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“Elizabeth Warren called me!” is turning into a meme

Warren is calling her supporters to say thanks. It’s a savvy political strategy.

Elizabeth Warren has been calling her supporters to thank them. It’s turning into a meme.
Elizabeth Warren is giving her supporters a reason to pick up a call from an unknown number — she might be on the other end of the line.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Elizabeth Warren is giving people a new reason to pick up their phones when a call comes in from an unknown number: She might be on the line. It’s a way for the Massachusetts Democrat to thank her backers. It’s also a savvy political strategy to highlight and spread her grassroots support.

Warren ignited a viral moment over the weekend when she replied to a tweet from comedian Ashley Nicole Black asking whether the 2020 candidate, whose 2020 mantra is that she “has a plan for that,” has a plan for her love life. “DM me and let’s figure this out,” Warren, seemingly out of nowhere, replied.

Warren apparently followed up with a phone call, Black said Monday on Twitter. “Guess who’s crying and shaking and just talked to Elizabeth Warren on the phone?!?!?” she wrote.

Black isn’t the only one Warren is calling — she’s making a habit of dialing many of her supporters, and “Elizabeth Warren called me” is turning into a meme.

Do a quick scan of Twitter and for months, Warren supporters have been popping up expressing their joy and surprise that they’ve received a call from the senator herself.

This strategy isn’t totally new. In February, Warren announced that she would swear off high-dollar fundraisers and phone calls with wealthy donors during the 2020 Democratic primary. In a Medium post announcing the decision, she said she wanted to make sure “everybody who supports my campaign is treated equally, regardless of how much they can afford to give.”

Some critics emerged, arguing that such a maneuver was a risky disarmament against a well-funded Republican machine. Some suggested it might be a way for her to explain lower-than-expected fundraising. The New York Times reported that the decision was controversial even within her campaign.

But Warren has stuck with it.

The “Elizabeth Warren called me” meme is a smart political strategy

What Warren is doing here is pretty straightforward: When a small-dollar donor gives money to her campaign through her website, they’re asked for some basic information, including their name, address, and phone number. That information comes in and her campaign picks out donors for her to call and thank.

Her campaign has put out videos of her making the calls, of which it says she has made hundreds. She generally calls in the evenings, though sometimes it’s at other times of the day, and speaks with people for a few minutes.

What makes this feel more organic and effective is the declarations of the people she’s calling announcing what’s happened and expressing their excitement. A lot of them are doing it on social media, and chances are those people are also telling their family and friends about getting a call from Liz.

“It’s guerrilla marketing in a way — the humblebragging from supporters about getting a call feels organic and lends credibility to her claim that she’s prioritizing grassroots supporters. It emphasizes her relatability and down-to-earth nature, and generates viral moments,” Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something, an organization that supports young candidates running for office, told me.

One person wrote a diary post for Daily Kos talking about the Warren call experience.

Litman added that beyond the candidate, and sometimes even more so, the best messengers to most voters are their friends and family. “[Warren] is arming folks with personal anecdotes to convince friends and family, and social media lets those moments spread far and wide,” she said.

A Democratic strategist working for a rival 2020 Democratic campaign concurred. “It’s super savvy and a clever way of turning the fundraising process, which justifiably seems cold and cynical to most voters, into a way to showcase her authenticity and the grassroots energy behind her campaign,” the strategist said in an email.

Warren’s calls have also gotten others online wondering why they haven’t received a call. And it could be inspiring FOMO and getting others to donate in hopes of hearing from the senator.

This is also a way for Warren to remind people about her commitment to steering clear of high-dollar fundraisers and calls to major donors. She has staked much of her career — and her campaign — on casting herself as being on the side of the little guy and up against Wall Street, big money, and corporate interests.

She’s hosting “pop-up” meetings where a select group of supporters in certain areas get invited to meet her in small settings. She’s done those events in places such as Denver, Brooklyn and Harlem, and Alabama. Those pop-up gatherings, along with the calls, reiterate her no-big-money point.

“It’s definitely cheesy, but in a way that feels true to her and that over the long haul will absolutely pay off,” Litman said.

You won’t be shocked to learn that Warren is talking policy

Since announcing her presidential bid, Warren has rolled out a litany of policy proposals on a wide range of issues, including abortion, tech consolidation, agriculture reform, opioids, and the revolving door at the Pentagon. She is outpacing her fellow 2020 contenders in terms of policy. And in calls with supporters, she appears to be reminding them of it. (When supporters don’t pick up, she leaves a message.)

Jessica Ellis, a Los Angeles-based writer whom Warren called on Monday, told me that Warren thanked her for her support and discussed her proposed wealth tax, which would put a small tax on Americans with a net worth of more than $50 million. She also talked about her student debt plan, which would cancel debt for millions of Americans and invest in debt-free college. (She says she would pay for that with the wealth tax.)

“She emphasized that she really, truly believed she could win, and that if she does, she knows she can address our worst problems,” Ellis said.

Ellis told Warren she first saw her on The Daily Show in 2009, years before she was elected to the Senate, when Ellis was watching with her mother. “We both said, ‘That woman needs to be president,’” Ellis said. “She laughed and told me to send my mom her best.”