Elizabeth Warren takes a road less traveled: to the South
MANCHESTER, N.H. — It was just another typical Friday in the Democratic mega-primary: Beto O’Rourke barnstormed the diners and coffee shops of Iowa; Senator Cory Booker stood on the stairs of a law office in Claremont, N.H., to meet 100 voters; while Senator Elizabeth Warren began the day by thanking a group of 10 small-dollar donors at a quiet cafe in Manchester.
But on Sunday, Warren will again depart the bumper-car arena of the early primary states, and become the first presidential candidate to take a road trip through the Deep South.
The early days of a presidential primary are typically spent crisscrossing a few key first-mover states, but by the end of her trip, Warren will have visited 12, plus Puerto Rico. Taking the road less traveled may be part of a larger effort to distinguish herself from a scattered primary field in which she has, so far, polled largely in the single digits.
She has made other bold tactical moves — rolling out big policy positions, for example — and has refused to hold high-dollar fund-raisers, which she says has freed up time for her to travel so widely.
“I want to reach out to everyone — I think that’s what it’s going to take for Democrats to win in the general election and make change come January 2021,” Warren said in an interview Friday. acknowledging that her decision to forgo traditional fund-raising risks leaving “millions and millions of dollars on the table.”
“But I think this chance to build a grass-roots foundation is more important,” Warren said. “Besides, I like it.”
Warren’s trip to the South is one in a series of unorthodox campaign moves that have struck some political observers as risky, and others as refreshing. She and her advisers are building a strategy that emphasizes retail politics and ambitious policy statements over made-for-television rallies and the fund-raising circuit, in an effort to prove gradually to voters she is the candidate best prepared to be president.
“I think she’s definitely winning plaudits for her aggressive agenda and campaigning,” said Neera Tanden of the center-left Center for American Progress think tank. “It’s up to the voters to decide how they feel about it.”
Warren’s approach can seem low-fi at times, and may be the product of necessity as much as anything else; her campaign has been conspicuously tight-lipped about its fund-raising totals. And it is not clear whether, a year from now, voters will remember her plan to tax ultra-millionaires or break up big tech.
But such risks could have an upside: The last successful presidential candidate to emerge from a crowded primary — Donald Trump — did so by breaking most of the accepted rules of campaigning.
“I think all of that might cause her to try and experiment with things that might be off the beaten track,” said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor who noted Warren has struggled to gain traction in the state despite coming from neighboring Massachusetts. “I think it’s an incremental, cumulative strategy.”
Warren spent a long day in New Hampshire Friday, culminating with an event attended by more than 400 people in Exeter. Over the course of the day, she eagerly answered questions about education policy and her proposal to break up big tech companies, and, as has become her practice, posed for pictures with voters who lined up to spend a few seconds with her.
There is a difference, however, between winning praise from Democratic activists and policy wonks, and convincing voters that, over time, she can prevail over so many other candidates. For now at least, the polls consistently show her well behind Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former vice president Joe Biden, who hasn’t even entered the race. Newer faces in race, including Senator Kamala Harris of California and the former Texas congressman O’Rourke, have commanded much more of the media kleig lights.
Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III, one of her highest-profile supporters, said Warren’s policy and political moves, such as the early Southern swing, are nevertheless setting an example and will force the rest of the field to respond.
“What I think you see from Liz from this trip is a willingness to go places others don’t go, to talk about issues that most people don’t talk about,” said Kennedy, adding, “It’s what I think every candidate should be doing.”
In Memphis Sunday, Warren plans to hold an event with voters and meet local leaders before she and her husband, Bruce Mann, drive to Mississippi, where she will make stops in the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta. She is scheduled to appear in a town hall style meeting in Jackson that CNN will broadcast, and then swing through Alabama on Tuesday.
Like other candidates, Warren has already been to South Carolina, which holds one of the earliest primaries in the calendar. And she’s campaigned in Georgia, where Harris has a trip planned next weekend.
But Warren’s sustained focus on the South is in contrast to O’Rourke, for example, who is scheduled to be will be in Wisconsin Sunday and reportedly will also soon visit Michigan — both traditional Democratic states that helped to deliver the presidency to Trump in 2016 after going reliably Democrat for years. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is also planning a trip to Michigan on Monday. Booker and Sanders visited Selma, Ala., for a commemoration of the Bloody Sunday civil rights march earlier in March.
At her event in New Hampshire Friday, some voters joked Warren was “brave” to blaze a path into such deep red country. But the trip gives her the chance to connect with voters in a region where Democratic voters have long felt ignored. And in an era when primaries are increasingly national campaigns and a breakthrough moment for a candidate can happen anywhere, going to a place less traveled can have benefits.
“The fact that she’s coming, and she knows that, says to me that there is some seriousness in the campaign about running to be the president of all America,” said LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund.
The trip also fits with Warren’s sustained efforts to reach black voters, who make up a sizable percent of the Democratic primary electorate in the South, and are looking for candidates who do not take their support for granted.
“No doubt about it, we’ve been ignored,” said Cassandra Welchlin, co-convener of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable. “We don’t just give our vote away. You definitely have to get to know who we are.”
The last time a liberal firebrand from New England competed for the votes of Southern Democrats, it did not go very well: Sanders saw his challenge to Hillary Clinton fall short on the strength of her support in the South, particularly among black voters.
Sanders has since acknowledged he did not do enough to win over black voters in 2016, and has attempted to start his 2020 campaign on a different note. Warren, on the other hand, has woven racial justice themes into her message from the very start, and seems determined to seek the support of black voters even as candidates of color, such as Harris and Booker, make their own appeals.
“I think making an early swing through the South in March is a smart political move on her part,” said Mark Longabaugh, a former top adviser to Sanders who is unaffiliated so far. “I don’t know that she spent as much time in the South over the past couple of years, so I think she has more catching up to do in that regard.”
And though not among the first four early voting states, Tennessee and Alabama are both in the Super Tuesday primary March 3, with Mississippi just a week later. Tactically, it makes sense for candidates to make headway there, since Super Tuesday could end up being even more crucial than usual if the results from the early states do not form a consensus around any one candidate.
But her decision to skip big-dollar fund-raisers may end up hurting — not helping — Warren’s strategy to travel outside the pack, since it is expensive to compete across the map.
“She’s laying a foundation that may pay big dividends, particularly if she succeeds in earlier states,” said longtime Democratic political operative Joe Trippi. “But if she doesn’t, you might look back and say: ‘Wow, that was time money and staff that we should have put in to earlier states.’ ”