Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has an elitist problem, and she knows it.
Her Boston background makes her a prime target for Republican opponents to brand her as an out-of-touch coastal elite if she were to emerge as the Democratic nominee next fall, a fitting description for a Massachusetts senator with an Ivy League background who lectures on the campaign trail like a college professor. Similar to Hillary Clinton in 2016, Warren is a walking briefing book with a plan for seemingly everything. She even earned a spot for it on the cover of Time magazine in May. The words “I have a plan for that” featured prominently on the page next to a determined, forward-looking Warren. The text has since become an unofficial motto of the Warren campaign.
This week, Warren kicked off her Iowa road trip with the announcement of a new plan to provide high-speed internet access to rural communities, a proposal aimed at expanding the senator’s base as she tries to shed the elitist professor image moving into the next phase of the Democratic primary.
“As we head into Iowa, I’m sharing my new plans to invest in rural communities. It’s time to put their interests ahead of giant companies and Wall Street,” Warren tweeted.
I'm kicking off my Iowa road trip today! As we head into Iowa, I'm sharing my new plans to invest in rural communities. It's time to put their interests ahead of giant companies and Wall Street. https://t.co/P1lbwrcTrR
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 7, 2019
What’s in the Proposal?
The $85 billion proposal would establish a federal Office of Broadband Access to expand broadband infrastructure governance at the federal level, overturning 26 state laws that Warren says stand in the way of local governments creating their own infrastructure.
The new federal agency would hand out grants to electricity and telephone services, nonprofits, tribes, and local governments that promise to use the resources to bring high-quality internet service to communities lacking sufficient access to the digital world.
“The federal government will pay 90 cents on the dollar for construction under these grants,” Warren wrote in a blog post outlining her proposal. “In exchange, applicants will be required to offer high-speed public broadband directly to every home in their application area.”
In order for organizations and localities to qualify for federal money, the government would require them to offer “at least one plan with 100 Mbps/100 Mbps speeds and one discount internet plan for low-income customers with a prepaid feature or a low monthly rate.”
Reaching Out to Rural Voters
Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said the plan allows Warren to reach out to voters who have for years been disenchanted by the Democratic Party, giving the senator a leg up on the other candidates in a crowded presidential primary contest.
“With concrete plans like that, she can tell rural voters she is actually thinking about them and cares about their needs in a concrete way,” Wilson told The Federalist. “Democrats have not been the party of rural America for quite some time.”
More importantly, the plan opens the opportunity for Warren to expand her base and cut into 2020 White House rival Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters.
Differentiating Herself From Sanders
While the two senators sounded like nearly identical candidates in last week’s Democratic debates, the progressive candidates have strikingly different supporters, with Warren popular among the educated elite and seniors who closely follow politics, and Sanders doing better among lower-income and lesser-educated voters.
Where the two candidates are getting their campaign contributions is also telling of their supporters in the presidential race. Both have pledged not to accept money from super PACs this election cycle and are relying heavily on small-dollar contributions.
According to a New York Times analysis of where the 2020 candidates’ campaign contributions are originating, Sanders overwhelmingly dominates contributions in America’s rural heartland while Warren is getting most of her campaign cash from coastal areas, specifically centered around Boston.
Broadband Isn’t a Deal-Breaker
Jacob Neiheisel, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo, disagrees that Warren’s new broadband plan will do much to bring in new supporters, noting that high-speed internet access is likely not a determining issue for many voters.
“I don’t know that if you’re on the fence whether that would be a deal-breaker,” Neiheisel said of rural broadband. Neiheisel added that Sanders would likely agree with Warren’s proposal.
While the plan to broaden rural internet access may help Warren marginally in the primary, she faces an uphill battle in the general.
Wilson said that though her proposal for broadband internet access in rural communities might have some appeal to rural voters, her identification as a socialist “pales in comparison.”
“The socialist label does not play well in rural America,” Wilson warned.
Image Is Everything
The socialist label is one that Republicans will be sure to stick to Warren whether she openly embraces it or not, in addition to seizing on the progressive Democrat’s background as a Harvard professor and coastal elite. If nominated, Warren would also follow a line of major party nominees from Massachusetts whose opponents successfully framed as out-of-touch elitists, such as Mitt Romney in 2012, John Kerry in 2004, and Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Neiheisel agreed that Warren’s image will potentially be problematic for her in the general election, when voters typically like to see politicians that are “just like us.”
“Images are tough to change,” Neiheisel told The Federalist. “Once images are there, there’s a certain stickiness there.”
Neiheisel made clear however that President Donald Trump was successful in shedding his image as an Ivy League elite to make the appeal to the common voter, but he voiced doubt that Warren, at this point, would be able to do the same, given that her previous attempts fell flat. One such example Neiheisel cited was her now-famous Instagram live video in January. In an effort to appear casual and down-to-earth, Warren opened the video with the words, “Hold on a sec, I’m going to get me a beer,” before briefly disappearing on screen and returning with her husband.
The video was clearly orchestrated, and it drew mockery all over social media due to Warren’s awkward and unnatural nature.
Neiheisel said that while voters like to see politicians appear similar to them, voters “don’t like to see that if it’s so obvious,” as it comes off as “pandering, inauthentic, and maybe even condescending.”
Warren’s proposal to enhance high-speed internet in neglected parts of the country is a step in the right direction for the Massachusetts senator to court rural voters in Middle America, but the plan may only help her slightly in the primaries, while her image as a socialist elite will be difficult to overcome in the general.