Inside Warren's early-state sleeper campaign

The working idea: to mobilize a force not only on election days, but also to move Congress on issues for which there is broad existing public support.
Elizabeth Warren
The secret to Sen. Elizabeth Warren's success — so far — has been talking to voters about the issues that motivate them, and the ones that motivate her.Robert F. Bukaty / AP file

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — Late last month, Gabriel di Chiara Spada, a political operative for Sen. Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign, showed up at The Writer's Block bookstore in downtown Las Vegas to hear children read emotional accounts about President Donald Trump's plan to end the "temporary protected status" for immigrants from certain countries.

"Separating families is wrong, no matter which agency or program or court is responsible," he tweeted along with a picture of an 8-year-old girl reading an op-ed about children who are U.S. citizens being cut off from parents who are not. "The words of these kids proves it."

It's a bit unusual for a presidential campaign's staff to invest time in events that aren't directly related to the candidate's election. But for Warren's team, it's all part of the plan: A small army of her organizers has deployed to early-voting states and embedded into local communities.

"She is generating buzz because her campaign shows up everywhere," said one prominent Nevada Democrat who asked to remain anonymous to give a candid assessment. "Every time there’s a community event, there is Warren representation there."

By pitching in locally, Warren's organizers hope to demonstrate at a personal level that they are investing in the concerns of the same voters — and potential volunteers — whose support they are courting for the Massachusetts Democrat at the federal level. It's just one part of a political organizing operation designed to match Warren's message of igniting a movement, voter by voter, that creates "big, structural change" in the country.

"We have to build something that has a line through the primaries, through the general election, through getting Congress to do big things," said the Warren campaign's chief strategist, Joe Rospars, who worked on Barack Obama's two winning bids for the presidency.

That idea is to mobilize a force not only on election days, but also to use activism to move Congress on issues for which there is broad existing public support — restrictions on military-style semi-automatic weapons, for example — as well as on those where a president might want to change public opinion.

The secret to Warren's success — so far — has been talking to voters about the issues that motivate them and the ones that motivate her.

Democratic officials and operatives in early-voting states told NBC News that they started noticing the Massachusetts senator's organizers integrating themselves into nonpolitical community activities many months ago, a sign that her first-out-of-the-box New Year's Eve launch date may turn out to have been a good decision. As others have scrambled to get going, her campaign is widely cited as the most developed in Iowa, which kicks off the primary season with its caucuses in February.

Warren’s bounce in Iowa, where she gained 12 percentage points in four months to get to 19 percent among likely Democratic caucusgoers in the latest Monmouth University poll, has been attributed in part to her team’s work on the ground.

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“A strong field organization seems to have given Warren a boost,” Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said.

Veteran Democratic operatives are taking note of Warren's innovations — most of which have been tested before in longer-arc campaigns than the primaries and caucuses of the presidential nominating contest — and they say she could have an edge in tightly fought battles as a result.

"What the Warren campaign is doing at the hyperlocal level to tie traditional grassroots organizing with nonpolitical organizing within communities in a very methodical way puts her ahead of the presidential field on the ground," said Adam Parkhomenko, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, who ran the Ready for Hillary Super PAC before joining Clinton's 2016 campaign.

If she's going to get blown out in a state, the organizing might not matter so much. But in a close statewide race — or if delegate accumulation ends up making a difference at the national convention — Warren's organizing force could be a crucial factor.

This isn't the first time she's raised the eyebrows of the Democratic operative class. But where faces are now stretched in impressed surprise, they were once contorted with one eyebrow cocked in self-assured disapproval.

She was roundly second-guessed — even mocked — in party circles after declining to hire consultants, announcing she wouldn't hold high-dollar fundraisers and burning through what appeared to be limited cash reserves to hire staff by the score.

Then Warren began a steady rise in national and early state polls, banked $19 million in the second fundraising quarter — all while she was using her time to take questions from, and selfies with, voters — and turned in widely praised performances in the first two Democratic debates of the 2020 cycle.

A Quinnipiac survey released Tuesday showed her trailing front-runner Joe Biden, 32 percent to 21 percent — having closed their gap by 9 points since a July 29 poll. The poll of 807 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.

It turns out that traveling the country and hiring hundreds of operatives to work on digital fundraising, grassroots organizing and other campaign tasks was a solid plan for raking in the kind of cash haul that can be replicated in small-dollar donations for months to come.

Of course, not all of her upward trajectory owes to her political organizing, but her team says it is confident that its investment of money and labor is paying dividends in the form of building a multiplying force for Warren on the ground.

It starts with the simple idea of one-on-one contact, which reflects the now-famous approach Warren herself takes on the campaign trail. She waits patiently to talk with voters after town hall meetings, poses for pictures with them in seemingly endless selfie lines all across the country, and surprises them with personal telephone calls.

The all-across-the-country part matters because this could be a long-haul nominating contest, as the last two competitive Democratic primaries were, and Warren aides say her organizing strategy should look much the same in later-voting states as it does now.

In the early states, her paid organizers work to echo her effect by welcoming in volunteers, many of whom come in asking to help at the national level with a text message or through the campaign's website.

The staff at the national headquarters, where operatives work together in one big room and most specialists have experience in other areas of a campaign, coordinates closely with the organizers on the ground to make sure volunteers are tapped into quickly and given tasks that align with the time and skills they can offer.

"In Iowa, if you are willing to raise your hand, you will be having coffee with an organizer within 24 hours," Rospars said. "We’re in service of the volunteers who are actually going to do the work."

Trav Robertson, the Democratic Party chairman in South Carolina, said Warren's is among a handful of campaigns that have put boots on the ground in the early stages of the race. He said he hasn't seen as much community involvement from the Warren campaign as others have, but that he anticipates that may be coming.

"They are in a position that they are in the process of putting together a good grassroots organization," he said. "They are fixing to make a significant investment in a field organization."

But other Democrats in the state privately say Warren's team has clearly been doing more than the competition — both at expressly political events and at those with no direct relationship to the election: for instance, Warren organizers provided food and drinks for teachers at an "All Out" protest in May and participated in "Lights Out For Liberty" vigils across the state in support of migrants in detention camps on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In theory — and in practice, if it works — Warren's campaign isn't just talking about representing communities, it's becoming a part of those communities.

"If all politics are local, we want to ensure that we’re embedding ourselves in the community," Richard McDaniel, Warren's national organizing director, said.