‘She’s upending expectations’: Warren fans say her appeal is about more than liberal policies

Joanna Berens freely admits that she once doubted if an academic like Elizabeth Warren could win the presidency.

That was before she watched one of the senator’s televised town halls.

“She doesn’t just have some sound bites,” said Berens, a 57-year-old event planner, marveling at what she remembers seeing minutes before she was set to see Warren in person at another town hall in Miami recently. “She’s listening. She’s engaging. She hears what they’re saying, and offers thoughtful comments.”

Now, Berens isn’t just convinced Warren would make a strong general election nominee — she’s thrilled about the prospect of her confronting President Donald Trump on the debate stage.

“Oh my god,” she said. “She will flatten him.”

Warren’s summer-long rise in polls and fundraising success in the Democratic presidential primary is usually attributed to her detailed policy agenda or longstanding appeal to liberal diehards.

But Warren supporters and other friendly Democrats cite another reason for her ascent: Voters who expected to see an awkward policy wonk on the campaign trail are instead impressed by a candidate they describe as authentic and charismatic.

That shift has marked a key development in a primary where many Democratic voters say they are most interested in a candidate who can defeat Trump next fall. And it speaks to Warren’s ability to reach beyond her natural base of progressive activists, connecting with voters who might be more ideologically moderate but nonetheless drawn to her.

“People without much prior knowledge go in thinking ‘blonde woman with policy chops’ and assume she’ll be a clone of Hillary Clinton,” said Amanda Litman, a veteran Democratic strategist and co-founder of the group Run for Something. “But there’s more than one way to be a smart, competent woman leader. She’s upending expectations.”

Warren still has a lot of work to do to convince her fellow Democrats that she’s the most electable candidate in 2020: Polls show that many Democrats still think former Vice President Joe Biden would be Trump’s strongest foe. And other leading candidates like Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris are also making the argument that they would be the best general-election candidate.

Whether Warren’s performance on the primary campaign trail translates easily into a general election, when she would try to win over less liberal voters, remains to be seen. But for now, her allies are increasingly bold about promoting Warren’s talent for converting supporters during town halls and other rallies.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, for example, has been compiling video clips of Democratic voters who became supporters of the Massachusetts Democrat after seeing her in action — whether on the campaign trail or after June’s first round of debates. (The PCCC has endorsed Warren’s campaign.)

In one video, posted on the group’s website, a voter said he had been undecided about which candidate to support before seeing Warren in person during an event in Michigan.

“I think it was her personality,” said one man identified in the video as Noah Colandrea, from Haslett, Michigan. “I liked how genuine she seemed, and that’s something that I’ve been kind of thinking about recently.”

Before she takes questions from the audience at her town halls, Warren typically recounts her own upbringing — a story that mentions her family’s poverty and some of her own questionable decisions as a young woman. When she does dive into policy details, she often intertwines them with her own story or the story of people she’s met.

“What’s truly winning people to her side in the room is not just that she has a plan for everything, but that she connects those plans to her personal story of struggle growing up poor in Oklahoma and being a single mom in Texas,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC.

“I don’t think the pundits realize that it’s not an academic thing,” he added. “It’s that she connects at a gut level with the audience.”

Warren campaign officials say their decision to emphasize events where the senator interacts with voters over high-dollar fundraisers was a deliberate move to make sure, in part, that she would keep improving as a candidate — what one member of the campaign termed “building her muscles.”

Entering this past weekend, Warren had held 111 town halls and received 517 questions over the course of her presidential campaign, according to her campaign.

At her Miami town hall last month, the 1,300 people in the audience didn’t wait long to interrupt Warren with extended chants of her last name. One of those in attendance, Sharyn Marks, said that she loved Warren’s life story and proposals to regulate banks.

But the 66-year-old retiree gets especially excited about Warren when she imagines the senator going one-on-one with Trump during the 2020 debates with the whole country watching.

“I think she would be outstanding in the debates against him,” Marks said. “She’d sweep the floor with him.”

She added, “A lot of the other guys, I don’t think they can.”

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.