GRIMES, Iowa — “My heart might be with Warren, but my head might be telling me Klobuchar. So I don’t know.”
With less than two weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, now is the time for Karen Crosby to make up her mind.
Crosby, an adult ESL instructor who came to see Elizabeth Warren at a rally in Grimes, said she knew it might seem odd that she was wavering between two candidates with starkly different visions for the country: Warren, a big-ideas progressive, and Amy Klobuchar, a pragmatic moderate. But what she was trying to decide, Crosby said, was which vision could actually beat Donald Trump.
Elizabeth Warren is the “but” candidate of the Democratic primary: For more than a year, voters have agonized over her just as Crosby has. They like her — they love her! But, they say, they worry she can’t beat Trump: because she’s too far left, because she’s too impractical, because she doesn’t speak to white Midwesterners.
Sometimes, that worry is so clear it doesn’t need to be voiced: “I love Warren, but...” voters say and then trail off, as though the reasons are obvious.
In Iowa, with the caucuses near and Warren trailing Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in most polls both nationally and in the state, Warren’s campaign has oriented itself around changing that dynamic — convincing Iowans’ heads, not just their hearts.
The campaign has reshaped its events in a way that seems aimed directly at voters’ anxieties. They are working to convince voters obsessed with beating Trump that Warren can appeal to moderates. On Friday, the campaign took the rare step of releasing a strategy memo outlining its plans beyond Iowa and the early voting states, emphasizing how much staff it has across the country and how prepared they are for a “long nomination fight.”
And for the first time, Warren has tackled head-on an anxiety that has been lingering, unspoken, in many voters’ minds throughout the primary: whether a woman can beat Trump.
Campaign surrogates, like former candidate Julián Castro, have begun to pitch Warren as the “unity candidate,” arguing that she can unite the Democratic Party’s factions in a way that no other frontrunner can. On a January swing through Iowa, her campaign arranged for Warren to be introduced by former Republicans at back-to-back events. They released a list of Iowa Republicans who had said they were planning on caucusing for Warren. On Medicare for All, the issue that tripped her up last year over worries that the plan was too radical, Warren has perfected a health care pitch that sounds, at least until the end, like it was ripped from Klobuchar’s stump speech.
There is data that shows potential for Warren: She’s the most popular second-choice candidate among Iowa voters. But many of those people, the data also shows, rank her behind the other Iowa frontrunners — Biden, Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg.
Voters’ anxieties about Warren are, at least in part, why she remains their second choice, according to conversations with dozens of voters across Iowa in recent months. To win their votes, many say, she needs to convince them she can win.
In part, that shift reflects a response to Iowa voters’ clear worries about unity. When she was in the state earlier this month, voters asked Warren at three separate events how she would unite the country.
The vision of Warren as a “unity candidate” isn’t entirely new. Her campaign has explicitly reached out to centrist voters in a way that Sanders’ has not. She has couched her plans for things like student debt cancellation, campaign finance reform, and taxation in terms that appeal to moderates.
But her campaign has embraced “unity” far more explicitly in the run-up to the caucuses. When Warren landed a key endorsement from Janet Petersen, the Democratic leader of Iowa’s state Senate, Petersen explained her endorsement by saying she wanted a candidate who can “bring our nation back together.”
“All Iowans and all Americans can unite behind her plans for ending corruption and ensuring opportunity,” Petersen’s statement had.
In Marshalltown, Castro, who endorsed Warren soon after dropping out of the presidential race in early January, introduced the candidate by praising her willingness to take on her own party when he was in the Obama administration. And he cited polls that showed a quarter of Democrats would be unhappy if either Sanders or Biden won the nomination. Warren, he said, does best by that measure.
“She can bring this party together. She can unify Democrats to defeat Donald Trump in November of 2020,” he said.
In Iowa and elsewhere, voter worries about Warren’s policies are most clearly concentrated around health care — specifically, her support of the single-payer system, known as Medicare for All, championed by Sanders.
After she was criticized in early debates for being evasive on how she would pay for the policy, Warren was dragged into a monthslong morass. Many moderate voters said they worried Warren’s health care plan would make her unelectable. And on the left, some accused her of backing away from Medicare for All when she released a plan that would transition the country onto single-payer health care by first using a public option of the type favored by Buttigieg and Biden.
In the later stage of her campaign, Warren has perfected an answer on health care that sounds more reminiscent of her moderate rivals — starting with a list of practical, feasible solutions like defending the Affordable Care Act and bringing down the cost of prescription drugs.
She speaks far more about a public option — the first phase of her plan — than about single-payer Medicare for All, the eventual endgame.
“We can do this in budget reconciliation — which means we only need 50 votes. We can offer full health care coverage to 135 million Americans for free,” Warren said in Manchester, Iowa, in early January. “You’re not forced into it if you don’t want to. But try it. See what health care is like when it’s just between you and your doctor.”
“Once people have tried it out,” she finished, “we vote on Medicare for All for everyone.”
The campaign’s narrative has worked for some Iowa voters.
“In the world of her policies and her approach, I think she’s very electable,” said Jim Ross, a government worker who came to see Warren in Davenport in early January. It was Warren’s health care plan in particular, Ross said, that struck him as having broad appeal.
“Electability sounds like you’re giving something up to make someone electable, but she doesn’t,” he said. “I think she strikes home with a wide range, with conservative Democrats and more liberal Republicans. She can bring them together.”
But there is a danger for Warren, too, in trying to strike that balance, and in selling herself as a candidate that is somewhere between the moderate and progressive wings.
Sen. Kamala Harris tried a similar approach during her presidential run, putting out her own version of Medicare for All that tried to assuage the fears of more moderate Democrats about upending the private insurance system. It opened her up to attacks from both the left and the right, and reinforced an image she’d already developed as a candidate who changed policy positions to appeal to voters rather than sticking to firm principles.
In early January, when a Trump-ordered military strike took out top Iranian military Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Warren initially released a statement that condemned Soleimani as a “murderer.”
Some on the left attacked her statement as going too far in justifying the strike. When Warren’s later statements called Soleimani’s killing an “assassination,” she was criticized by pundits and centrists for being disingenuous.
Warren’s campaign has also taken on another long-standing voter anxiety: her gender.
Mary, an Iowa voter who lives in Blue Grass, a small town in Eastern Iowa, said she’d seen — and been impressed by — Warren. But she planned to vote for Biden, who she had come to see speak in Davenport.
“She’s a firecracker, but she doesn’t have all that experience that Biden does,” Mary, who did not want her last name used, said of Warren. Then, almost as an aside, she added: “And I don’t think she can win, because she’s a woman, dang it, and they don’t like women presidents, I guess.”
Though Warren has woven issues of gender into her speeches throughout her campaign, she had done little to address worries about electability explicitly.
That changed when a story leaked earlier this month that Sanders, a longtime ally of Warren’s, had told Warren in a private meeting he believed a woman could not beat Trump. (Warren later confirmed that account, Sanders denied it.)
In a message to supporters after the story, Warren’s campaign acknowledged that anxieties about sexism in the presidential race were something “many, many people feel.” And Warren used the inevitable question in the primary debate that next day to focus not on Sanders, but on gender and electability.
“It’s time for us to attack it head-on,” she said of Sanders’ alleged claims. “Look at the men on this stage: Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women, Amy and me.”
"Once you name the fear, it becomes less fearful."
Kathleen Keest, a retired consumer law expert in Des Moines, said she was glad Warren had addressed the issue of gender and electability directly, instead of letting it fester, as she thought Democrats had done in the past.
“Once you name the fear, it becomes less fearful. Naming it helps,” Keest said.
Cheryl, who came to see Warren in Des Moines in mid-January and did not want her last name to be used, said she “worried” about Warren’s gender. The country, she thought, was too strongly tilted against women candidates for someone like Warren to win. She planned to vote for Biden in the caucuses, she said.
“I really do believe in her. I believe what she says, and I think she’s probably as honest as any candidate can be,” Cheryl said of Warren. “But she’s got big mountains to climb.”
“I’m not too excited by anyone else. But the reason I’m thinking Biden is because he seems to be the one to win. Unfortunately — I prefer Elizabeth.”
Cheryl was glad Warren had spoken up at the debate about women being electable, she said. But she was not convinced by Warren’s argument — at least, not convinced enough to change her vote.
“Well, I agree with her,” Cheryl said, emphasizing the "I." “But I don’t know, I just don’t know how other people — we’ve got a lot of strong Republicans in this country... I don’t know that they’d even listen.”