A month earlier in Mingo County, W.Va., where more than 80 percent of voters cast a ballot for Trump, Warren went to a local fire station to talk about her plan for addressing the opioid crisis. It’s big: She wants to spend $100 billion over 10 years, including $50 million annually for West Virginia, the state with the highest rate of deaths from drug overdoses. In Trump’s latest budget, he has requested an increase of $1.5 billion to respond directly to the epidemic. Against a backdrop of firefighters’ coats hanging in cinder-block cubbies, Warren moved among a crowd of about 150. Many hands went up when she asked who knew someone struggling with opioids. She brought up the role of “corporations that made big money off getting people addicted and keeping them addicted.” People with “Make America Great Again” stickers nodded and clapped, according to Politico.
If Warren competes for rural voters in the general election (if not to win a red state then to peel off enough of them to make a difference in a purple one), her strong support for abortion rights and gun control will stand in her way. Lately, she has framed her argument for keeping abortion clinics open in economic terms, too. “Women of means will still have access to abortions,” she said at a town hall on MSNBC hosted by Chris Hayes of the effects of new state laws aimed at closing clinics. “Who won’t will be poor women, will be working women, will be women who can’t afford to take off three days from work, will be very young women.” She finished by saying, “We do not pass laws that take away that freedom from the women who are most vulnerable.”
Biden and Sanders have been polling better with non-college-educated white voters than Warren has. David Axelrod, the former Obama strategist and political commentator, thinks that even if her ideas resonate, she has yet to master the challenge of communicating with this group. “She’s lecturing,” he said. “There’s a lot of resistance, because people feel like she’s talking down to them.”
Warren didn’t sound to me like a law professor on the trail, but she did sound like a teacher. Trying to educate people isn’t the easiest way to connect with them. “Maybe she could bring it down a level,” Lola Sewell, a community organizer in Selma, Ala., suggested. “A lot of us aren’t involved with Wall Street and those places.”
Warren may also confront a double bind for professional women: To command respect, they have to prove that they’re experts, but once they do, they’re often seen as less likable. At one point, I asked Warren whether there was anything good about running for president as a woman. “It is what it is,” she said.
When I first talked with Warren in February, when her poll numbers were low, I wondered whether she was content with simply forcing Democratic candidates to engage with her ideas. During the 2016 primaries, when Warren did not endorse Sanders, she wanted influence over Hillary Clinton’s economic appointments should she win the presidency. Cleaving the Democratic administration from Wall Street — that was enough at the time. She could make a similar decision in 2020 or try to get her own appointment. If Warren became Treasury secretary, she could resuscitate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Trump has worked to declaw, and tip all kinds of decisions away from banks and toward the families who come to her town halls and tell her about the loans they can’t pay.
By mid-June, however, when I went to Washington to talk to Warren for the last time, she was very much in the race. New polls showed her in second place in California and Nevada. She had more to lose, and perhaps as a result, her answers were more scripted, more like her speeches.