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Elizabeth Warren is running a different kind of campaign — and it just might be working

The 2020 Democrat who's come out with the most policy proposals just posted $6 million in first-quarter fundraising

by Rex Santus
Apr 10 2019, 8:50pm

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s big ideas seem to be paying off — literally.

The former Harvard University professor, who’s running on more specific policy proposals than any other candidate in the 2020 race, announced a surprising $6 million first-quarter fundraising haul on Wednesday. The money is quelling some worry that her campaign, which is restricting its fundraising to individual donors, was sputtering.

Warren has refused to take corporate money, work with donor bundlers who gather money on her behalf, or hold private fundraising events — a move that reportedly caused her finance director to resign earlier this month. In a crowded Democratic field, she’s fighting to prove it’s not politically fatal for a candidate to run on actual ideas without taking PAC money. And so far, she seems to be winning.

Warren outraised some of her rivals in the Senate, such as Sen. Cory Booker, who has held private fundraising events, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. But the Massachusetts senator is still lagging behind Bernie Sanders ($18 million), Kamala Harris ($12 million), Beto O’Rourke ($9.4 million), and Pete Buttigieg ($7 million).

Warren received 213,000 contributions from 135,000 donors, with an average donation of $28. She also finished the quarter with a strong final week — right as she was unleashing a flurry of policy pitches — raising $1.4 million from 50,000 donations, outpacing small-dollar fundraising for perceived frontrunners like Harris, who clocked $1.1 million over that period.

It's all in the details

While most candidates speak in broad strokes about their ideas, Warren, who formally announced her campaign in February, has already unleashed a slew of detailed plans, including a wealth tax on the hyper-rich, universal childcare, allowing the federal government to manufacture prescription drugs, breaking up tech giants like Facebook and Amazon, the elimination of the filibuster, an affordable housing plan, and the abolition of the Electoral College.

“It's actually a little unusual, and clearly an attempt to stand out,” wrote Walter Ludwig, a political consultant for Indigo Strategies, in an email. “The big question (always for policy nerds) is, do voters care about policy? There's not a lot in recent politics to be encouraging about that.”

Warren believes she can win voters’ hearts and minds by explicitly detailing piece by piece how she would fix one larger problem: a system rigged against average Americans in favor of the wealthy and powerful.

Policy at a price

“There will be a cost to our approach,” Warren said in a recent Facebook campaign ad about fundraising. “In fact, making this decision will ensure that I will be outraised by other candidates in this race.”

Still, she’s not blowing the competition away in polls. The Massachusetts senator is polling in third place even in her home state, according to a new Emerson poll

“The general rhetorical approach for candidates is to be as vague and ambiguous as possible to avoid opposition to those policies,” said Spencer Kimball, communications professor at Emerson College and the director of Emerson Polling.

Kimball noted, however, that there’s plenty of time for Warren to pick up steam, especially as voters come to learn more about the candidate and what she stands for. “I’m not ready to write her obituary in this race,” he said.

She’s running against another hard-line progressive, Bernie Sanders, whom she’s often compared to, and Bernie already has a donor base and campaign infrastructure in place from his failed presidential bid in 2016. Warren has also faced controversy over her handling of President Trump’s attacks on her ancestry by releasing DNA test results.

Warren’s policy proposals have already forced her rivals to comment on policy positions they’d otherwise not talk about, especially 19 months before the election. It’s become a catch-22 for Warren, with her bold, big-idea policy proposals pored over by the media as simultaneously her great strength and a possible vulnerability. She’s too “professorial.” She’s “too wonky.” She’s a “schoolmarm.”

The public advocate

“She is quite unusual in that she made her career as a scholar and policy expert and advocate,” said David Karol, a University of Maryland political science professor and expert on the presidential nomination process, in an email. “She came into politics as an advocate for policies, not as an aspirant for office. You can't say that about most presidential contenders.”

Warren might agree with that assessment. "I'm the least likely person you would ever find running for president,” she said at an opioids roundtable in New Hampshire in March. “I never thought I would be in politics. I was always, ‘I'm gonna be a teacher.’”

Her supporters, however, argue that voters want nitty-gritty details — and that criticisms of Warren are often rooted in sexism. Search “Warren policy” on Twitter and almost every tweet is a comment about the senator’s deep knowledge and detailed proposals not getting enough attention.

“I think it’s more than a strategy,” Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, said of Warren’s policy ideas. “I think it is who she is.”

Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during the We the People Membership Summit, featuring the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, at the Warner Theater in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)