A little more than an hour after Elizabeth Warren wrapped up a speech in front of an estimated 20,000 people in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park on Monday night, it took me 276 long strides to reach the end of a line to get a photo taken with the senator from Massachusetts and presidential candidate. In front of an American flag hung vertically under the park’s illuminated arch, Warren had just electrified the crowd with a speech laying out a powerful anti-corruption agenda while solidifying what felt less like a presidential platform than an all-out social movement. A lot of people wanted to meet her.
Smiling for a selfie with as many supporters who want one has become a hallmark of Warren’s 2020 campaign events. This can take a long time, and though many of those in line were determined to come away with a picture — early morning obligations be damned — others weren’t so sure they could hold out as long as the senator. “I’m trying to make up my mind about that,” said Bri Held, a 55-year-old administrative assistant from East Harlem. “Elizabeth Warren is putting me to shame. If she can do selfies with everyone then I should be able to wait in line and take one with her.”
Warren’s sense of determination, both in taking pictures with fans and fighting to overhaul the way the government functions, was palpable in her speech on Monday, and a sticking point for her supporters. “She’s not in this to spout nonsense,” Held said. “She’s in this to get something done. I like that she has plans and that early on she was talking specifically about what she would do rather than just saying we have to get Trump out of the White House.”
The latest such plan came earlier that day in the form of a full-throated proposal to end corruption in politics that expanded on a piece of legislation Warren introduced last year. The plan, among other features, calls for putting an end to corporate lobbying while enforcing financial transparency among those who hold federal office. She elaborated on what she called the “most sweeping set of anti-corruption reforms since Watergate” in Washington Square Park, alluding to the nearby site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which killed 146 workers, most of them immigrant women.
“Instead of changing conditions at the factories, the owners worked their political connections,” she said, referencing the squalid work environment that made the fire as fatal as it was. “They made campaign contributions and talked with their friends in the legislature. They greased the state government so thoroughly that nothing changed. Business owners got richer, politicians got more powerful, and working people paid the price. Does any of this sound familiar? Take any big problem in America we have today, and you don’t have to dig very deep to see the same system at work.”
She went on to detail the ways corruption has propped up the firearm industry, stifled action to combat the climate crisis, and kept millions of Americans from being able to afford quality health care. “Corruption has put our planet at risk. Corruption has broken our economy. Corruption is breaking our democracy,” she said. “I know what’s broken, I’ve got a plan to fix it, and that’s why I’m running for president of the United States.”
Women workers sounded the alarm about working conditions for years before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, but corruption stopped reforms. Look at any big problem we face today—climate change, gun safety, health care—and you can see the same system at work. #WarrenNYC pic.twitter.com/5QPje4KJRV
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 17, 2019
The speech comes at a time when Warren’s prospects for taking on President Trump for the White House continue to improve. Though Joe Biden is leading the Democratic primary by a sizable margin in just about every relevant poll, Warren is closing the gap on the former vice president. Behind the strength of a campaign built around a series of detailed policy proposals and an invigorated army of volunteers, she’s been climbing steadily in the polls while the gaffe-prone Biden has been sliding. A national CNN survey conducted earlier this month had Warren at 18 percent, up 4 points from where when the last poll was conducted just a few weeks earlier, Biden, meanwhile, has dropped 5 points in the same timeframe, from 29 percent to 24 percent.
In Washington Square Park, Warren took a veiled shot at her chief competition, who has preached a tempered approach in the face of blow-it-up progressives like Warren and Bernie Sanders. “There’s a lot at stake in this election, and I know people are scared,” she said. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And Democrats can’t win if we’re scared and looking backward.”
Held, the administrative assistant from East Harlem, agreed. “I didn’t want Biden to run because I felt that he is not the man for this 21st century moment,” she said. So did a 57-year-old from Harlem standing a few feet away named Bahavani, who unlike Held has no plans of leaving the line before getting a picture with Warren. “The ‘softly, softly’ with Biden is not going to get us anywhere,” she said. “We need something radical.”
Also disenchanted with Biden are the betting markets, which are already wise to where Warren’s momentum may be taking her. PredictIt, a popular political futures book online, has Warren as a significant favorite to win the nomination. Vegas has her favored, as well, with most oddsmakers giving her better odds to win than Biden while placing her at twice as likely to win than Sanders. Odds Shark, a popular online betting site, has Warren at +220 (2.2. to 1, essentially), Biden at +250, and Sanders at +550.
Warren is only slightly ahead of Sanders in the polls, but she got some help this week. The Working Families Party endorsed the senator from Vermont in 2016, but on Monday morning they announced they would back Warren this time around. Hours later, WFP National Director Maurice Mitchell introduced Warren in Washington Square Park.
“Elizabeth Warren has proposed a host of solutions that meet the full scale of the crises we face, from child care to housing to taxing the super rich to a Green New Deal to create new jobs to save the planet,” he said after praising how scared she’s made the big banks a few blocks south on Wall Street. “Elizabeth Warren has a plan for it. But crucially, Senator Warren realizes you need more than plans. We need to meet this moment with a movement of working people.”
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 17, 2019
Contributing to Warren’s rise as a candidate is not just her suite of plans but how her campaign has marketed them into a larger movement for structural change. Prior to anyone taking the stage on Monday, volunteers led call-and-response cheers (“I say ‘SHE HAS!’ you say, ‘A PLAN FOR THAT!'”) to park-goers who probably weren’t quite ready to match their energy. Plan-centric shirts and signs were all over the place. So was merchandise with other tag lines like “DREAM BIG, FIGHT HARD” and “I’M A WARREN DEMOCRAT.” Some of the biggest ovations of the night came when Warren gave a nod to what have become mantras among her supporters.
“Something the campaign has done that I think is really smart is the message of ‘I AM A WARREN DEMOCRAT,'” said Bridget, a 21-year-old student at Adelphi University on Long Island. “She’s creating a very specific niche of where this party can go that’s inclusive and welcomes everybody in and gives them an identity.”
Warren’s has also succeeded in explaining exactly what it means to back her candidacy, supporters said. Multiple attendees cited how concisely and simply she’s able to diagnose the problems in Washington and what she plans to do about them, and also how she’s been able to hone this ability the longer she’s been on the campaign trail.
They’re also hopeful her anti-corruption, shake-up-the-status-quo message will resonate in the general election. “This is the middle of New York City, but [I was] in Michigan yesterday, and this speech would have gone over like gangbusters in Trump country,” said Madeline, a 49-year-old from New York. “The question is can she get there.”
“I think one of her gifts coming from an educational background is that she knows how to explain this information and compact it in a very digestible way, even to those who don’t follow politics very closely,” said Bridget the student from Adelphi, who said she’d stay in the line “as long as it takes” to meet Warren.
As was the case with Barack Obama’s audacity of hope messaging in 2008, Warren is creating the language and iconography of a movement, one that feels exciting and hopeful in the face of the most corrupt White House in recent memory. She close her speech on Monday by returning to the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Frances Perkins, the “persistent” workers-rights advocate who was present for the fire.
“Frances had a plan,” Warren said. “With Frances working the system from the inside, the women workers organizing and applying pressure from the outside, they rewrote New York state’s labor laws from top to bottom to protect workers.”
“This is our moment in history,” she concluded. “Our moment to dream big, fight hard, and win!”
She repeated the slogan four hours later, around midnight, after posing for her final selfie of the night. “DREAM BIG!” a man yelled. “FIGHT HARD!” Warren yelled back, throwing her fist in the air. Then she did it again.