MARION, Iowa — All the plans in the world may not be enough to win the Democratic nomination.
That’s what some of Elizabeth Warren’s ardent fans are warning less than two months before the first votes are cast, as the Massachusetts senator has lost her edge in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent polls.
They said she should tweak her strategy, fearing that too much nitty-gritty policy in the home stretch of the race — and the controversy around her Medicare for All plan — will eclipse her oft-told personal story and block out humanizing moments that can draw new supporters into the fold.
“She could quit talking about plans and talk more about who she is and her values and what drives her,” said Iowa state Senator Joe Bolkcom, who endorsed Warren in September and introduced her at a town hall event on Monday. “I think that would be refreshing to people.”
As her standing in the polls slipped, Warren took the unusual step of shaking things up this week. At two campaign events in Iowa, she chopped her policy-dense stump speech by more than half and answered four times as many questions from voters than usual, allowing for more unplanned moments of levity and emotion — including an exchange in which she spoke powerfully about her divorce.
“I feel like we all know what her plans are and quite frankly voters are not interested in plans. They are more interested in headlines and viral moments,” said Ariel Glasman, a 30-year-old teacher who saw Warren, her preferred candidate, speak for the third time on Monday at the University of Iowa.
Warren’s detailed and sweeping policy agenda has been the bedrock of her campaign, and powered her rise in the race last summer. Her Democratic rivals scrambled to keep up with her ideas to tax multimillionaires’ assets and dramatically expand the nation’s safety net, furiously fleshing out their own less-formed agendas.
Now, however, Pete Buttigieg,the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who has never dominated the policy primary, has leapfrogged Warren in some early-state polls. Warren has a fearsome ground game, but her supporters are worried about a race that remains unpredictable, with California Senator Kamala Harris suddenly dropping out on Tuesday and former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders putting up a fierce fight.
As the crucial Iowa caucuses approach, Warren’s strategy appears to have hit a wall. She has found herself mired in the political quicksand of her most controversial plan, Medicare for All, after she was forced to spell out her support for a government takeover of health insurance when her rivals pilloried her for being uncharacteristically vague on the matter.
Her embrace of that expensiveplan has kicked up some voters’ lingering concerns about Warren’s ability to defeat President Trump, and she has shown little appetite to hit back as rivals like Biden and Buttigieg work overtime to whip up those doubts.
Some of Warren’s allies and fans say now is the time to pivot from the plans to the personal.
“She’s got a very clearly identified brand: ‘She’s got a plan for that,’ ” said Iowa state Senator Zach Wahls, who announced his support of Warren in October. “And now it’s a question of beyond the plans . . . who are you and why are you running?”
Warren has made her rise from a modest Oklahoma upbringing to a populist champion for the middle class a pillar of her typical campaign speech, and she shares one-on-one interactions with every voter who wants to stand in the selfie lines that curl around her event venues. But her focus on policy is a calling card that often looms larger than the rest of her persona.
“When you think about it, having 47 different detailed policies is terrific and a sign of thoughtfulness and readiness, but is that really the best matchup to Donald Trump?” said Iowa political strategist Jeff Link, who said Warren’s origin story and willingness to interact with voters could provide a powerful contrast to Trump — if voters know about it.
“I think an adjustment could be made that would have a positive impact,” said Eli Stines, a city councilor in Boone, Iowa, who has endorsed Warren and said her personal story is powerful. “I know from experience that most people don’t vote on policy.”
Several of the more than a dozen Warren supporters interviewed, however, said Warren’s plans are key to her success so far — and that she should not deemphasize them.
“People want solutions. People don’t want platitudes anymore,” said state Representative Lindsay James of Dubuque, adding that Warren has skillfully braided her policy ideas with her biography.
Warren supporters in Iowa were delighted by a more personal exchange that unfolded Sunday in a windowless gymnasium in Marion, when a young voter with tears in her eyes asked Warren if there was a time when she was not accepted by someone she looked up to. Warren, who generally launches into her answers with an expression of joy (“Oh, that’s fabulous!”) and a policy prescription, gripped the microphone and paused to steady herself.
“My mother and I had very different views of how to build a future. She wanted me to marry well and I really tried and it just didn’t work out,” Warren said, her voice seeming to break as she described calling her mother to tell her about her divorce in 1979.
“I heard the disappointment in her voice, I knew how she felt about it, but I also know it was the right thing to do,” Warren said.
Then Warren and the voter embraced. As the video went viral, Warren’s supporters hoped it signaled a new willingness by the candidate to move away from dense policy in favor of more humanizing exchanges that could help her with her next challenge: Getting more voters to like her enough to vote for her, even if they do not always agree with her.
Warren’s shorter stump speech opened up the event for more interaction with voters, includingan amusing exchange with a man whose shirt was emblazoned with her face, and a question from a teacher about book recommendations — which she dodged.
The change was a minor shakeup compared to the shifts by some of Warren’s competitors for the Democratic nomination. But it was also a sign that, on the 336th day of a presidential campaign that has reveled in its consistency, Warren was apparently willing to experiment.
That shift appears necessary as voters who say they love Warren’s brand as a populist policy whiz also express increasing worry about one particular plan that’s overshadowing them all: Medicare for All.
One supporter, Elizabeth McGlynn, 67, stepped to the microphone in Marion to ask why Warren hadn’t presented a plan that could “get more people on your side.” Warren offered a detailed explanation of her three-part health care plan — a sign that her willingness to dig into policy is not going anywhere. But that did little to soothe McGlynn’s nerves, even though she supports Medicare for All.
“I am really OK with it as long as it’s not something that affects her getting elected,” McGlynn said, “That’s my hesitation.”
That’s a theme that Warren backer Adam Green, the cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, found in a survey of on-the-fence Warren supporters his organization held in recent days. Most respondents said they personally supported Medicare for All but were afraid other Americans didn’t, rendering Warren less electable.
The fear has been amplified by Warren’s more centrist Democratic rivals, who have argued in recent debates that Medicare for All is unpopular and unrealistic.
“It’s not the minutiae of her plans, it’s the act of being attacked by people like Pete [Buttigieg],” that’s scaring progressive voters, Green said.
So far, Warren has largely refrained from punching back at Biden and Buttigieg — an approach that appears widely popular with her fans and backers.
But some have pressed the campaign for more guidance on how to sell her plan for Medicare for All in the face of all the attacks, and their criticisms underscore the delicate balance for a campaign that is expected to have an answer for everything, but needs to avoid overwhelming people with details.
“When she first came out with the idea of the Medicare for All plan, it wasn’t spelled out very well,” said Joyce Weston, a New Hampshire state representative who’s endorsed Warren. She asked the campaign to put out more details to help her answer questions about the plan from voters, which they eventually did last month.
But Sharon Nordgren, another state representative in New Hampshire and Warren backer, said she’s urged the campaign to shrink all of its major policy proposals into one-page fliers with bullet points, to make it easier to explain the candidate’s vast agenda.
“It’s a little cumbersome to go online and read plans,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of confusion and concern and people need to be able to look at a piece of paper and say, ‘Jeez, that sounds good.’ ”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year Warren was divorced. The correct year is 1979.