Elizabeth Warren is Winning — If You Understand her Strategy

Yesterday, I attended a Get-out-the-Vote event for Elizabeth Warren in Nashua, New Hampshire. I was already a fan — for me, she is simply the smartest person in the race and that intelligence is combined with phenomenal communication skills, an inclusive approach and the ability to get sh*t done. It is a compelling package.

I honestly went on a lark, not expecting much because I had already heard her stump speech in many clips. She was riveting. She is energetic, engaged, and positive — the vibe instantly makes you feel like things will be OK. Hard but OK. That on its own, it this time of high anxiety, is worth a lot. She also helps us understand that we’ve been in these hard places before and we’ve gotten through it; the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, fighting fascism around the globe — she reminded us we can do the hard things. The feeling in the room was one of positive momentum and collaboration and while we were there to listen, she made us feel connected to each other. This is hard to explain in words but the feeling was pronounced.

As someone who does a fair bit of public speaking, I sat in awe of her communication skills. She was clearly completely comfortable and relaxed in her short stump speech but that was largely expected — she gives it almost hourly. She got through her remarks quickly though and spent a much longer amount of time taking questions from the audience — all of which she took impromptu based on what was picked from a hat. What this did is allowed her to tailor her overall remarks to the interests of the people in the room, creating an impression of a conversation instead of a speech. It was highly engaging.

And then the last question came — it was a very long, winding, jumbled question. I was struggling to figure out what the person was really asking but without skipping a beat, Senator Warren distilled it down to its salient point and responded with a clear, logical, and inspiring answer. She made the asker look good while at the same time firing everyone else up. It was next level — a skill she no doubt honed teaching law students. My jaw was metaphorically dropped.

If all this is true and she really is the shizzle… why did she do so poorly in Iowa?

Because she is playing to win. She is playing to be President of the United States. Not the President of Iowa. Not the President of the Democrats.

Let me explain. Her strategy is also next level. It’s what I think of as a community or collaborative strategy that is underpinned not by a traditional mindset driven by zero-sum, winner-take-all, competitive, and scarcity thinking but by win-win-win, abundance, and potential mindset. Warren is not satisfied with merely winning — she has plans. She has a vision of what America can be at its best and it has nothing to do with how it compares to Sanders, Buttigieg, Biden, or Trump. It’s a vision not relative to what is but of imaging what could be. So Warren isn’t focused on the competition — she is focused on creating a shared vision of what could be.

Most of us are fixed in a more traditional mindset of what progress looks like — one completely wrapped up in competition. We look at short-term transactional outcomes as a way to evaluate progress. So we look at the total amount of money raised. We look at the early wins. We have no other way to see progress — even though it might be there, right in front of us. This is starting to change — there has been reporting noting that Sanders hit 1 million individual donors last year, with Warren getting to that milestone more recently. To me, this is a much more interesting data point than total money raised because it represents the number of people willing to invest — and that is a leading indicator of their willingness to vote. Because our elections are democratic — it’s the voting that ultimately matters the most. My bet is the ratio of donors to voters is quite high — close to 1:1 whereas the ratio of other engagement to voting — viewing content, signing up for newsletters, coming to town halls — is likely much lower. It is also likely that the ratio of donors to advocates is quite high because once you’ve committed money, you have psychologically shifted to active support, which translates into other behaviors.

How do I know this? Well because I study engagement in communities — and I know how engagement maturity translates to value and impact.

Good communities see 40% or more of their participants actively engaged. For a political campaign, these different tiers could be defined in the following ways:

Inactives: those who are interested in the presidential race but not paying attention to the candidate in question.

Validators: those that read articles about the candidate, follow progress, share campaign materials about the candidate with friends, like social advertising, and come to campaign events.

Sharers: those that actively share their own perspectives about the candidate with friends.

Ask & Answer: volunteers who actively reach out via phone banking, canvassing, texting, and local events to discuss the candidate with others.

Explorers: volunteers that connect with each other to develop approaches and strategies to support the candidate and their positions.

As people engage at deeper levels they are much more likely to donate — and much more likely to vote. The Sanders and Warren campaigns are both good at prompting people in one tier to step up to the next. If you sign up for a newsletter, you are asked to give; you have given once, you are asked to set up a recurring donation; if you have given, you are asked to volunteer. As we were standing in line to get into Warren’s get-out-the-vote event, volunteers were going through the line asking for commitments to phone, text, or canvas-confirming specific dates and times as they did so. This is similar to how we guide clients to think about engagement and culture change.

This model of campaigning that is not new — Howard Dean and Barack Obama used it — but is growing in popularity as people understand its effectiveness. However, as I’ve written before Elizabeth Warren has made huge strides in aligning this style of campaigning with her entire campaign, marrying tactics, to operations, to her campaign’s business model. It is internally coherent, which reflects integrity and engenders trust; what she says, how she leads, the way she communicates, and how she acts are all consistent.

Looking at the results from Iowa, I noticed something else too. Elizabeth Warren won only one county.

That looks devastating especially when combined with the fact that she came in decidedly third — with about 18% of the vote — well behind Sanders and Buttigieg both of whom received around 26% of the total.

If I were inclined toward depression, I would be depressed. In traditional terms, it was not a great showing. Biden and Klobuchar, who finished well behind Warren both won more counties. How sad.

Or is it?

What this tells me is that Warren has incredibly broad support — she both has plenty of people voting for her across many counties both rural and urban (where Sanders and Buttigieg’s support is concentrated in one or the other) and she is a lot of people’s 2nd choice. Add to that a somewhat nutty caucusing process that is biased toward those who are deeply invested in one candidate, motivated to spend hours hanging out in town gyms, like the visceral experience of haggling over votes, and can be swayed by personality and social pressure and it’s not surprising Warren came in third. The Iowa caucuses are not a great environment for coalition builders and the process benefits those who have a fixed, zero-sum mindset about who they will vote for (read: lots of Sanders supporters who would not vote for anyone else).

What I also know about building movements and communities is that it is a slow burn — support and engagement grow in an exponential fashion when they are successful, not linearly or in bursts. It takes steady patience. Below is data from our 2019 State of Community Management report and while this data is taken from one type of community — those sponsored by organizations — the dynamic is the same across communities of all types.

If I think about Elizabeth Warren’s community maturity next to that of Sanders, she is still early on her curve as she doesn’t share the name recognition he has from his 2016 run. She has her steep geometric curve ahead of her while Sander’s steep growth seems to be behind him. She has more upside.

Finally, consider the two winners of the Iowa caucus; Sanders and Buttigieg represent two very different choices. Sanders is rigid and didactic— he wants a revolution in how we govern and seems unlikely to be able to collaborate and adjust, especially with Republications but even with more moderate members of his own party. Buttigieg represents a more moderate, incrementally different approach that seems to say ‘let’s not rock the boat too much. Let’s just focus on winning’. For me, that is insufficient to energize a weary population that on some days veers toward cynicism and apathy. It doesn’t provide an exciting, propelling vision. It is safe, but safe in a time that calls for courage. That safe approach may be comfortable but it may not get people out to vote.

Elizabeth Warren splits the difference — and I think can bring both these two camps and others together. She is a committed capitalist but one who sees the need and value of government regulation when markets cannot regulate themselves. I suspect this is why she supports a transition to Medicare for All — because the medical market is opaque and inefficient; people will pay any price and bankrupt themselves for their health, buyers can’t understand the complexity of what they are buying, and success is hard to measure. Healthcare is not a market that works well under capitalism. Right now, for-profit companies are taking advantage of that and costing us trillions as a nation, which is mostly sucked up in administrative costs, marketing spend, and profits — not care. So our care isn’t even that good, which I find infuriating. We already socialize education and retirement support; allowing private options for both so people can supplement it if they want. I think that model would work well for healthcare too — it does in Germany. Warren's support for Medicare for All, from my perspective, is motivated by seeing the healthcare market as unsuitable for capitalism vs. an inherent interest in socialism.

So, is Senator Warren losing? Not if you understand her strategy — and how inclusive, brilliant, and different it is to what we’ve seen in the past. And it is exactly what we need to unify the country.

Call me a fan.

Connector of ideas & people. Fascinated by social dynamics & false truths. Co-Founder of The Community Roundtable. Mother to The Puzzle Master.