HAMPTON FALLS, N.H. ― Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the two most progressive top-tier candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, defended their ability to defeat President Donald Trump during campaign swings through New Hampshire on Labor Day weekend, offering spirited though somewhat different cases for their general election viability.
Warren had to address the electability question directly, since it came up in a brief question session with voters on Monday following remarks to a crowd of 800 that braved the rain to hear her speak in the backyard of a supporter in the coastal town of Hampton Falls.
Linda Rhodes, a Warren partisan active in the liberal advocacy group Indivisible New Hampshire, asked Warren what to tell people who say they like Warren’s ideas but are not sure she can beat Trump in the general election.
Warren began by promoting her pugnacity.
“I know how to fight and I know how to win,” she said. “That is a big part of it. You have to be willing to get in this fight all the way.”
She also argued that backing a candidate with ambitious ideas for solving people’s problems, many of which predate Trump, is a surer way to motivate them to show up on Election Day than merely promising to roll back the clock to before Trump’s presidency.
“Being willing to confront the big problems in this country and then producing plans, real plans, for big structural change ― that’s what people want in this country,” Warren said. “I think you’ve got to give people a reason to show up and vote and that’s what I’m doing.”
In her response, Warren appeared to take a veiled swipe at former Vice President Joe Biden, who has argued that if Trump loses, his presidency will be seen as “an aberration,” rather than the product of structural problems plaguing the country.
“What’s going to carry us as Democrats is not playing it safe,” Warren said. “It’s not pretending that everything was just fine and then there was this one problem and we get rid of that one problem, it’s all going to work out ― ’cause it’s not. It’s not. We have problems going back decades now.”
Sanders took a more prosaic approach to the topic in three campaign speeches in Raymond and Dover, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine, on Sunday. The Vermont senator, who has led Trump in polls of a hypothetical matchup since Sanders’ unsuccessful 2016 primary run, made the argument for his general election viability by pointing to polls that show him ahead once again. He is especially fond of citing a late August poll that showed him beating Trump by 14 percentage points. (The same survey, conducted by Quinnipiac University, found that five Democrats would beat Trump, though Biden had the largest margin of victory with a 16-point edge; Warren bested Trump by 12 points.)
Sanders summarized the poll results to a crowd of over 375 in Raymond, before setting out the stakes of a potential showdown with Trump, whom he dubbed the “most dangerous president in the modern history of this country.”
“We have to get rid of that person in the White House. And with your help, that is exactly what we are going to do,” he declared.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, top Sanders surrogates and co-founders of the Vermont-based ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, had a similar message in their remarks introducing Sanders. In poll after poll, Cohen said, “Bernie beats Trump.”
He repeated the phrase like a mantra, until the crowd, assembled in chairs in a muggy high school auditorium, repeated it like a chant, “Bernie beats Trump/ Bernie beats Trump.”
At their core though, Sanders and Warren share a conviction that they are running not just to undo Trump’s policies, but to curb the economic inequality and political corruption that they maintain have gripped the country for at least four decades.
“I’m going to need your help, the day after we are inaugurated,” Sanders said in Raymond. “We need your help to take on the greed and corruption of the corporate elite who have been at war against the working class of this country for the last 45 years.”
Poll watchers tend to attribute Biden’s lead, at least partly, to his perceived strength as a general election candidate. The former vice president has projected an air of inevitability, training his attention on Trump far more than on his Democratic rivals. And in August, Biden’s wife Jill explicitly pitched her husband’s electability, telling Iowans, “You may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who is going to win.”
Although Warren and Sanders are often cast as the most idealistic in the Democratic presidential primary field, there was some evidence over the holiday weekend that voters are buying the pragmatic case for them at the top of the ticket.
None of those other candidates can slay the dragon the way Bernie can. Sue Hartman, retired educator
Sue Hartman, a retired educator who came to see Sanders in Portland, Maine, stood outside the State Theatre after Sanders spoke to a crowd of almost 2,000 people on Sunday night with a look of awed exhaustion on her face.
Asked why she supported Sanders, Hartman volunteered his strength as a general election contender.
“Who can step up and slay the dragon? None of those other candidates can slay the dragon the way Bernie can,” she said. “The others don’t have the fire in the belly.”
Kevin Webb, a renewable energy professional from Exeter, New Hampshire, who came to see Warren in Hampton Falls, likewise pointed to how she would fare against Trump.
“I don’t think Trump can keep up with her. All he has is a racist label ― and nothing else,” said Webb, referring to Trump’s repeated mockery of Warren as “Pocahontas” because of the Native American heritage she has claimed.
Other voters who came to see the two candidates described enjoying hearing them speak, but expressed more confidence in other candidates’ abilities to defeat Trump.
John Leahy, a retired information technology firm manager from Exeter who came with three family members to hear Warren speak on Monday, said after the speech that he was leaning toward Biden. The former vice president’s more moderate profile, Leahy reasoned, makes him “potentially a very strong candidate against Trump.”
Regina Phillips, a consultant who came to see Sanders speak in Portland with her two sisters, said after his speech that she was “feeling the Bern.”
But pressed on her plans for the Maine primary, slated for Super Tuesday on March 3, Phillips said she was still undecided.
“I need to actually see who can beat Donald Trump. That’s the person I can vote for,” she said. “I’m not sure if that’s Bernie. He said he’s 14 percent ahead of Trump, but I know Biden’s ahead of Trump too.”