COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Senator Elizabeth Warren has built the most formidable campaign organization of any Democratic presidential candidate in the first nominating states, raised an impressive $25 million without holding high-dollar fund-raisers, and has risen steadily in Iowa and New Hampshire polls.
Few candidates inspire as much enthusiasm as she does among party voters, too, from the thousands who turned out for her speech at the Iowa State Fair last weekend to the supporters in this western Iowa city who repeat her catchphrases, wear her buttons and describe themselves as dazzled by her intellect and liberal ideas.
Yet few candidates also inspire as much worry among these voters as Ms. Warren does.
Even as she demonstrates why she is a leading candidate for the party’s nomination, Ms. Warren is facing persistent questions and doubts about whether she would be able to defeat President Trump in the general election. The concerns, including from her admirers, reflect the head-versus-heart debate shaping a Democratic contest increasingly being fought over the meaning of electability and how to take on Mr. Trump
Interviews with more than three dozen Democratic voters and activists in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina this summer, at events for Ms. Warren as well as other 2020 hopefuls, yield a similar array of concerns about her candidacy.
These Democrats worry that her uncompromising liberalism would alienate moderates in battleground states who are otherwise willing to oppose the president. Many fear Ms. Warren’s past claims of Native American ancestry would allow Mr. Trump to drown out her policy message with his attacks and slurs against her. They cite her professorial style and Harvard background to argue that she might struggle to connect with voters from more modest circumstances than hers, even though she grew up in a financially strained home in Oklahoma.
And there are Democrats who, chastened by Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, believe that a woman cannot win in 2020.
“I think she’s terrific but my questions about her are, can she get elected with the negativity, with all the stuff that’s thrown at her?” asked Rick Morris, a New Hampshire carpenter who attended a house party for Ms. Warren there last month. “Usually in the primary I vote for whoever I like the most, but this one I will put in electability.”
The concerns about Ms. Warren partly reflect ingrained assumptions that women or candidates of color would have a harder time winning the presidency than white men. This view has been repeatedly expressed on the campaign trail by some Democrats who believe Mr. Trump’s unlikely victory, after two terms of the nation’s first black president, amounted to a warning sign about the American electorate’s openness to change.
Many moderate Democrats see the field’s current front-runner, Joseph R. Biden Jr., the 76-year-old former vice president, as a safer option than Ms. Warren and other candidates. But Mr. Biden’s lead in the polls is partly based on strong name recognition, and his recent gaffes and middling debate performances have raised questions about whether he has the agility to defeat Mr. Trump.
Many voters interviewed are now wrestling with whether to elevate a candidate who captures their imaginations, and progressive ambitions, or to rally more cautiously behind a Democrat who they perceive as having a better chance of building a broad coalition of Democrats, independents and disaffected Republicans to fulfill their most urgent goal: ejecting Mr. Trump from the White House.
The Massachusetts senator’s top campaign aides are acutely aware of their challenge on questions about Ms. Warren’s viability. They are taking a series of steps to allay the concerns, perhaps most notably arming her in the last debate with the talking point that conventional wisdom also suggested that both Mr. Trump and former President Barack Obama were risky nominees because they broke from the traditional commander-in-chief mold. After the debate, Warren aides blasted clips of that remark from her social media accounts.
But even after Ms. Warren turned in two well-received debate performances, a Quinnipiac survey showed she had not made gains on the question of who has the best chance to beat Mr. Trump: Just nine percent said she did, while 49 percent pointed to Mr. Biden.
In an interview before a town hall meeting in western Iowa last week, Ms. Warren, acknowledging the questions about her candidacy, said there was only one overarching way to quiet the skeptics.
“Nothing will overcome people’s worries more than success,” she said.
But Ms. Warren also demonstrated that she was still uncertain about how to address Mr. Trump’s taunts about the Native American heritage she once claimed. Her attempt to prove that ancestry with a DNA test last year drew fierce criticism from the right and left as well as some Native American groups; she stood by the DNA test for months, then apologized for it and the claims.
Having been told by advisers to generally avoid engaging on the issue, Ms. Warren struggled in the interview to articulate an answer about whether she would respond to Mr. Trump head-on when he uses his frequent slur for her, “Pocahontas,” or pivot to a more policy-centered rebuttal.
“My job is not to be drawn off into that,” she said.
And she had little to say about why, after pledging to a Native American group last year that she would always highlight their issues when her heritage is raised, she has quietly backed away from the commitment by typically remaining silent when Mr. Trump makes his attacks.
“I still, I am working on being a good partner,” Ms. Warren said, haltingly. “And the best way to be a good partner is to walk the walk.”
She was more sure-footed on an issue that has prompted alarm among elected Democratic officials and operatives: her refusal to hold fund-raisers or seek four-figure checks from the party’s wealthy donors.
While she has made this commitment central to her primary campaign, implicitly scorning her rivals who are raising money in the traditional fashion, Ms. Warren said she would not shun big money if she becomes her party’s nominee.
“I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” she said, making clear that her policy only applies in the primary and not in the general election, when Mr. Trump is expected to lean on a range of well-heeled individuals and interests.
But as Ms. Warren increasingly becomes a top contender for the nomination, Democrats are thinking harder about what that would mean for their prospects.
In Iowa, a former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, Sue Dvorsky, endorsed Senator Kamala Harris last weekend after confiding to friends that she felt Ms. Warren’s liberalism would be a liability in a general election, according to a Democratic official who spoke to Ms. Dvorsky.
It’s a sentiment that many voters expressed at Warren events.
Some of these Democrats prefer Mr. Biden, viewing him as an acceptable option to a cross-section of voters, but others are eager to find a middle ground between the consensus-oriented former vice president and progressive firebrands like Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders.
“If it were completely up to me, I’d vote for her,” said Jessie Sagona, who also came to see Ms. Warren last month in New Hampshire. “But I kind of feel like, do we need somebody in the middle like Kamala or Pete,” referring to Ms. Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Ms. Sagona said she had not fully made up her mind but was weighing the importance of “thinking strategically.”
Jan Phelps, who came to see Senator Cory Booker at a house party of his own in New Hampshire last month, articulated a similar calculation.
“I love her enthusiasm. She’s smart, she’s very smart. I think she would make an amazing president,” said Ms. Phelps, before quickly adding: “I’m worried about whether she can win. I worry that she’s being pulled even further to the left and that concerns me. Because we need to win, we just need to win.”
Ms. Warren is moving aggressively to address such concerns. Her aides are distributing “Win With Warren” signs at events to implicitly address the electability question. Her campaign also used a town hall meeting she held in Oakland to interview attendees, in the fashion of an on-the-scene local TV news reporter, about whether they thought she could win. (The verdict in the video: a resounding yes.)
And in addition to her debate remark on skepticism about Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama’s candidacies — which reflects a theory of her top adviser, Dan Geldon, that most modern presidents were seen as vulnerable nominees — Ms. Warren is also making comparisons between this race and her 2012 defeat of then-Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts.
“People told me you can’t win,” she recalled to attendees at her town hall in Council Bluffs. “And you can’t win because Massachusetts is not going to elect a woman to the Senate or the governor’s office.”
Yet a few minutes before the Warren event here got underway, one of her admirers made this very point about Ms. Warren’s White House hopes. Gail Houghton, a retiree, said flatly that she did not think Ms. Warren could win the presidency because of her gender.
“They’re just not ready yet,” Ms. Houghton said of the American electorate, adding that Mr. Trump’s divisive conduct has normalized prejudices. “It’s getting worse because we’re getting permission to behave this way from the top.”
But, Ms. Houghton was quick to add, she believed Ms. Warren would “make a wonderful vice president.”
Democratic activists in other states say much the same. Approaching a reporter in June at Representative James Clyburn’s annual fish fry in South Carolina, Ed Nelson waxed nostalgic about the Obama years before proffering his preferred pairing.
“I hope it’s a Biden-Warren ticket,” Mr. Nelson said. “That’s what I want, that’s what I want.”
Ms. Warren’s supporters bridle at what they believe is the condescending nature of projecting her as a running mate, as do supporters of Ms. Harris, who is also often mentioned as a possible No. 2.
Several Democrats voluntarily mentioned both women as candidates they are eyeing in the primaries — and assessed them through the prism of electability. Some said they viewed Ms. Harris as a stronger choice, for reasons that they explain by pointing to 2016.
“I think one thing that happened with Hillary last time, people were like ‘ehhhh,’ they didn’t like the personality,” said Jackie Williams who attended an event for Ms. Harris last month near New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. Ms. Williams said Ms. Harris had the edge with her, pointing to her easy “interaction with the crowd.”
At a Democratic picnic outside Des Moines a few weeks earlier, Marnie Lloyd said of Ms. Harris, “I don’t think we’ll hear the ‘she’s not likable’ we heard with Hillary.” Ms. Lloyd said she was less confident about Ms. Warren avoiding such a critique.
Judging personality and likability is subjective, of course, and those characteristics tend to be part of a double standard faced by female candidates. Many Democrats like Ms. Warren — some wait for an hour to take pictures with her — and she continues to gain supporters. But even among some of her enthusiasts, the questions about her vulnerabilities linger.
In Council Bluffs, waiting to see Ms. Warren take the stage, Herb Christensen was succinct about why he liked her — and why he worried about her as the nominee.
“My god, she’s smart,” he said. “Pocahontas, that’s the only thing.”