WOLFEBORO, N.H. ― If you’re a progressive voter trying to figure out whether to support Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the battle for 2020′s Democratic presidential nomination, don’t expect them to make the choice easy for you.
“Elizabeth is a friend of mine and you will make that decision yourself,” Sanders said last week at a town hall here after an attendee asked the Vermont senator why voters should support him over his Senate colleague from Massachusetts, with whom he agrees on many issues.
Warren has made similar pledges not to go after rivals in the race, particularly citing her friendship with Sanders that began “long before I ever got into politics.”
But even though the two progressive standard-bearers share similar commitments to the need for structural change on several policy fronts, they’re approaching voters on the campaign trail with strikingly different messages.
During recent swings each made in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, for example, they detailed their plans to address wealth inequality, the growing threat of climate change and problems with the nation’s health care, criminal justice and education systems.
Sanders, however, placed a far greater emphasis on the need to lower health care costs by instituting a single-payer model, known as “Medicare for All.” The issue dominated his stump speech at all four events he held in the state, where he quizzed supporters on the cost of their insurance premiums and talked up his recent trip to get insulin at a pharmacy in Canada.
The renewed focus on his signature proposal is part of an effort to distinguish himself from his rivals, many of whom have embraced his health care plan.
Sanders’ relentless focus on the issue “to me suggests that this is something he is just fundamentally committed to,” Jeremy Mele, a supporter from Maine, told HuffPost at the rally in Wolfeboro. “I’m not saying Warren won’t support people to have health care, but it might just mean it’s not her priority when she’s in office.”
Warren, meanwhile, spent much more time at her campaign events spotlighting her plans to fight the influence of special interests in Washington and her proposed tax on the super-rich, an idea Sanders has also supported. The latter proposal would levy a 2% percent tax on assets over $50 million and a 3% tax on assets over $1 billion. Or, as she described it at a town hall gathering in Franconia last week, requiring those “not just at the top, but at the top of the top of the top” to pay more in taxes to help finance expanded social programs.
“The point is not to be cranky, the point is not to say, ‘Shame on you,’” Warren said of her wealth tax. “You built a great fortune, good for you! But you built it at least in part using workers all of us paid to educate.”
An even more striking difference in their pitch to voters concerns style, however.
Sanders, a known commodity in New Hampshire (his overwhelming win in the state’s 2016 primary propelled his sustained but failed bid for the nomination against Hillary Clinton), wasted no time diving into problems he’s been railing about for decades. He proudly cast himself as an antagonist to the political establishment ― including the Democratic Party and the media. He rarely strayed into his personal biography, and seemed less comfortable than most White House seekers with pressing the flesh.
Warren’s stump speech, by contrast, is rooted in recounting her family’s struggles trying to make ends meet in Oklahoma. Recalling stories about her mother, her aunt, and her Republican brothers, she weaves a compelling narrative that struggling Americans can easily identify with. And she seems to particularly enjoy taking selfies with her supporters, which she refers to as “the fun part” of her campaign events. (She took photos with attendees for over an hour after a rally in Minnesota this week).
Her strategy has resonated with voters: Warren, 70, has slowly inched up in the polls to vie with Sanders, 77, as the leading rival to former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, the frontrunner for the Democratic nod who has advocated a more moderate and incremental approach to governing.
“She comes off a little more younger,” said Neil Brody, a real estate company owner from Bethlehem, New Hampshire, who supported Sanders in 2016. “She’s better at explaining things. She tells a better story. Bernie just says it.”
Twig Notman, a part-time nurse from Vermont, said she’d like to see a Warren-Sanders ticket in the general election.
“I’ve always liked Bernie, I voted for him last time. But he’s kind of past his prime,” she said.
Polls show support for Sanders and Warren does differ in some key demographic aspects despite their mutual appeal to progressives. While he tends to draw more lower-income and less-educated people, she does better with college-educated voters. Sanders performs better with men, while Warren does so with women. Moreover, her message hasn’t resonated as well as his with Black voters.
More broadly, Sanders supporters tend to identify as independents or democratic socialists, while those backing Warren more often self-identified as Democrats.
The differences between their respective bases mean neither has too much to gain by going after the other, and they’ve maintained an informal non-aggression pact so far. But as the Democratic race intensifies, that stance is likely to show signs of strain, if not dissipate. And their more fervent and high-profile supporters may become less restrained, as well.
On Monday, for example, actress and activist Susan Sarandon took an apparent dig at Warren as she introduced Sanders at a campaign event in Iowa.
“He is not someone who used to be a Republican,” said Sarandon, a Sanders campaign surrogate. She didn’t mention Warren by name, but the Massachusetts senator was a registered Republican in the mid-1990s.