Folksiness alone doesn’t win elections, and even with her stacks of policy papers, Warren is still polling fairly low among Democrats. But a demonstrated ability to converse with Trump voters, to address the cultural and economic problems plaguing the post-industrial hinterlands of Appalachia and Wisconsin and Western Pennsylvania, will be key to retaking the White House. Voters who swung from Barack Obama to Trump in 2016 haven’t forgotten the condescending way that Hillary Clinton talked about the “deplorables” and coal-mining jobs that aren’t coming back. (Others remember how Obama spoke contemptuously of people who “cling to guns or religion.”) The 2020 Democratic field has, on the whole, taken these sorts of grievances more seriously than in the past. Biden, for one, is building his entire campaign on the theory that he can uniquely connect with the middle class; Pete Buttigieg has painted himself as the pothole-filling mayor of a small post-industrial city; and Cory Booker is exuding a blinding message of cross-partisan love. But Warren, like Sanders, has established a laser focus on bread-and-butter issues that speak to the “forgotten” men and women who bet big on Trump, but are beginning to wonder if they backed the wrong horse. No other candidate has proposed as many policies to actually improve those people’s lives.
Trump Country is surprisingly receptive to Warren’s vision. In a recent focus group observed by Axios in Sioux city, Iowa, voters who flipped from Obama to Trump “strongly supported” Warren’s plan to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for voters whose families made less than $100,00 a year. They echoed her message that many Americans are not reaping the benefits of a booming economy, pointing to stagnant wages and a declining quality of life. And there was a strong consensus that big financial institutions should be taxed to pay for infrastructure.
The only catch? The focus group wasn’t told that the student debt plan was Warren’s. All but 1 of the 11 Obama-Trump swing voters in the group said they would re-elect Trump if he were running against Clinton. They weren’t excited about any of the Democrats who were running, including Warren. And one of them stated that “the presidency is a man’s job.”