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Progressive activists know their enemy in the 2020 Democratic primary: Joe Biden

At Netroots Nation, a conference for the activist left, Warren, Sanders, and Harris were the clear favorites.

Netroots Nation Conference in Philadelphia
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) comes out to a standing ovation at Netroots Nation.
Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — Sen. Elizabeth Warren stole the show at Netroots Nation’s presidential forum, if only for the fact that she was the lone top-tier presidential candidate who showed up.

Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Gov. Jay Inslee, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro attended the presidential forum at Netroots, an annual gathering of nearly 4,000 progressive activists. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, on the other hand, were noticeably absent.

“I don’t know why you’d cede that territory to a frontrunner,” Daily Kos founder and publisher Markos Moulitsas, a Netroots board member, told Vox. “Warren’s the one who made out like a bandit here. She gets the whole court, queen of the night.”

But to say the organized progressive activist community has decided on Warren as its nominee more than a year ahead of the 2020 presidential election would be premature. Netroots, usually a good litmus test of who the Democratic base is excited about in presidential cycles, was more muted and cautious than in past years.

Unsurprisingly, Warren was a clear favorite; she has been coming to Netroots since she was a Harvard Law School professor in charge of creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and she was welcomed with chants of “Warren! Warren! Warren!” as she took the stage. But conversations with several of the most prominent activists groups and progressive think tanks during the weekend events revealed that Warren doesn’t have the progressive wing sewn up yet. And while Sanders and Harris were absent, their surrogates and fans certainly were not. The same couldn’t be said for others like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), however.

“You had the Buttigieg boomlet earlier this year and you might have thought that might have continued into a place like this, but it really hasn’t,” Neil Sroka, a spokesperson for progressive political action committee Democracy For America, said. “What’s pretty clear is it’s Bernie, it’s Warren, and maybe it’s Kamala.”

“Frankly, I think a lot of the people here are going to be making strategic decisions on who they vote for in the primary,” he said. “At the end of the day everyone here is committed to electing an inclusive populist champion for president.”

While attendees have yet to identify which of those three candidates is their favorite, it was clear the conference’s progressives had identified their enemy: Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner in the 2020 field. The weekend even featured a pop-up podcast titled “Why Joe Biden is the least electable major Democrat for president in 2020.”

“Nobody’s excited about Biden,” Moulitsas said bluntly. “He’s old, tired, and elite.”

Three names that matter to this bloc: Warren, Harris, and Sanders

Rally Against Closing of Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia
Bernie Sanders’s campaign co-chair Sen. Nina Turner, joined by local politicians, hospital workers and union members, protests the imminent closure of Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Seven months from when the first 2020 voters have a say in the Democratic primary in Iowa, progressives are winnowing down a deep field of candidates in a party that’s increasingly turned toward more left-wing ideals — from public health care to wealth taxes and free college proposals.

But at Netroots, only three names had any meaningful energy behind them: Sanders, Harris, and, of course, Warren.

Across the street from the Netroots convention on Thursday, Sanders’s campaign co-chair Nina Turner took the stage at a protest outside Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Hospital, a local institution that’s set to shutter in coming weeks. Among the protest’s attendees were local activists, physicians, and Netroots attendees showing solidarity with the movement. Sanders himself wasn’t in attendance, but it was a show of the political revolution he’s been trying to build a campaign around.

“With these hands we will save Hahnemann hospital, and with these hands we will elect Sen. Bernie Sanders as the next president of the United States of America,” Turner said to a crowd with raised arms chanting “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.” Sanders is scheduled to rally at the hospital Monday.

Harris’s moment came through Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who has already endorsed the senator in the 2020 elections. Lee was honored as a voice to be listened to — a thought leader — as first-term Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (MN), Rashida Tlaib (MI), Ayanna Pressley (MA), and Deb Haaland (NM) showered her with praise. Lee’s message: that the progressive movement must fight for their candidate, “whoever she may be.”

Grassroots activists are a constituency Warren has been cultivating for more than a decade, since she created the CFPB and garnered a reputation for taking on big banks and corporations. When she took the stage at Philadelphia’s convention center, the crowd went wild. Notably, she was also the only candidate with a sustained protest happening in the middle of her speech, with immigration activists demanding to know whether Warren would give 11 million undocumented immigrants citizenship and reunite families. Warren offered her immigration proposal, which would do that.

Progressives are thinking about who can win

Biden’s lead in the polls means progressive activists are approaching their choices in the primary with some caution.

“I like both of them — Bernie and Warren — I trust both of them. Ultimately, it will be where are they in January or February of next year?” Sroka said. “Who is up and who is down?”

Warren’s biggest challenge is still with black voters, whom she is struggling with compared to Sanders, Harris, and Biden. A recent Morning Consult poll showed Warren netting just 7 percent of black voters who said she was their first choice, compared to 21 percent for Sanders and 16 percent for Harris (and Biden in the lead with 38 percent).

But there’s reason to believe Warren could increase her support from voters of color, She the People president and founder Aimee Allison said at the conference.

“We look at the impact of her speaking our language, calling out our community specifically in her policy prescriptions,” Allison told Vox. “That’s a winning combo.”

She said Harris not shying away from her own experiences as a woman of color and claiming her identity in front of a national Democratic audience is also a very appealing message. She added that while Sanders’s policies would help uplift people, she believes the senator from Vermont still struggles with finding the language to describe the community.

“In our presidential forum, I cringed when Bernie Sanders used the word ‘minority,’” Allison said. “When you say minority, you unsee people of color. We are the majority in many of the states you have to win — Florida, Georgia, California, Arizona, Nevada.”

Last year’s Netroots was full of chatter about the Warren/Sanders divide in the progressive wing, but Sanders’s dominance didn’t seem assured this year. It was clear that Warren has staked her claim to Sanders’s base.

“At the end of the day, someone is going to go against Biden or Kamala, and if the socialist left fully ends up lining behind Bernie against Kamala, that’s going to be a longer-term problem for the socialist left,” Sean McElwee, with the progressive think tank Data for Progress, said. “You don’t want socialism to be seen as white male identity politics, and Warren is able to build a coalition.”

And Harris has emerged as a potential compromise for progressives — a negotiation that could be had.

Progressives have a clear enemy, but they don’t have a leader

Progressives may not know exactly who they want to be the Democratic nominee in 2020, but they know who they don’t want: Joe Biden.

Some activists at Netroots conceded they would support Biden in a general election if they had no other choice. But as far as exciting the base at Netroots, Biden seemed to represent everything attendees disdain. Particularly because, despite clearly trying to capitalize on his ties to Obama’s progressive brand, Biden hasn’t made much of an effort to cultivate a progressive base.

“Biden is using a strategy of running out the clock,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. “There’s a number of forums and spaces he could place himself in, in order to be scrutinized by the grassroots. Our job is not to coronate the person that the Third Way and elite media decision-makers think is most electable.”

“Biden’s campaign headquarters is four blocks away, and the only person I have seen come here is his digital guy,” Sroka said. “The fact that they are not even working to try and make the argument to this community is the sign of a campaign that doesn’t get where the future of the party is.”

The Biden campaign would not comment on their presence at the conference.

Underscoring the theme of there being a top-tier group of three, some Netroots attendees were gifted a six-pack of craft beers by event organizers. Warren, Sanders, and Harris were the only presidential candidates with a beer named after them: There was the “Professor Warren Perfect Plan Pale Ale” (a “quasi-session beer”), the “Kamala’s California Common” (a lager), and the “Bernie’s Barleywine” (“Gritty’s favorite beer”).

Joe Biden and the group of other moderate white men running for president, however, were symbolized by the “Average Centrist White Guy Cream Ale” — “pale and not strong,” according to the beer guide handed out to attendees.

While progressives are only one segment of the Democratic electorate, Biden, and other candidates Netroots attendees were less than enthused about, could use their support. Particularly as it was progressives who helped energize the party’s base ahead of the 2018 midterm elections that saw Democrats retake the House of Representatives.