‘Call Me Elizabeth’: Inside the Hours Elizabeth Warren Spends on the Phone

Gideon Kidd of Cedar Rapids is the driving force behind one of the larger social media megaphones in Iowa. He has built a following of more than 340,000 with his @IvePetThatDog Twitter account where he posts — truth in advertising — photos of himself petting dogs.

Last summer, when his own beloved dog, Walter, passed away, Mr. Kidd received an outpouring of support, some local news coverage and one condolence voice mail message from a 2020 candidate for president: Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Mr. Kidd cannot vote for Ms. Warren, or anyone, in 2020. He is 11.

“It was very touching and sweet,” said Gideon’s mom, Rachel Braunigan, who added that the family was staying neutral in the caucuses.

Ms. Warren is betting that call — and many more like it — are worth making anyway.

Beyond offering preteen pet-passing sympathies, she also makes sure that activists, celebrities, elected leaders and local Democratic officials keep picking up the phone (or checking their voice mail) to hear the same five words: “Hi, this is Elizabeth Warren.”

She has made thousands of such calls over the past two years to key political leaders and influencers, according to her campaign, and Democratic officials say she stands apart for her prolific phone habit. She makes her case against President Trump, seeks out advice and tries to lock down endorsements.

It is a huge investment of the campaign’s most precious resource — Ms. Warren’s time — that advisers hope will pay a crucial good-will dividend in the run-up to the first votes of 2020.

The breadth of her call list serves another purpose: It reinforces the campaign’s message that she is a team player for the party, looking to lift candidates up and down the ballot despite running as a populist outsider threatening to shake up the system. And her efforts as a party builder and leader differentiate her from a key rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, who represents Vermont as an independent rather than as a Democrat, and whom far fewer Democrats described calling them out of the blue.

Early this year, Ms. Warren announced that she would not be courting or calling big donors, a fact that has become central to her campaign. “I don’t do call time with millionaires and billionaires,” she declared at the most recent debate. Ms. Warren instead uses her calls to small donors — heavily publicized and advertised on social media — to burnish her populist credentials, and these less talked-about political calls to woo the establishment.

Ms. Warren occasionally makes the calls on the long walks she takes in the morning — she likes to get her steps in and can sometimes be seen, sans entourage, briskly roaming the streets of whatever city she woke up in that day. But most often her calls are made in car rides in between events.

“Call me Elizabeth,” the senator from Massachusetts often says, a suggestion that most opt to ignore. The excuses to stick with an honorific vary. “I would love to,” Peter Leo, the Carroll County chair in Iowa, replied when they first spoke, “except my wife’s name is Elizabeth.”

Ms. Warren hardly invented the political call list. Everyone does it. But Ms. Warren’s personal phone outreach cuts far deeper than the obvious power brokers: from cheering state-level officials for their accomplishments, to leaving a voice mail message for the actor Billy Porter after he hosted a faux 2020 town hall event on “Saturday Night Live,” to offering encouragement to candidates after they’ve lost and congratulations if they’ve won. (The other candidate besides Ms. Warren who officials say seems to call the most people is Senator Cory Booker.)

She recently called Jena Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state, to praise her for an anti-corruption package of bills that passed in that state. She has dialed up officials in Texas, pastors in South Carolina and labor leaders in Michigan.

Lorena Gonzalez, a California assemblywoman and the chair of the Latino Caucus in the state Legislature, got a call from Ms. Warren this fall soon after a bill that Ms. Warren had supported was signed into law. Ms. Gonzalez had not been planning to endorse when the phone rang.

She said she had no intention of publicly supporting a competitor to Senator Kamala Harris of California, who was still in the race, or to Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate. But when Ms. Warren asked her directly to commit, Ms. Gonzalez did so on the spot.

“I guess I couldn’t help myself,” she said. She now travels on behalf of the campaign, going to Nevada and representing Ms. Warren in the spin room at the most recent debate in Los Angeles.

Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which seeks to elect Democrats to state legislatures, said that Ms. Warren got in touch with her after both the 2018 and 2019 elections, in addition to calling candidates directly.

Last year, Ms. Post was so touched by the message of support that she forwarded Ms. Warren’s voice mail recording to her organization’s entire staff.

“I just wanted to give you a call and say thank you, thank you, thank you for all you’ve done,” Ms. Warren said in the message. “It’s a moment to celebrate.”

Ms. Warren’s call list is carefully curated. Top advisers in the four early-voting states are all asked to pitch influential local leaders for potential calls. Those names join other recommendations and are narrowed down to about 50 calls a week in her Boston-based headquarters. Ms. Warren herself adds names to call based on things she has heard or read in the news.

Ms. Warren’s phone time, along with her 100,000 and counting not-quite-selfies with every rally attendee who wants one, has become interwoven into the fabric of her candidacy, inspiring something of a cult following and memes about her accessibility. (She also still calls every staff member, down to her field organizers, on their birthdays.)

“New Phone App Screens Out All Calls That Aren’t From Elizabeth Warren,” read a headline on a feminist satire site earlier this year. Last spring, the comedian Ashley Nicole Black wondered aloud on Twitter, “Do you think Elizabeth Warren has a plan to fix my love life?” Three days later, Ms. Black’s phone rang while she was in the shower, and she soon found herself listening to Ms. Warren’s romantic advice while wrapped in a towel.

“She actually immediately started asking me about my love life! It was crazy,” Ms. Black said. “I was like, ‘Surely this presidential candidate doesn’t actually want to talk about my horrible dating luck.’ But she did.” (They also talked policy.)

Julian Brave NoiseCat, an environmental activist who is Native American, was publicly critical of Ms. Warren’s 2018 decision to take a DNA test to show her tribal heritage. Ms. Warren called him anyway earlier this year, and he said they spoke for 20 minutes about everything from Indian Country to climate change to the television show “The Wire” (they’re both fans). She gave him her cellphone number, too, to keep in touch via text.

“It was a risk for her to reach out to me,” Mr. NoiseCat said. “I wrote a thing that challenged her for a mistake she made.”

Joe Rospars, Ms. Warren’s chief strategist, said in a podcast interview this fall that the calls help keep Ms. Warren — and the campaign itself — grounded.

“It can’t be good for a candidate to be spending a third, two-thirds of their time taking incoming from a donor class that is disproportionately old, white, rich and male,” Mr. Rospars said.

Ms. Warren’s call log includes more mainstream Democrats, but it also reflects her outsider-organizer instincts. Last month, for instance, she called to congratulate Kendra Brooks for winning a seat on the Philadelphia City Council. Ms. Brooks won on the Working Families Party line with Ms. Warren’s support — over the opposition of the local Democratic political establishment.

“I was running against the machine as an insurgent candidate. Her endorsement validated who I was,” Ms. Brooks said, saying the call “reinvigorated” her, though the incoming councilwoman is staying out of the 2020 primary fray for now.

Liuba Grechen Shirley, who lost a New York congressional race in 2018, said Ms. Warren’s call after she won the primary provided a critical boost at a difficult juncture. But it was another call Ms. Warren made that really stood out. One of Ms. Grechen Shirley’s young field organizers was a devoted Warren fan who had been hospitalized with terminal cancer. Ms. Warren called within hours of Ms. Grechen Shirley’s making the request; the aide died the next day. “Her parents will be forever grateful,” Ms. Grechen Shirley said.

In Iowa, where Ms. Warren is focusing much of her energy, the question is sometimes not if she has called but how many times.

“Gosh, when did I get my first Elizabeth Warren phone call?” State Senator Zach Wahls, who endorsed her in October, tried to remember. Kurt Meyer, chairman of the Tri-County Democrats in Northern Iowa, said their first conversation came before she was even a formal candidate. “She called me first, approximately a year ago,” he said.

Since then, they have volleyed texts back and forth. Mr. Meyer was her campaign’s guest at the first debate in Miami. He bumped into Ms. Warren in the elevator. They took a selfie together. Will all that effort end up mattering?

“You have to think, at some point, that it does,” Mr. Meyer said.

He hastened to add he had still yet to endorse in the 2020 race.

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