FRANCONIA, New Hampshire — New Hampshire is a rare state where Joe Biden doesn’t hold a commanding lead over the Democratic presidential field, creating an opportunity for Northeasterners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to not only take the state with the first-in-the-nation primary but potentially emerge as the field’s progressive favorite.
It’s a bona fide race already. Sanders carried the state by a wide margin in 2016, but voters aren’t so sure they’ll support him again in 2020 with Warren on the ballot.
Voter Mallory Langkau of Groveton, New Hampshire, is torn between the two. Langkau voted for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and was leaning toward him again in 2020. But after she watched both Sanders and Warren speak back to back during their recent swings through the state, her decision became more difficult.
“I’m more confused,” she told me. “As a voter, I’m really stuck. In a perfect world, they’d be running mates.”
Recent New Hampshire polls show Sanders slightly ahead of Warren; an August Suffolk University poll of 500 likely primary voters showed Biden at 21 percent, Sanders around 17 percent, and Warren around 14 percent. A July CNN/UNH Survey Center poll had Sanders and Warren each tied at 19 percent, with Biden leading at 24 percent. Some earlier polls even had the Vermont senator ahead of Biden, but he and Warren have settled into a close competition for second place.
National polls have shown Biden is typically the second-choice candidate for Sanders supporters, and vice versa. But in New Hampshire, 34 percent of Sanders voters said Warren was their second choice, compared to 18 percent who selected Biden, per the July CNN/UNH poll. Sanders was the second choice for nearly 40 percent of Warren voters, and the poll showed Warren and Sanders competing for second among Biden voters.
I interviewed more than 35 voters at Sanders’s and Warren’s most recent New Hampshire campaign events and found many people trying to make up their minds between the two. Some undecided voters were attending back-to-back Warren and Sanders campaign events to suss out the differences between the candidates.
And few of these progressive voters said they were considering Biden, even with his lead in state and national polls. Many said he was a last resort; they’d vote for him if he was the Democratic nominee, but they wanted to support a candidate they genuinely believed in during the primary. Others said Biden was a nonstarter.
“Biden is Hillary Clinton dressed up in a man’s suit,” 80-year-old Sanders supporter Fletcher Manley told me outside a campaign event in Berlin, New Hampshire.
New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary and second major presidential contest is a crucial contest for Warren and Sanders. For one thing, the two candidates are from neighboring states (Sanders from Vermont and Warren from Massachusetts). It’s also high-stakes for Sanders because he won the New Hampshire primary by a historic 152,000 votes in 2016, when he faced off against Clinton. The question is how many of his 2016 supporters he can hang on to, and how many Warren can scoop up.
At one stop in North Conway, a voter asked Sanders point-blank why they should support him over Warren.
“Elizabeth is a friend of mine, and you will make that decision yourself,” Sanders replied.
New Hampshire voters still have six months to do so. But many of them know all too well: In order for Sanders and Warren’s progressive ideas to win, one of the candidates will eventually have to lose.
A close competition between Sanders and Warren in New Hampshire
In New Hampshire, the competition among these two progressives is fierce — if still largely for second place.
Sanders has typically polled a few points ahead of Warren in New Hampshire, and at times has even polled ahead of Biden. But national pollsters have noted a problematic trend for Sanders: He seems to have more of a ceiling on his base, causing some doubts he can expand beyond his fervent core supporters. Warren is still third in most New Hampshire polls but has shown herself more able to grow — nationally, and here in the Granite State too.
“In terms of trajectory, it’s all in Warren’s favor,” said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute. “I think you see it on the ground, Sanders still has his core support, which is huge support, but you don’t see him expanding on that. Warren … you see her drawing out new people at each event.”
Because Sanders and Warren’s policy positions are so similar, New Hampshire voters are considering a number of other factors not so easily quantifiable when deciding whom to vote for. Bernie supporters talk about their love for the Vermont senator’s passion and longtime advocacy of progressive issues. Warren supporters say they are drawn to her intelligence, relate to her personal story, and appreciate her clear, detailed plans.
“They love Bernie’s message, but they can individualize with Elizabeth,” said Arnie Arnesen, a progressive radio host and longtime political figure in New Hampshire (Arnesen hasn’t endorsed either candidate). “People walk out of a room with Elizabeth and realize she has a plan for me. Not for the generic worker, not for America, for me.”
Langkau, the Groveton voter who’d attended both candidates’ events, would be personally affected by their proposed policies. A third-year school teacher, she makes $37,000 per year and is bogged down by $80,000 in student debt. She likes Sanders’s proposal to raise teachers’ starting salaries to $60,000 but also appreciate’s Warren’s background as a public teacher and her plan to erase student debt for most Americans.
“I want to see what makes them different,” Langkau told me. “They’ve linked themselves together. If they had to separate themselves, how would they do so?”
How New Hampshire voters are choosing between Sanders and Warren
New Hampshire voters gave Bernie Sanders his first big win during his scrappy 2016 run against Hillary Clinton. Sanders’s decisive primary victory shocked the political establishment and helped drive lasting momentum for his “political revolution.”
The 2020 primary is a far cry from the binary choice between the establishment-backed Clinton and the anti-establishment Sanders. With more than 20 Democrats still running, voters are overwhelmed with choices. But a few hardcore Sanders supporters told me the only other candidate they’d consider taking a look at is Elizabeth Warren.
“I’m looking at Bernie ... he surprised me, he’s on top of his game,” said voter Mike Lydon of Lancaster, who voted for Sanders in 2016. Lydon had hopped between a Sanders ice cream social and an outdoor Warren town hall against a picturesque backdrop of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
“I think Elizabeth and Bernie have very similar ideals. She’s a dynamic candidate; she’s taken on corporate elites,” Lydon said.
A Sanders supporter from the senator’s home state of Vermont, Richard Balzano, said he thinks Bernie is the only candidate “not held down by corporate responsibility.” Balzano even floated the idea of Sanders running as a third-party candidate if he doesn’t win the Democratic nomination. But he also said he’d be open to Warren, even with his lingering frustration that she endorsed Clinton in the 2016 general election (Warren stayed neutral during the primary).
“I would consider Elizabeth Warren if he didn’t get the nod,” Balzano said.
Bernie supporters like Lydon and Balzano still see Sanders as the truest representative of progressive ideas and the more electable candidate against President Donald Trump. Sanders himself is fond of mentioning head-to-head matchup polls that show him beating Trump in a general election. But importantly, the animosity many Sanders supporters harbored towards Clinton in 2016 just isn’t there with Warren, which could give the Massachusetts senator an opening with his base.
Progressive voters in New Hampshire are parsing the two candidates’ personal narratives, and whom they connect with more.
“I’m kind of interested in Elizabeth Warren, but Bernie’s forever like this — no wavering,” said Sanders supporter Kacey Marsh of Whitefield, New Hampshire. “He cares about the people; he’s not corporate. We don’t deserve him.”
And with a Democratic electorate obsessed with beating Trump, it’s worth noting the gendered “electability” concerns dominating 2020 cut both ways. Just as many voters told me they’re concerned about Sanders’s age (he’s 77, compared to Warren’s 70) and want to see a woman take on Trump.
“I think he’s too old,” said Warren supporter Lizzy Berube of Campton, New Hampshire, who added she thinks the same of the 76-year-old Joe Biden. “I think it’s time for a woman. Picture Elizabeth Warren on a debate stage with Donald Trump. She will eat him alive.”
Other voters said they see Warren’s personal story as more relatable.
“There’s something about Bernie I’m not excited about,” said Nashua resident Rory O’Neil. “Warren has that track record. Her personality feels more genuine to me.”
One thing’s for sure: Sanders and Warren supporters alike told me they’re excited by two candidates railing against corporations and corruption, who are not taking PAC money or holding high-dollar fundraisers. The fact there is so much overlap in New Hampshire voters considering both Sanders and Warren speaks to something else: Both campaigns are trying to build a larger progressive movement.
“What they’re doing by tag-teaming, they’re enhancing their position, solidifying their solutions, and attracting more people to their base,” Arnesen told me. “That’s the goal.”
For the progressive ideology to win, either Sanders or Warren will eventually have to lose
Though the competition between Sanders and Warren is still friendly, the fact remains that they have many of the same policy ideas and are competing for the same voters. Eventually, those voters will have to make a choice; in order for this progressive agenda to win, one candidate will eventually have to make way for the other.
As the current Democratic frontrunner, Biden is holding on to his lead primarily with an argument about electability: that he is the best candidate to take on Trump and return the country to pre-Trump “normalcy.” Sanders and Warren, competing for second place, have a vision for a future that goes beyond that. Both of them have far wider-ranging progressive plans to shape the future of the United States. But with a general election with Trump looming in everyone’s minds, is there room for two progressives in this lane?
“They’re both very progressive, [but] the only issue that matters to everyone is electability,” said voter Nancy Hirschberg of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
Biden’s electability message is resonating in New Hampshire, too, but not overwhelmingly — according to RealClearPolitics, he averaged a 1.7 percent lead over Sanders from July to early August. Some New Hampshire progressives think Warren and Sanders can focus on building a movement bigger than either of their respective campaigns.
“I think they can certainly work together, whether intentionally or by virtue of their positioning, to advance a progressive agenda,” said New Hampshire immigration attorney Ron Abramson, a Sanders delegate in 2016 who is now supporting Warren. “I don’t view them as much as competitive [rather than] collaborative or complementary.”
But voters will also eventually have to make a decision, and the race is on. Warren’s and Sanders’s campaigns are both hard at work in New Hampshire. Warren has established a formidable ground game in the state, texting, calling, and emailing voters after they show up to an event to connect them with organizers. Sanders’s state team has mounted a widespread door-knocking campaign to get face time with thousands of New Hampshire voters well before the primary. Voters are taking notice; nearly 35 percent of 500 likely New Hampshire voters polled by Suffolk University said they’d gotten outreach from the Sanders campaign, while nearly 32 said they’d been contacted by Warren’s campaign.
As Warren has become known for making herself accessible to voters at events, Sanders has noticeably changed his campaign strategy from the huge rallies of 2016 to small, intimate events where he has a long dialogue with voters. Contrary to recent reports that Sanders is still grumpy and inaccessible, the Vermont senator is clearly trying to shed that image as he mounts his second presidential campaign.
Sanders often reminds voters that the very ideas driving the policy debates in 2020 — Medicare-for-all and tuition-free college — were his ideas in 2016, and they were considered “radical.” During one of Sanders’s campaign stops, a voter asked the senator why he wasn’t “calling out” his Democratic opponents for “taking all your ideas.”
“I’m not going to call them out, I’m proud of it!” Sanders replied.
There’s no doubt Sanders has successfully elevated the progressive agenda. But he still wants to be president, and Warren is giving him a run for his money.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece said Warren endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. Warren stayed neutral during the primary but endorsed Clinton during the general election.