MOUNT VERNON, IOWA — Pumped-up Iowans wearing “Warren Has a Plan for That” T-shirts stood and clapped as the spritely senator jogged past them, her pink cardigan streaming behind her, and then fell to a hush as she grabbed the microphone.
But before Elizabeth Warren talks about her plans, she talks about her past — at least, some of it.
“So, I was born and raised in Oklahoma,” Warren told her supporters in a sun-dappled backyard in Eastern Iowa on Friday, launching into the story of her father’s sudden heart attack that forced her mother to get a minimum-wage job at Sears to pay the mortgage.
The senator from Massachusetts has soared to the top of the pack in this early-voting state — she had a two-point lead over Joe Biden in a poll released Saturday — with a barrage of bold policy proposals and a robust grass-roots organization. But many supporters in Iowa cite her compelling personal story, and not just her plans, as what has kept them coming back for more.
“I think it’s great that she gets it and she has compassion for all of her constituents because she’s been there on all the levels,” said Sherene Hansen Player, 50, a full-time mom and former Republican who was waiting to take a photo with Warren after her speech. “She’s very relatable.”
That’s not a word that voters in Iowa would be expected to use for a millionaire Ivy League professor. But Warren rarely if ever mentions her lengthy career on the faculty at Harvard Law School. Instead, she stresses the early parts of her biography in interactions with voters — particularly growing up in Oklahoma as her family struggled to make ends meet and her one-year stint as a public school teacher in the early 1970s. Her skillful stump speech weaves together her humble beginnings and her political philosophy.
Focusing on her early years allows Warren to present herself in a new and flattering light to electability-obsessed Democratic caucus voters in Iowa, who would probably worry more about the electoral chances of an East Coast professor than a former public school teacher from the heartland.
“She has a challenge with that piece of her biography because we’ve had a couple of nominees from Massachusetts that have not fared very well,” said Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, who has not endorsed anyone in the race. “So it probably makes sense to focus more on the Oklahoma side than the Massachusetts side.”
He added: “The reality is with Governor [Michael] Dukakis, Secretary [John] Kerry — those are memories that for a lot of us are still in the back of our minds.”
On Friday, Warren spent about a third of her speech on her personal biography before detailing the sweeping changes she would enact to the nation’s tax, higher education, and health care systems. In contrast, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who fell to a distant third place behind Warren and Biden in the new Des Moines Register poll — barely mentions any biographical details in his campaign events, despite urging from his aides to stress his middle-class Brooklyn roots.
“I think she’s brilliantly put her life story together with her policy,” said Mark Longabaugh, a former Sanders adviser who is neutral in the race. Warren connects her own $50-a-semester college education to her desire to make public education free and cancel most student debt, he said, which personalizes her policy agenda.
Warren’s Oklahoma roots haven’t always been seen as an asset to her political career. During her 2012 Senate race challenging Scott Brown, Republicans accused her of being a carpetbagger — even though she had lived in Massachusetts for nearly 20 years — and a Brown staffer even mocked her for being from Oklahoma.
But now, with Democrats wringing their hands over their 2016 loss to Donald Trump in crucial Midwest states, any connection to the middle of the country is prized in the heated primary.
That was evident on Saturday, when Democratic presidential candidates reached for any possible tie to the Midwest during their brief speeches to an estimated 12,000 Democrats at a steak fry in Des Moines. Billionaire candidate Tom Steyer mentioned that his mom hailed from Minnesota, while Governor Steve Bullock of Montana told the crowd his mother was born in Ottumwa, Iowa. “My roots are right here in Des Moines,” said Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, reaching even farther back into the family tree to his grandmother.
Warren didn’t join them in boasting of a link to Iowa or the Midwest. She arguably didn’t have to. In rooting her identity so firmly in her first 17 years in Oklahoma, she has shifted her public image away from the bright-blue state that sent her to the Senate and where her campaign is headquartered.
“She spent a lot of time in flyover country,” said former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank. “I think that helps defuse this prejudice against her that, ‘Oh, she’s just some snooty Harvard professor Northeasterner.’ ”
But with Warren emerging as perhaps the top challenger to Biden, her long career as an Ivy League professor could become a focus of attacks from her Democratic rivals. Last week, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota delivered a shot along those lines, saying some of the ideas being touted in the primary “are better left in the college faculty lounge.” (She later said the attack wasn’t directed at Warren.)
Warren has tried to reframe her decades as a high-powered law professor in the most relatable possible light through her emphasis on her year as a public school teacher shortly after she graduated from college.
Last weekend, Warren mentioned her stint working with children with speech problems at nearly every campaign stop, even as other key parts of her bio went unmentioned.
While visiting a mobile home park in North Liberty, where residents have complained of unreasonable lot fees, she correctly guessed the age of a supporter’s sixth-grade grandson when he stood shyly in front of her on a trailer’s porch. “You can always tell a former teacher,” Warren explained.
Later, Warren asked if anyone in the backyard crowd in Mount Vernon was a special-needs teacher. “I loved those babies,” she said of the students she taught nearly 50 years ago in New Jersey. “I had 4- to 6-year-olds. And to this day I remember their faces.”
She wasn’t asked back to teach after the principal saw she was pregnant, Warren explained, so she went to law school, instead. But she described becoming a law professor as a continuation of that year at elementary school.
“I traded little ones for big ones,” Warren said.
After addressing the steak fry crowd Saturday, Warren showed more of her everywoman chops by donning an apron and gamely flipping steaks — surrounded by TV cameras and supporters — on a fiery grill. She arrived without fanfare to the event, a show of confidence as her rivals put on carnival-like parades to boost their candidacies.
After frying a couple of steaks, Warren waited for nearly two hours for Iowans to take photos with her. Several of the Warren fans shuffling slowly in the line said they were drawn to her life story and felt she could understand them.
“Every time I’ve heard her speak, it’s from the heart,” said Julia Williams, a retired mail handler who was among those waiting in the rain for a photo with Warren. “It’s beyond politics and more into passion.”