The secret to Elizabeth Warren's surge? Ideas

Jill Priluck
Photograph: Mark Makela/Getty Images

On Friday, the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren co-sponsored a bill to impose mandatory fines on companies that have data breaches. It was the kind of consumer welfare legislation that in the past would have been unremarkable. But in an era when Congress has consistently shirked its duty to shield consumers, the bill stood out.

Related: Elizabeth Warren’s economic nationalism vision shows there's a better way | Robert Reich

The legislation capped a week in which Warren surged in the polls. Less than eight months before the Iowa caucus, Warren is making strides in 2020 primary polls. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of 1,000 adults, 64% of Democratic primary voters in June were enthusiastic or comfortable with Warren, compared with 57% in March. Fewer of these voters were enthusiastic or comfortable with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who have lost 11 and six points, respectively, since March.

There’s more. In a poll last week of 2,312 registered voters in South Carolina, Warren gained nine points to reach 17% compared to Biden’s 37%. Among 18-34 year olds, Warren is leading 24% to Sanders’ 19% and Biden’s 17%.

There’s a simple reason for Warren’s sudden rise in the polls: the public has an appetite for policy

There’s a simple reason for Warren’s sudden rise in the polls: the public has an appetite for policy. Of all the Democratic candidates, Warren’s campaign has been by far the most ideas-driven and ambitious in its policy proposals. And voters love it.

Rather than condescend to voters, like most politicians, Warren has treated voters as adults, smart enough to handle her wonky style of campaigning. Instead of spoon-feeding prospective voters soundbites, Warren is giving them heaps to digest – and her polling surge shows that voters appreciate the nerdy policy talk.

Indeed, since Warren declared her candidacy for president, she has been offering policy prescriptions for our country’s most pressing ailments – and she hasn’t been brainstorming in a bubble.

Week in and week out, she has been crisscrossing the country to tell receptive voters her ideas for an ultra-millionaire tax, student debt cancellation and breaking up big tech. She has also weighed in on reproductive rights, vaccines, the opioid crisis and algorithmic discrimination in automated loans. Her bevy of white papers demonstrates that there isn’t a policy area Warren won’t touch and she isn’t worried about repelling anyone with hard-hitting proposals.

Better than any other candidate, Warren has articulated a connection between her personal and professional struggles and her ideas, lending an air of authenticity to her campaign. Her backstory – teacher turned reluctant stay-at-home mom turned Harvard Law School professor – clearly resonates with voters in important states such as Iowa and South Carolina.

That sense of reciprocity has turned Warren into a populist rock star. Instead of appealing to the lowest common denominator among the voting public, she’s listening to and learning from voters in an ideas-driven campaign that doesn’t take voters for granted.

The strategy is paying off – and proving wrong the outdated political wisdom that Americans don’t care about the intricacies of government.

In May, Warren traveled to Kermit, West Virginia, the heart of Trump country, to pitch a $2.7bn-a-year plan to combat opioid addiction.

“Her stance is decisive and bold,” Nathan Casian-Lakes told CBS News. “She has research and resources to back her ideas.”

  • Jill Priluck’s reporting and analysis has appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, Reuters and elsewhere