COLUMBIA, S.C. — The gym was hot. The lights malfunctioned. But the audience of nearly 1,000 people was engrossed as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a presidential hopeful, did what she does best: “nerd out,” as she puts it.
After talking up gun control laws and criminal justice reform on a recent South Carolina campaign swing, Warren dug into the nitty-gritty of free market regulation and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency she helped create, which has returned more than $12 billion to people in refunds and canceled debts. Nothing made her more enthusiastic.
By the end, she had many in the audience cheering.
“You may leave here and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I must be turning into a nerd, I was applauding a government agency’ — how did that happen?” Warren joked with the crowd at Columbia College in South Carolina.
Almost one month into her presidential campaign, Warren’s passion for policy minutiae has become her way of standing out in an increasingly crowded Democratic field, establishing herself as a wonk’s wonk whose expansive ideas and detail-oriented speaking style are her bid for a good first impression on voters. While other Democrats have focused on sweeping themes of unity or change, as Senator Kamala Harris of California did Sunday at a campaign kickoff rally, Warren is making a personal and political wager that audiences care more about policy savvy than captivating oration.
It is a bet intended to draw contrasts with President Trump, who rarely delves into policy, but also to put pressure on Democratic rivals. In what promises to be a nomination contest featuring many candidates with broadly similar ideologies, a strategy of highlighting even the smallest differences in policy could pay off, especially with liberal voters who want firm and thorough positions rather than squishy generalities that could be setups for compromise.
“There will be a lot of diagnosing of problems in the Trump era, and it’s important to have a Democratic candidate who has the correct diagnosis of a fundamentally corrupt economic and political system,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has been openly supportive of Warren. “But voters — especially voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states that have the ability to get to know these candidates well — they want to hear real solutions, and that means a certain level of detail and not just platitudes.”
On one level Warren is running as herself: a former Harvard law professor who likes getting into the weeds of policy. She is also trying to avoid the political trap of adopting a poll-tested, all-things-to-all-people persona and coming off as inauthentic. But some Democrats say she runs the risk of being seen as out of touch and too intellectual and offbeat.
Patrick Morgan, a Nebraska resident who attended Warren’s recent event in Council Bluffs, Iowa, said he wished she had more “charisma” and “energy.” David Briggs, who attended a Warren event in Des Moines, Iowa, said he worried about her ability to go beyond traditional issues and inspire the country.
“I’d love for her to just go straight into office, but I worry she can’t bring people together and beat the Republican Party,” Briggs said.
Warren’s political strategists believe that after years of Trump’s leaning on catchphrases and easy-to-digest proposals like “build the wall,” Democrats want a nominee who articulates a detailed vision for America. They point to the 2018 midterm elections, where several successful Democratic candidates talked at length about issues and tried to engage voters directly by their favorite means: streaming themselves on Instagram Live in some cases, expounding on bankruptcy law in others.
The way Warren talks, she lets voters know “she’s not just blowing hot air,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director for the liberal group MoveOn. “She has her arms totally wrapped around the problems she’s discussing.”
“There’s an adage in comedy that you want jokes that reward the people who get them, but don’t punish the people who don’t,” Wikler added. “Policy details in politics works the same way. What Warren is great at is digging into legislative numbers without making people’s eyes glaze over.”
Her approach is on display during the question-and-answer portion of Warren’s events, which is a hallmark of each campaign stop and relies on a lottery system instead of prescreening questions. The result: extended riffs about Puerto Rican debt restructuring, the history of denying black Americans access to mortgage subsidies, renewable energy policies like net metering and the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2018.
“You want me to get this crowd up on net metering?” Warren called out to a New Hampshire audience this month, referring to a system in which solar panels or other green energy generators are connected to a public-utility power grid. “Do I have any net metering wonks out here? I’m a big believer in net metering.”
In another question-and-answer moment in Des Moines, a man named Jeffrey Goetz thanked Warren for her longtime scholarship around bankruptcy law.
“I’m a bankruptcy practitioner, Chapter 11. Thank you for sponsoring the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2018,” Goetz said.
“Yes, it’s a nerd thing,” Warren responded, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“It’s a nerd thing,” Goetz agreed. “It’s absolutely a nerd thing.”
By playing up her instincts as a wonk, Warren is trying to define herself and her candidacy on her own terms before Democratic rivals try to cast her in a more unflattering light. Past presidential candidates in both parties have grappled with this.
Republicans and Democrats alike tried to portray Hillary Clinton as inauthentic in her 2016 and 2008 runs for president, invoking her paid speeches to Wall Street firms and her earlier vote in support of the Iraq War. And many of the Republicans who ran in 2016 also struggled to define themselves and not have Trump do the job for them; his pejorative nicknames for rivals like “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, “Lyin’ Ted” and “Liddle Marco” did political damage.
Trump is already trying to do the same to Warren by slurring her as “Pocahontas” and casting her as too liberal for the American electorate. But her tendency to embrace her inner wonk predates that nickname and is not a newly conjured attempt to push back at him.
Warren was the first major candidate to enter the presidential race and begin touring early primary states, and it remains to be seen which of her fellow Democratic candidates will prioritize laying out a policy-driven vision for voters to latch onto and which will ground their candidacy on their supposed ability to beat Trump.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is considering a second presidential run, upended the Democratic Party by running in 2016 on bold promises such as single-payer health insurance and tuition-free college, yet he rarely strays from his favored set of issues. Former Vice President Joe Biden, also considering a 2020 run, has so far grounded his pitch to voters in electability, telling one Democrat, “I don’t see the candidate who can clearly do what has to be done to win.”
Even fresh national faces such as Harris, who announced her presidential candidacy last week, has taken a more cautious approach to campaigning at her first three events. On Friday, Harris spoke at a ticketed gala for members of her collegiate sorority, and she hosted a kickoff rally in Oakland on Sunday afternoon and participate in a CNN-moderated town-hall-style meeting in Iowa on Monday night.
Faiz Shakir, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said candidates would be wise to mimic Warren’s willingness to focus on policy. On Thursday, Warren announced a plan that would impose a new annual tax on the 75,000 wealthiest families in the United States. The proposal would raise $2.75 trillion in tax revenue over a decade, according to calculations by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, two University of California-Berkeley economists who consulted with Warren on the plan.
“Elizabeth Warren is trying to position herself as the ideas candidate of the field, and thus far, in the early going, she’s winning that,” Shakir said. “Others should start thinking about competing in the arena for new ideas.”