DES MOINES, Iowa — Gender has loomed over the presidential candidacy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., from the beginning. It’s in her comedic retelling of moments when she’s been told to “smile more,” called “angry” by a 2020 opponent and faced questions from voters who wonder whether she can beat President Donald Trump.
At times, she’s dealt with it all by tilting toward feminism, giving speeches focused on women throughout history who have effected change in government from the outside in. At other moments, she’s glossed over questions that have long plagued women in politics.
Now, less than a week before the Iowa caucuses — and amid an unsteady standing in the polls — she’s leaning in to the discussion.
“I just want to be clear: Women win!” she declared Sunday night to cheers in Cedar Rapids.
No one had asked about gender directly — at least not yet. Warren explained that she was speaking directly to a question that’s otherwise “hidden.”
That may have been true earlier in the campaign, when concerned but hopeful voters would ask broadly about her ability to defeat Trump. But since last month’s dust-up with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., over questions about whether the nation is ready to elect a woman as president, the questions — and now the answers — are getting more explicit.
“People ask in different ways,” Warren said when asked by NBC News about her new closing pitch Sunday night. “They ask about it. I’m glad to talk about it right up front.”
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And the new riffs directly take on the electability argument, presenting her gender as an asset against Trump.
In the past, Warren has used feminism and gender as vessels for her campaign message, delivering keynote speeches centered on women breaking barriers throughout history — rarely on the barriers Warren herself has broken.
In September, in front of a crowd of more than 20,000 in Washington Square Park in New York, Warren centered a distinctly feminist speech on the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, one of the deadliest industrial accidents in U.S. history. The message was evident, down to her podium: built by female woodworkers with wood from the homestead of Frances Perkins, a leader of the women’s rights and labor rights movements and a hero to Warren.
To her, skepticism from women about women candidates speaks to Democrats’ ultimate goal.
“The No. 1 thing is we want to get rid of Donald Trump,” Warren said Sunday. “And I think that’s what holds some people back. They say, ‘Wait a minute, who’s going to have the best chance?’ So it’s not who I think is going to make the best president.
“We just have to say we know what’s right and get in there and fight for it. And that is how we win,” she said.
Perhaps more than calling out the specter of 2016 — newly awakened after she said Sanders, a fellow progressive, told her in 2018 that he didn’t think a woman could beat Trump — Warren is now laying out a case using her experience winning a tough 2012 Senate race against a GOP incumbent and data from around the country in the Trump era.
“Guys, we just have to face this: Women candidates have been outperforming men candidates in competitive elections” in the post-2016 era, she said. “We took back the House, we took back statehouses around this country because women ran for office and women showed up to make those elections winnable. So I say all that just to level the playing field a little bit, right?”
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Later Sunday during drinks, Warren urged some of her Iowa organizing staff to give voters “a little data about how women are doing” to bolster her pitch for electability. Asked what message she wants organizers and volunteers to deliver as they knock on doors, Warren responded: “This woman is our best chance to win, and there’s a whole lot of reasons that that’s so.”
The nebulous question of “electability” has ruled the Democratic primary contest, and white male candidates have tended to win the assumption battle that they are best positioned to beat Trump, even though surveys show several of the top-polling Democrats doing comparably well against Trump head to head.
Meanwhile, voters — like Torina Hill of Muscatine — said they’re “ready for a woman president.”
“I’m tired of the old white guys making all of the rules,” Hill said in an interview.
Hill may be in the majority of Democratic women, but that might not be enough to help Warren build a coalition of women. Studies indicate that Democratic women are much more likely to prioritize a female candidate but also believe that their neighbors may be less accepting. They aren’t the only ones.
As Warren wrapped up one final town hall in Cedar Rapids before succumbing to the siren call of more days of impeachment hearings, a white man with graying hair walked up to the microphone to ask a question: “How do you convince white men — who aren’t as smart as me — how do you convince those white men over 50 that Elizabeth Warren’s the candidate?”