Democratic voters want someone who can beat Trump, but they say they want to hear from candidates about their specific ideas, too.
SALEM, Iowa — When voters ask Sen. Elizabeth Warren about her plan for universal child care, she's likely to launch into a story about her Aunt Bee — a woman who, as the candidate tells it, came to help, arriving "with seven suitcases and a Pekingese named Buddy" — and stayed for 16 years.
It's a story to tell voters more about Warren herself, but it also serves to highlight one of her many policy prescriptions for the country.
The Massachusetts Democrat has churned out a consistent stream of policy proposals since getting in the president race, with more than a dozen in-depth plans ranging from leveraging public lands in the fight against climate change to student loan debt forgiveness. While other candidates have worked to increase their name ID, Warren is pushing to make her name synonymous with having "a plan for that" — the thing that could differentiate her from the Democratic field of more than 20 contenders.
But while the consistent flurry of policy papers puts meat on the bone for reporters, as well as puts the pressure on fellow candidates, are voters clamoring for specifics?
For Warren, perhaps nowhere does the answer to that question matter more than in Iowa — where she's banking on consolidating support to springboard her into the top tier of candidates in the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses early next year.
She has a sizable presence on the ground in the Hawkeye State: Over 50 staffers — more than almost any of her competitors — who are hosting events, spreading Warren's message and signing Iowans up to caucus. The operation is costing her financially, but it may also be paying off.
In more than a dozen conversations over three days recently at events for multiple candidates, including Warren, voters told NBC News they wanted to hear specifics before making their choice — and that Warren was cementing herself as "the policy candidate" in the field.
"(Warren)'s the plan girl right now, isn't she?" Keith Kuper of Ackley told NBC News Saturday in Iowa Falls. "She really has specifics, plans on almost everything." Kuper is leaning toward supporting Warren — and said other candidates on his radar, like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, will need to be more specific if they want to peel off his support.
"I think Buttigieg has an amazing charisma and appeal, he's so smart, he handles himself so well," Kuper said. But "he is light on specifics." If Buttigieg "comes forward with progressive ideas and continues to show himself really strong in debates and so forth — and really strong against conservatism and Trumpism — you know, I could see myself switching over to him even though he's slight on specifics."
Emma Dinneen, meanwhile, said she's already decided to caucus for Warren — "because of how she talks to us" and "the fact that she has definitive ideas," she said after a meet-and-greet event on Sunday with the candidate in Ottumwa, Iowa.
In the basement of a coffee shop in Iowa Falls on Saturday, Warren's was the first name that came to Kristi Harris' mind as someone in the Democratic field talking about policy.
"I want someone who knows how to solve problems," Harris said after an event for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Harris remains undecided, allowing that the choice will be "difficult" given the size of the field, but whoever she ultimately supports needs to "understand the issues deeply."
Warren has seen a polling surge in recent weeks, rising as high as third place nationally as voters tune in and learn more about the field.
"I talk about plans because its got to be not just that we go to Washington in order to talk about change, but we go to Washington make change. That's the idea here," she told a crowd at sunset in Salem on Sunday.
And playing into her "policy wonk" reputation could be helping, Democratic strategist Joel Payne told NBC News, noting that Warren is "using the 'plan' piece to engage more people" in a way where other candidates have struggled.
But the parsing of the Democratic field on policy stands in stark contrast with the incumbent that the eventual nominee will face in November of next year, who is known more for campaigning on catch phrases ("build the wall") than policy white papers.
Democratic voters care deeply about beating Trump in 2020, listing it regularly as their top priority, but they want policy answers, too.
"I think America is ready for more than a personality," Carolyn Jones said on Sunday in Oskaloosa, while she waited in line for a selfie with Warren. "We need policy right now, we need a backlash, a policy over what we've got right now, which is a personality and a character."