Elizabeth Warren’s Sprint to Make up for Lost Time in Iowa

Elizabeth Warren addresses the crowd at a campaign event at Iowa State University’s Memorial Union on Sunday in Ames, Iowa.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Locked in Washington for almost all of last week, Elizabeth Warren waited for an opening in the impeachment schedule long enough for a flight back to Iowa. When it didn’t come as the days dragged on and the trial devolved, she tried making the most of her time off the trail.

The public side of the effort was evident to anyone paying attention in Ames or Waterloo. She called into a tele-townhall for Iowans, dispatched surrogates like Julián Castro and congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, Deb Haaland, and Katie Porter across the state, and amped up her ad spending online. Whenever the senate schedule allowed her, she got to work behind-the-scenes, too. She worked the phones, aiming to win over any remaining undecided Iowan influencers in the final days — she swayed former state party chair Sue Dvorsky, a former Kamala Harris backer, for example, but failed to convince Polk County party chair Sean Bagniewski, who told her he was remaining neutral. And she maintained contact with her former rivals in the race who’ve dropped out, including her senate colleagues Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

It was all something. But though fellow senators Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar were frustrated, too, it was still obvious to Warren’s allies and opponents alike that her imperative to get back to the state’s voters before Monday’s caucuses was as urgent as anyone’s.

Though she’d lost ground in recent months, Warren was still in the race’s top tier — ahead of Klobuchar but behind Sanders, whose momentum didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Her finely tuned field organization gave her reason for some hope as the state shifted to turnout mode and undecided voters made their final picks, most often between her and Sanders or her and Pete Buttigieg. Warren organizers had even set up a table right outside the front door of a Buttigieg town hall at Simpson College in suburban Indianola on Tuesday, aiming to pick up undecided Iowans, and her in-state allies were happily surprised when she won the mock caucus held at Drake University in Des Moines, given Sanders’ dominance among young voters.

But Warren likely couldn’t afford any kind of disappointing finish in Iowa, and Buttigieg and Joe Biden had both been blanketing the state while the senators were back east. Plus, Sanders was now being treated like the front-runner. Even a third-place result on Monday might make her road ahead impossible, depending on the margin and the candidates ahead of her.

So would all the organization and the flurry of work from afar be enough, without the candidate on the ground herself? The week away offered no good answers, and Warren raced to Iowa for a last-second rescue mission on Friday night. She popped into a Des Moines brewery across the street from where her husband Bruce Mann and top surrogates had just finished rallying backers late in the evening. Buttigieg was well on his way to hitting 50 in-person Iowa events in the home-stretch, and Sanders was poised to draw thousands of Iowans at closing-stretch concert rallies with Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend. It was clear that Warren would have to turn her final weekend in the state into a sprint.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren arrives for a campaign rally in the Mississippi Ballroom at the RiverCenter on Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With Warren finally on the ground, she shifted into an explicit pitch that she was the best candidate to unite Democrats. Her team started peppering her events with placards that spelled it out: UNITE THE PARTY. The goal was to appeal to as many undecided Iowans as possible, but also to fire up her dedicated backers with a message they could all rally behind, no matter whether they supported Hillary Clinton or Sanders in 2016 (while the shadow of that fight loomed yet again). In Indianola on Sunday, Warren thanked all the other candidates who’d run, casting her net for potential supporters as wide as possible.

Aiming to maximize her presence in the areas where she was likely to pick up the most delegates — liberal suburbs and big cities, mostly — she also for the first time abandoned the famous hours-long post-town hall photo lines that have long dominated her time on the trail, instead only taking pictures with families who’d brought small children, and promising that her golden retriever Bailey would stay for selfies with anyone who wanted them.

Saving that time, she gathered some of the biggest crowds of her entire Iowa campaign — 700 in Cedar Rapids, soon followed by 900 in Iowa City on Saturday, then 500 in Ames on Sunday. In Indianola, with little time to plan her return, her team booked just a small room in the Simpson College campus center. But even hours before the event’s planned start time, it was clear they’d need a bigger space. The fire marshal stopped letting Iowans in early, leaving even a few of Warren’s top campaign lieutenants out of the main room, as voters massed in the building’s lobby. The campaign considered moving the speech to a bigger space, but ultimately decided to let Warren address the overflow crowd, and then the original room. The final crowd totaled 1,100, far more than either Sanders or Buttigieg had drawn in the same building earlier in the week.

People applaud while listening to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren during a campaign event at Iowa State University’s Memorial Union on Saturday in Ames, Iowa.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Amid all the evidence that her final tear through the state was at least sparking Iowans’ interest as the weekend ripped along, Warren’s mild annoyance with having been kept away leaked further into the open. Sanders had rallied over 3,000 fans with Vampire Weekend on Saturday, and Buttigieg would address over 2,000 in Des Moines on Sunday. “You may have heard I’ve been caught in Washington for a while now,” she told her Cedar Rapids crowd on Saturday. The next afternoon, in Indianola, she offered an update: “I’ve been in Washington for — ugh — feels like years.” She never took the next step and asked what could have been, if only she could have been there a little more.

Soon after, her campaign confirmed an expected, but nonetheless frustrating, schedule update: Warren would have to fly back to Washington on Sunday night for more impeachment proceedings. She’d return by caucus night.