WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren was just days away from officially announcing her presidential bid last winter, and a pack of reporters was doggedly chasing her around the bustling US Capitol.
They didn’t want to ask about her campaign, which had struggled to build momentum in the early going. Instead, impatient reporters peppered her about an issue that had long cast a shadow over her political career — her past claim to Native American heritage and a DNA test of her genetic lineage she had just apologized for releasing.
“I am not a tribal citizen,” she told them solemnly, with none of the upbeat energy she displays on the campaign trail. “I have apologized for not being more sensitive to that distinction.”
To Warren’s allies and fans, the moment felt like a nightmare.
To some political analysts and critics, it felt like something more — the beginning of the end.
Now? It seems a distant memory.
Warren has been surging for months in early state polls, regularly attracts crowds in the thousands, and, with her steady stream of policy proposals, has dominated the substance of the campaign debate. It can be hard to recall that, for four long months after she jumped into the Democratic primary, she struggled to break out, overshadowed by less experienced rivals and written off for her early mistakes.
Still, she stayed the course, and her success so far has proved no accident. It turns out she had a plan for that, too. And stuck to it.
While the press and her critics focused on her electability and missteps, and other candidates deliberated about whether to even get into the race or not, Warren and her team remained laser focused on her message and strategy, building a slow and steady advantage that eventually helped her creep up on the rest of the field.
The story of Warren’s remarkable rise in the race is grounded in how much she and her team stuck to that original plan of building a campaign around a substantive policy vision, and resisted calls from the outside to shake up her staff or strategy even when facing intense criticism. In fact, many of the decisions that analysts now credit with boosting her candidacy — including staying after events to take photos with every voter who wants one, going big on staffing in the four early voting states, and focusing intensely on policy — were made before she even entered the race.
Her campaign’s discipline and clear message got Warren to the top tier of the field, but that strategy will be tested again in the coming months, as she faces attacks from her rivals and questions about her decision to embrace Medicare for All, with all its potential for economic disruption and vast expense.
“It’s clear that this campaign was planned long ago in excruciating detail,” said Boston-based Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh. “They decided a long time ago to stick with it.”
Warren stuck to this vision even as signs mounted that Democratic voters, scarred by President Trump’s election and seeking to rally behind anyone who could defeat him, might not care that much about policy, just winning. In March, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke entered the race without a campaign manager or clear policy vision and soon announced he had raised more money in his first day in the race ($6.1 million) than Warren had in her entire first three months as a candidate. On Friday night, O’Rourke withdrew from the race.
Several Warren aides who requested anonymity to talk about the campaign’s strategy rejected the notion of any one moment or decision changing her trajectory, saying they see Warren’s rise as a case of slow, steady momentum building around her core message and focus on organization and substance.
Still, in retrospect, there are key moves she and her campaign made that clearly positioned her well.
First, Warren jumped in the race early, on New Year’s Eve, and then made a beeline for Iowa. A string of well-attended events she held there over the next several weeks helped quickly change the headlines about her from the DNA test and its blowback to the message she was delivering and the large crowds she was drawing.
Getting in the race early also allowed Warren’s team to scoop up highly coveted campaign operatives in Iowa and other early states while her rivals were still mulling whether to run. Warren’s ability to attract top talent, like President Obama’s former Iowa political director Emily Parcell, countered the lackluster fund-raising and polling that indicated a candidacy in trouble, and was an encouraging sign internally.
The team hired 65 staffers in early states, which led to pointed questions about how fast the campaign was burning through its cash last spring after quarterly filings showed it spent about as much as it raised in the first few months in the race. But the campaign had already decided to go big on early state hires no matter what the initial fund-raising looked like, and Warren had banked $10 million from her time as a Senate candidate as a cushion to help them do so.
“That was never like we forgot to take out our calculators, it was a choice,” one aide said.
While Warren built out her four early state organizations, many other candidates were still pondering their futures (specifically former vice president Joe Biden) or waiting before committing to fully staffing up in those states (like California Senator Kamala Harris and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg).
“The rest of the candidates — Biden, Buttigieg, Harris — were sitting on their hands,” said Mark Longabaugh, a former adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders. “They didn’t start to commit to their organizations until the summer.”
That hesitancy of some of the other candidates also gave Warren the opportunity to grab the spotlight for herself and get her message out. From February to May, her campaign released one policy proposal after another and worked to maximize the attention they got by pairing policy announcements with widely covered campaign events.
When she appeared at Al Sharpton’s National Action Forum in New York in April, she endorsed the end of the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate. No other candidate used the forum to announce anything of substance, giving her news the biggest play. She was also the first major candidate to announce her support for impeachment, energizing the grass-roots left.
“There was a pretty long period of time in the beginning where we seemed to be the only campaign trying to get attention,” a Warren aide said.
The tactic began to pay off. By April, Warren was receiving applause when she said she had “a plan for that” on the trail, and other candidates were being grilled on her proposals to forgive student loans (a position she staked out before Sanders, her progressive rival) or tax millionaires’ assets. A month later, the phrase made it onto the cover of Time magazine, and the campaign was selling “Warren has a plan for that” T-shirts like hotcakes.
Warren also had another apparent advantage as a candidate — she really seemed to enjoy herself on the stump, often running up to the stage and pumping her fist with extra “whoos!” before speaking. “Sometimes you get politicians out there who dread working the rope line or don’t want to stick around for selfies,” said Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern, who’s endorsed Warren. “She actually revels in it.”
In fact, Warren’s “selfie lines” — now a key part of her brand as a candidate — had been in her repertoire for at least a year before she even began her presidential campaign. While running for reelection in 2018 in Massachusetts, she held dozens of town halls and began staying afterward to take photos with everyone who wanted one, even when the crowds grew into the hundreds.
Warren decided to implement selfie lines after she noticed that the traditional rope lines where candidates met people at their events tended to be packed with local politicians, not regular voters, her chief strategist, Joe Rospars, told former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe in a recent interview. “That struck her as a dumb way to do things and something that was not fair and not what our democracy should look like,” Rospars said.
The selfie line transferred seamlessly into her presidential campaign, even as her crowds swelled into the thousands. Warren stayed four hours after her speech in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park in September that attracted more than 20,000 people, and has taken 75,000 selfies as a candidate so far, according to her campaign.
Warren bought herself the time to stand in these lines by making the riskiest decision of her candidacy — forgoing fancy fund-raisers and phone calls with donors in favor of a grass-roots-only strategy that no other candidate except Sanders has embraced. This gamble was widely second-guessed and criticized by political consultants and others when Warren announced it in February at a time when her campaign’s fund-raising was severely lagging.
“People made fun of her, they were ruthless,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic consultant.
Warren’s top aides had long viewed eschewing fund-raisers as a cornerstone of their strategy because it gave Warren more time to interact with voters and travel the country. The campaign hadn’t taken steps to build a finance team or schedule any fund-raisers in their first weeks in the race, but the final call to stick to grass-roots-only money didn’t come until a few weeks later, leading to the departure of her longtime finance director.
Now, the no-big-money pledge serves as a key contrast between Warren and Biden, whose fund-raising has lagged even as he regularly courts wealthy donors on the coasts. And it hasn’t left Warren short on cash for her campaign. She’s become one of the top fund-raisers in the field, pulling in nearly $25 million last quarter.
All those decisions — and the commitment to stick to the plan — showed signs of paying off as winter turned to spring on the campaign trail.
One of the first indications that Warren’s approach was hitting home came in April, when she appeared at a forum in Houston with other Democratic candidates. The event was sponsored by She the People, a group that seeks to mobilize women of color and whose founder vividly remembers the early tough times for the Warren campaign.
“It was pretty dismal,” recalled Aimee Allison.
And at first, in April, it didn’t seem like much had changed.
“It was basically a polite reception,” recalled Allison of how the crowd reacted when Warren walked on stage. “Like, oh, it’s a senator. It’s Elizabeth Warren. Hello.”
“Twenty minutes later, she had a standing ovation,” she added.
Warren won the crowd with an impassioned appeal to lower maternal mortality among black women and a punchy takedown of financial institutions that targeted black people in the lead up to the Great Recession with “the most cheating, lying horrible mortgages possible.”
Allison recalled feeling like she had witnessed an important turning point for Warren. “That was the moment her campaign started to seem like they weren’t just a darling of the white left,” Allison said.
Now, Warren is at another inflection point. She’s leading the polls in two of the four early states — Iowa and New Hampshire — while Biden continues to best her in the next two, Nevada and South Carolina, and in national polls.
And her rivals, aware of the threat she poses, are now firing pointed attacks at her for the first time, with Biden and Buttigieg criticizing her relentlessly for evasiveness for her initial failure to detail how she would pay for Medicare for All.
“She’s now hitting up against the doubts,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “All this discipline, all this messaging got her to where she’s at. She’s going to plateau now as people focus on the question marks.”
Warren addressed one of those question marks on Friday, releasing a detailed proposal for how she would pay for Medicare for All. The price tag is huge, and she is sure to run into criticism. But if the first 10 months of her campaign are any indication, she’ll spend the coming weeks leading up to the Iowa caucus doing what she’s been doing, leaning into the headwinds — and sticking to her plan.