Do voters long for a policy wonk? Elizabeth Warren hopes so

NEW YORK (AP) — More than 1,000 people packed a New York concert venue last Friday for an act that wasn't on guitar and drums. It was Elizabeth Warren, vocalizing hard numbers.

The Massachusetts Democratic senator wove data points into a stump speech that riffed on the policy proposals she's rolled out in her month-old presidential candidacy. "I love that you want to get into more detail about the 2 percent wealth tax," she said to a man asking whether her economic plan would drive the wealthy to move overseas.

Warren's policy-heavy performance was a hit with her crowd. And that's something she's counting on heavily in her campaign. She has laid down significant markers in a half-dozen different policy areas since the year began, putting pressure on other 2020 presidential contenders while keeping her campaign in the public eye without having to spend a dollar on ads.

But Warren's approach is built on a risky bet: that voters will respond to her detail-driven effort when other Democrats are appealing to hearts as much as their minds and after a 2016 presidential campaign in which Hillary Clinton's policy portfolio wilted in the face of Donald Trump's personal attacks.

While she's successfully forced some of her rivals to respond to her agenda, particularly her two-part plan last week to curb the growing consolidation of the biggest tech companies, other 2020 hopefuls who have rolled out fewer new policy proposals — California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — are outpacing Warren in early polls and bested her in their initial fundraising hauls after making their first moves for the presidency.

The contrast between Warren's ambitious agenda-setting and the less wonky paths of other candidates underscores what Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright described as the party's "diversity of strategy." In a crowded field, Democrats don't just have a historically diverse field for 2020 — they are field-testing different theories of connection with voters.

"The first thing every candidate should do is allow themselves to be introduced to voters and allow voters to find who they are," Seawright said. "Sometimes people are not moved by policy. Sometimes people are moved by your personal story."

Warren doesn't ignore personal narrative in her pitch, bolstering her universal child care plan by recalling her struggle to secure dependable care for her two children. And neither Harris nor Sen. Cory Booker, another Democratic presidential contender whose rhetoric is imbued with emotion and optimism, scrimps on substance when touting their signature policy proposals.

But it's clear that Warren is angling to be known as the idea woman in the field.

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Candidates who have announced 2020 presidential bids

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts)

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Julian Castro, former Mayor of San Antonio and a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development

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Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California)

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John Delaney, former Maryland congressman

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York)

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Richard Ojeda, former West Virginia senator and military veteran

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Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)

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Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America

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Pete Buttigeig, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana

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Howard Schultz, Former Starbucks CEO

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont)

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld (R)

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Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey)

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Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D)

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota)

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LONDONDERRY, NH - APRIL 19: Democratic Presidential candidate, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg attends a campaign stop at Stonyfield Farms on April 19, 2019 in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Recent polls are showing Buttigieg is gaining ground with Democrats in the presidential nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
SOMERSWORTH, NH - APRIL 19: Democratic Presidential Beto O'Rourke speaks during a campaign stop at a cafe on April 19, 2019 in Somersworth, New Hampshire. The 2020 Democratic Presidential hopeful met supporters and answered various questions. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 15: Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., arrives for the House Democrats' caucus meeting in the Capitol on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
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She's put out plans for a new tax designed to raise more than $2.5 trillion from the nation's wealthiest 75,000 households, on top of her child care proposal, her bid to rein in big tech companies like Facebook and her commitment to swear off high-dollar fundraisers. Warren leapt into another issue this week, calling for U.S. aviation regulators to follow European counterparts in grounding the Boeing airplane model involved in Sunday's deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash.

Warren is building a "policy-first agenda that's about more than just policy" and making a "cohesive argument about what is broken in America and how she would fix it," said Jesse Lehrich, a longtime Democratic aide who worked on Clinton's 2016 campaign and is not aligned with any 2020 campaign.

Referring to other 2020 candidates who have offered fewer specifics, Lehrich noted that "it's less obvious what their answer to that question is: Why me and not someone else?"

Clinton's campaign is something of a cautionary tale for Warren. In 2016, Clinton put out piles of white papers, but her general election opponent hardly engaged in the policy debate.

"In 2016, we were boxing against Jell-O," recalled Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist who also worked on the Clinton campaign. "Donald Trump would say he agreed with anything or disagreed with anything, without regard to what he believed or what he'd said the day prior."

Ferguson believes things may be different this time around now that Trump has a record in office.

But in 2020, Ferguson said, Democrats can contrast their plans with "what he has actually tried to do as president. He can't run away from his own policy agenda anymore because he's actually tried to enact it."

And while Clinton struggled to get some voters to warm to her personally in 2016, polls show none of the Democrats running in 2020 carrying the same high negative ratings.

Longtime Democratic strategist Jess O'Connell, also a veteran of Clinton's 2016 campaign, lauded Warren for front-loading some of her attention-getting policy ideas before the 2020 primary hits its peak, when Trump is likely to engage more intensely with Democratic candidates and try to knock his potential opponents off course.

"Ultimately, everyone is going to have to do both" policy fluency and personal narrative, O'Connell said, but Warren is "taking advantage of the news cycle" to release some of her big ideas early.

While she's scored early by shaping the Democratic debate on several issues, not all of Warren's forays have taken off. She vowed not to pardon anyone connected to investigations into Trump on the same day the president's former lawyer testified in Congress last month, but the move drew little response from Democratic rivals. She acknowledged even as she swore off high-dollar fundraising that she "will be outraised by other candidates," and the $11 million she already had in the bank before entering the race may not be enough to vault her past Sanders in the battle for progressives' support.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., attends a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Dirksen Building titled 'Foreign Cyber Threats to the United States,' featuring testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and others, January 5, 2016.

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Senate Armed Services Committee members (L-R) Sen. Martin Heinrich (D - NM), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) talk during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs testified to the committee about cyber threats to the United States and fielded questions about effects of Russian government hacking on the 2016 presidential election.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) (L) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arrive for a hearing with the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Agency chief in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs testified to the committee about cyber threats to the United States and fielded questions about effects of Russian government hacking on the 2016 presidential election.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), speaks to and meets New England voters during a rally at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday October 24, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Mark Wahlberg, Former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Boston Police Commissioner Billy Evans, Former Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz, Dun 'Danny' Meng, Jessica Downes, Patrick Downes, Senator Elizabeth Warren, director Peter Berg and Harvard Law professor Bruce Mann pose on the red carpet at the 'Patriots Day' screening at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on December 14, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), speaks to and meets New England voters during a rally at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday October 24, 2016.

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Former Red Sox player David Ortiz talks with Senator Elizabeth Warren at the 'Patriots Day' screening at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on December 14, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren hold a rally at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH on Oct. 24, 2016.

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U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at a Manchester 'New Hampshire Together' Canvass Launch event in Manchester, NH on Sept. 24, 2016.

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Senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren speaks onstage at EMILY's List Breaking Through 2016 at the Democratic National Convention at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, holds up copies of Wells Fargo earnings call transcripts as she questions John Stumpf, chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo, as he testifies about the unauthorized opening of accounts by Wells Fargo during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 20, 2016.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) along with members of the Democratic Women of the Senate acknowledge the crowd on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) delivers remarks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.

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Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III welcomes Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on stage on Day 1 of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 25, 2016.

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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks to and meets Ohio voters during a rally at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio on Monday, June 27, 2016.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arrives in the Capitol for the on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

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U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) meets with Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (L), chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court, April 14, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Garland continued to place visits to Senate members after he was nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

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Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, listens as Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. Yellen offered a subtle change to her outlook from less than a week ago, saying she and her colleagues were on watch for whether, rather than when, the U.S. economy would show clear signs of improvement.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., greets guests during a rally on the east lawn of the Capitol to urge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to hold a vote on the 'Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act,' March 9, 2016. The legislation would provide a one time payment to seniors, veterans and other SSI recipients who will not get a cost-of-living adjustment this year.

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Senators Bob Corker (L) and Elizabeth Warren (R) speak before a Senate Banking Committee on the semiannual monetary report to Congress hearing in Washington, USA on February 11, 2016.

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Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), talks with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) in the House chamber prior to President Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013.

(REUTERS/Charles Dharapak/Pool)

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Warren's evident command of the issues resonated in deep-blue New York City. Nearly a dozen voters said after the Massachusetts senator's event that her intellectual chops were a central part of her appeal to them.

"Soaring rhetoric is not what we need now. We need active policy prescriptions," said Davin Hatsengate, 44, a New York City resident who attended Warren's Friday event and lauded her recent pledge to treat all her donors equally, regardless of the effect on her campaign's bottom line.

Emily Price, a 30-something mother of three who also came out to see Warren on Friday, praised Warren for saying more than "what maybe sounds right and feels good in our hearts."

"It's one thing to say nice things and make me feel excited, but to have a plan makes me feel ... a lot more secure," Price said.

Still, even one of Warren's strong supporters acknowledged the challenge in her policy-centric approach.

"Hard facts are something that most of America doesn't deal with," said Madeline Moch, who attended the New York event. "They like things sort of abbreviated and put into a nutshell. And that's how (Trump) got elected."

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Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard contributed from South Carolina. Associated Press writer Juana Summers contributed from Washington.

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