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The Elizabeth Warren Insurgency

Why progressive activists think the Massachusetts Senator can take on Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The 2016 presidential campaign has begun, and so far, the reaction among most of America's electorate can be summed up as "meh." It's easy to see why. As they do every four years, wealthy candidates backed by wealthier campaign donors have started bouncing around the heartland, acting like they sympathize with the Common People and promising that they have the answer to their troubles—the mountains of student loan debt, the limited job prospects, the stagnant wages. Mostly, though, their grand speeches and vague policy proposals promise to be more of the same.

In this environment, Elizabeth Warren, the sharp-tongued, quick-witted scourge of Wall Street, stands out to voters on the left as a ray of hope. Across the country, progressive activists have called on Warren to get into the 2016 presidential race, urging the Massachusetts Senator to mount a primary challenge against presumptive Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. A petition to draft Warren into the presidential race has gained more than 111,000 signatures. Even in New York, Clinton's home state, labor leaders and liberal activists with the Working Families Party voted Sunday to formally call on Warren to enter the race. The problem, of course, is that, for now at least, Warren insists she's not running for president.

Enter Run Warren Run. The group, backed by the progressive advocacy groups MoveOn and Democracy for America, has launched a nationwide effort toconvince Warren to throw her hat in the ring. With a $1.25 million budget, Run Warren Run has already launched a grassroots organizing effort, and is hiring staffers in key early voting states.

"Immediately after the 2014 election, we asked our members who they'd like to run for president. The winner by over 20 points was Elizabeth Warren," said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America. "There's certainly sort of a DC class of people that say that we shouldn't even be trying this. The reality is that we have to try. This is Elizabeth Warren's moment, and so we are going to build the campaign it takes for her to make the decision to do this."

For progressives wary of Hillary Clinton's inevitability as the Democratic Party's 2016 nominee, Warren's appeal is obvious. The former Harvard law professor has been a liberal star since the dark days of the economic crisis in late 2008, when she chaired a congressional oversight panel on the government's bank bailout, tearing into finance execs for their misuse of taxpayer dollars. As a senator, she has become an unlikely YouTube star, famous for her folksy Senate floor tirades on economic injustice. Video of a speech she gave in December, blasting Citigroup for its role in watering down a key provision of the Dodd-Frank bill, has received more than 600,000 views. Her populist rants against Republicans over last year's government shutdown have been watched by more than 2 million.

Former labor activist Kurt Ehrenberg is laying the groundwork for Warren's imaginary campaign in New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of DFA/Run Warren Run

While Warren claims she's not interested in a White House bid, liberal activists aren't taking no for an answer. After opening its first office in Iowa in late January, Run Warren Run opened a New Hampshire office last week, hiring four staffers to campaign in the first-in-nation primary state. Kurt Ehrenberg, former political director for New Hampshire AFL-CIO, is heading up the team. "The momentum in New Hampshire to get Elizabeth Warren to enter the presidential primary is gaining every day, and it's really huge," Ehrenberg told VICE. "Being a senator from Massachusetts, people in New Hampshire know her well because the media markets overlap. So she's very well known, she's extremely popular with progressive Democrats in the state, and we are going to be successful in getting her in the race."

Within days of starting up operations, the office had held six house parties in the state, part of a national blitz of draft Warren events over Super Bowl weekend. Now, Ehrenberg said, his office is working to line up endorsements from New Hampshire politicians and organize events aimed at making the Senator more visible in the state. "When we had these house parties—I've been working in progressive politics in New Hampshire for over 30 years, and I met a dozen or more people at one event in Concord that I had never met before," Ehrenberg said. "I do think there's a lot of new enthusiasm in people who are charged up and very enthusiastic about trying to get Elizabeth Warren into the race and, if she does, [would work] very hard to see that she gets elected president."

Liberal activists spent Super Bowl weekend begging Warren to run for president. Photo via Facebook

Run Warren Run firmly rejects the notion that Clinton's nomination is inevitable. And there are signs that they may be right. Although national polls show Clinton leading the field of potential Democratic presidential candidates, surveys in early voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa are less decisive. A recent poll of New Hampshire voters, for example, found that three-fourths of likely Democratic primary voters haven't yet made up their mind who to vote for in next year's primary. The poll suggests a certain lack of excitement about Clinton, with just under a third of respondents citing her as the "most likeable" or "most believable" candidate.

"There's a strong and long tradition in New Hampshire of sort of upsetting conventional wisdom, and this campaign, I think, is about that," Ehrenberg said. "The voters of New Hampshire have surprised the pundits with their choices for who should get in the race, getting people in the race reluctantly, and who ultimately will win the primary—and go on to get the nomination, usually."

There's also reason to believe that a sizable chunk of voters are looking for a candidate who isn't so deeply enmeshed in the Washington power structure. The Washington Post 's Dan Balz reports that in a recent Denver focus group, most voters, regardless of party affiliation, responded positively to Warren, while mentions of Clinton and Jeb Bush were met with hostility.

Activists leading the draft Warren efforts also reject the idea that a primary challenge would benefit Republicans by weakening Hillary Clinton and dividing Democrats before the general election in 2016. Regardless of the outcome, Chamberlain says that Run Warren Run will still have been successful in pulling in new progressive activists and volunteers to the movement, helping to build the infrastructure of the Warren wing of the Democratic Party. And he believes Run Warren Run will ultimately be successful in its effort to convince Warren to jump into the race.

"At the moment she's saying she won't do it, and I believe her," he said. "But that's why we're building a draft campaign to show that there is that momentum for her, that there are millions of people nationwide—that there is a grassroots, earnest drive to see a real champion on income inequality in this race."

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