Campaign manager Roger Lau sent a memo to supporters last week offering their muscular campaign operation as an antidote to increasingly low expectations about her performance in Iowa and New Hampshire, where she has slipped in some polls.

It is the latest gambit from a presidential campaign that has always bet that having a large and organized field staff would pay dividends. Warren built what is widely considered to be the strongest ground game in Iowa and she is turning again to boots on the ground around the nation. She likely has a larger staff than any other top-tier candidate, including Sanders, who has more than 800; former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has over 520; or former vice president Joe Biden, who has more than 400. (Bloomberg, however, has more than 1,000 staffers in 35 states.)

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But the decision to invest heavily in later-voting states is a risky one, because it is a drain on finances at a time when Warren is far from assured of a single victory before voters in Michigan and other states head to the polls. Some candidates would rather throw all their money at the early states, hoping a victory would propel them in later contests.

The strategy of organizing early allows the Warren campaign to take advantage of a new reality of the primary calendar: early voting means some people are casting ballots even before Iowans on Monday. Early voting began on Minnesota on Jan. 17; it begins in California, a Super Tuesday state, on Monday. In Michigan, absentee voting began on Saturday.

“There were lines of people in Detroit,” said Amy Chapman, a Michigan campaign operative who was President Barack Obama’s state director in 2008. “If campaigns aren’t ready and set up, I think it makes it hard to make a case for people to vote for you.”

Over the weekend, as Warren and surrogates stumped in Iowa, her Michigan campaign held its own “weekend of action.” On Friday, students at the University of Michigan made 448 calls for Warren, fueled by pizza, pretzels, and Oreos provided by the campaign.

“Voting on Tuesday, March 10, is our chance to nominate the candidate who’s going to defeat Donald Trump,” said Jordyn Houle, 20, who listened as the voter on the phone explained they planned to vote for Biden.

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“I totally respect that choice,” she said.

Warren appears to have less name recognition in Michigan than Biden or Sanders, but her staff and volunteers are trying to change that. One organizer, LaMar Thompson-Hightower, canvassed the Detroit mayor’s mansion when it came up on their list — even though the mayor, Mike Duggan, had already endorsed Biden.

And on Saturday, Sarah Murphy, an organizer who left her job at an energy company to join the campaign, pulled up an app that showed her 40 houses to hit in a dense neighborhood in Clinton Township, in the bellwether suburb of Macomb County.

As she knocked on doors, she highlighted Warren’s plans as voters told her the issues they cared about. After one voter, Mario Jordan, 22, explained that he trusted few candidates to make policies that would affect Black men like himself, Murphy offered to send him Warren’s “working agenda for Black America” and information on her plan for universal child care.

The campaign has also worked hand-in-hand with volunteers in Michigan, who have tried to use their status as a crucial general election state to swing voters elsewhere. When the campaign suggested volunteers in Macomb County send postcards to Iowa explaining why they think Warren is electable, they gladly complied, said Mark Brewer, a Warren supporter and the former head of the state Democratic party.

“I support Elizabeth Warren because she can win Michigan,” he recalled writing.

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On Sunday, US Representative Andy Levin addressed a group of the Warren supporters and Warren-curious over lunch. He was delighted by the turnout, although some of them underscored the challenge of nailing down support in Michigan before anyone has voted in Iowa.

“I’ll go with Elizabeth Warren,” said Chuck Infantino. “But if Bernie overtakes her, I’ll switch.”












Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.