Elizabeth Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, has made a name for herself in a crowded field of more than 20 presidential candidates by styling herself the policy engine of the Democratic party.
“I want to fix the systems in this country so they work for Americans, not just for giant corporations or Big Pharma or the Goldman Sachs guys,” she told TIME in a recent interview. “That’s not just my political career. That’s my whole life’s work.”
In the months since she launched her campaign, she and her team have published more than a dozen complex policy proposals designed to address an array of problems, from unaffordable housing and child care to the overwhelming burden of student debt. Her anticorruption initiative would target the Washington swamp, and her antitrust measures would transform Silicon Valley. On Wednesday, Warren unveiled a $100 billion plan to fight the opioid crisis.
This flurry of white papers has become Warren’s brand. On the campaign trail, her off-the-cuff phrase “I have a plan for that!” became so ubiquitous that it morphed into a viral applause line; in Iowa, supporters printed the accidental slogan on T-shirts. Her campaign, staffers say, is built on the conviction that voters want substance, not theatrics, and will throw in for the candidate who puts forth serious ideas to create change. Unlike many of her Democratic rivals, who have offered enticing promises largely devoid of specifics, Warren’s plans include paragraphs on implementation and details on exactly how they would be paid for. In her stump speech, she describes the mechanics of a tax that would fund her universal child-care plan—to pick just one example among many.
Focusing a campaign on policy solutions is an audacious bet in the Donald Trump era. Voters tend to tell pollsters they prioritize policy over personality. But they said that in 2016 too, when Clinton’s detailed agenda was no match for Trump’s simple slogans and schoolyard nicknames. And Warren’s investment in substance over style is not her only gamble. Over the past few months, she has fired her finance director, eschewed high-dollar donors and hired as much as 10 times as many staffers in early voting states as most of her competitors. While others focus on big money and flashy rallies, she’s building a campaign designed to maximize the amount of time she spends in living rooms and community centers talking about what she would do as President.
It’s not clear whether these bets will pay off. While she has emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, she still trails front runner Joe Biden by a wide margin in both national polls and the latest surveys of the first four primary states. She doesn’t have the die-hard fan base that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders built in 2016, and her campaign may be haunted by the specter of Clinton’s failure. Many voters who like Warren worry about nominating a wonky, blond woman four years after another wonky blond woman lost to Trump.
But campaign aides say they’re playing a long game. Democratic strategists unaffiliated with 2020 campaigns say Warren has proven appeal. In 2012, the Obama-Biden re-election campaign found that of all the Democratic campaign surrogates, Warren resonated most powerfully in focus groups. “The sense was that she gets it, she understands us, she is fighting for the right stuff,” says a former senior aide to the Obama-Biden re-election campaign. “She had an authority that no one else had.”
For now, Warren swats away questions about perceptions, polling numbers or electability. “I didn’t look in the mirror as a kid and think, Hey, there’s the next President of the United States,” she says. “But I know why I’m here. I have ideas for how we bring systemic change to this country. And we’re running out of time.”
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