Elizabeth Warren has her own way of doing things, and Iowans have to adapt accordingly. At the Massachusetts senator’s events, each attendee gets a raffle-style ticket; then, after her rousing, personal monologue, she takes questions from audience members. Who gets to ask a question is determined by which number is randomly drawn. “This works very well in Massachusetts, I’m told,” the emcee at her speech in Des Moines grumbled, as he waited for the lucky winner to come forward.
“The idea is that everybody gets to ask a question,” Warren explained, “not just whoever runs up to the front.”
Is this a metaphor for Warren’s egalitarian philosophy? Perhaps. But it’s also an illustration of what the potential Democratic presidential contender was doing here in Iowa last weekend, a full 13 months before the state will host the party’s first 2020 nominating contest. (She’s headed to New Hampshire this weekend.) The Warren campaign — technically an exploratory committee at this point, allowing her to raise money, hold events and hire staff — has calculated that getting in early and emphasizing Iowa is her best chance for the nomination.
If her first campaign swing was any indication, it is a good wager. Large, enthusiastic crowds flocked to her five campaign appearances. In Des Moines, they packed the venue and filled a nearby parking lot. Interviews revealed a mix of former Bernie Sanders and former Hillary Clinton supporters; some were Warren superfans, others simply curious. “She’s refreshing,” said Linda McFarlane, a 69-year-old realtor from West Des Moines. “She cares about people, she’s passionate about her causes and she has been for many years. But what I want more than anything is the person who can beat Trump in 2020.” McFarlane, a former Sanders supporter, worried that Warren might suffer from Clinton’s charisma deficit, and wondered if she’d be able to draw moderate voters.
The way that Warren campaigned in Iowa was also revealing, from the locations to the format. Her tour focused on the western half of the state, which is conservative and sparsely populated — it’s represented in Congress by the controversial Republican Steve King. These rural areas get a disproportionate amount of caucus delegates. And Warren’s boosters think her brand of prairie populism plays well in the same sort of declining regions, battered by the modern economy, that gravitated to Sanders and Trump.
Iowa tends to reward candidates who are strong on conviction and personal narrative, Warren’s two great strengths, over candidates who emphasize competence and credentials, like Mitt Romney and Clinton. Warren’s stump speech starts with her life story, from working-class Oklahoma roots to single motherhood, pointing out the opportunities America gave her that are less accessible today, especially, she consistently notes, to people of color. She can credibly portray herself as an accidental politician driven by a cause — she was an academic studying people’s economic struggles until the 2008 recession drew her into policymaking and then elected office. Her message was policy-driven, with a bullet-pointed agenda for ending corruption and making government more responsive.
Warren called for “big, structural change” in government and the economy, from more limits on money in politics to strengthening unions to universal health care. She said she would push to expand Social Security and enshrine voting rights in the Constitution. Except when asked directly, she didn’t mention Trump.
In Iowa, Warren also gained a stage to rebut and reset some of the negative narratives that have risen about her. Her October rollout of a DNA test that showed an infinitesimal amount of Native American ancestry was widely viewed as a blunder. At one of her first Iowa appearances, one of those picked-at-random voters asked her why she did something that would “give Donald Trump more fodder to be a bully.” Warren replied that she wanted to “put it all out there” — and then moved on. HHer final Iowa event, in Ankeny, was a roundtable of recent female candidates for state office, a slate of energetic and personable women who talked about how women had powered the 2018 Democratic wave. The message — at a time when pundits and voters alike were rumbling about whether a woman candidate can win after Clinton’s defeat — was not subtle.
Once, it would have been a no-brainer to camp out in the caucus state. In previous presidential cycles, there’s almost always been a candidate who went all-in on Iowa, from Republican Rick Santorum in 2012 (whose shoestring campaign nearly toppled Romney) to Democrat Chris Dodd in 2008 (who moved his family to the state from Connecticut, only to come in sixth and drop out). Iowans pride themselves on taking a careful look at all the candidates and rewarding deep, personal engagement over flashy ads.
But in 2020, the calculation isn’t as clear. A combination of factors have called the traditional early state’s clout into question since it helped propel Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008. First, there’s the calendar: Big states like California have moved their primaries up to within a few weeks of Iowa and New Hampshire, tempting candidates to seek big delegate hauls on their big stage. Second, the Democratic Party is more diverse than ever, giving more clout to the black and brown voters in the party base and draining some power from the verdict rendered by lily-white Iowa.
Most of all, Donald Trump’s 2016 victory — with a campaign that consisted of little more than an airplane and a Twitter account, plus maybe some Russian grassroots organizing — threw the old rules of politics out the window. In a world where Trump (who lost Iowa, coming in second to Ted Cruz) can win, strategists have to admit no one really knows what makes an effective presidential campaign anymore.
Iowans, naturally, resist this suggestion. “People say, ‘Iowa doesn’t matter anymore,’ I say, ‘Not so fast,'” says Ann Selzer, the state’s top nonpartisan pollster and steward of the long-running Iowa Poll. Her initial Iowa test heat, taken in December, had Warren coming in fourth out of 20 hypothetical candidates, after Joe Biden, Sanders and Beto O’Rourke. “As a candidate, the most important thing you can do is win,” Selzer says. “And Iowa is still the first place you can win.”