MANCHESTER, N.H. — Ian Harrington describes Bernie Sanders as a political prophet, someone who brought a message that changed the national debate. But in 2020, he thinks Elizabeth Warren is the one to finish the job.
“In terms of execution, I think Warren has a much more pragmatic side and the ability to bring more people together,” said Harrington, a 25-year-old from Manchester who cheered on Warren at New Hampshire’s Democratic convention last weekend. Pointing to Sanders’ “gruff” personality, he said: “Warren has a much more warm charisma.”
Sue Durling also likes Warren, of Massachusetts — but she was outside waving a Sanders sign.
“All of the Democrats are now saying what he’s been saying for years,” said Durling, 63, of Hillsborough, N.H. A nurse, she described seeing patients who had skipped medicine because they couldn’t afford it, or developed brain abscesses from lack of dental care. She had supported Hillary Clinton but now raves about how Sanders, of Vermont, made “Medicare for All” mainstream.
The two pugilistic liberal senators from New England will have a chance to define their differences in a Democratic debate Thursday, when they will flank the more moderate front-runner, Joe Biden.
The moment comes as progressive Democrats consider whether Sanders or Warren offers the better chance to defeat President Donald Trump, and deliver on sweeping economic and political change.
Interviews with nearly two dozen liberal New Hampshire voters considering the two found that many admire both. The deciding factor in choosing one over the other often came down to the candidates’ personality traits and tactical approaches. After all, their policy proposals are similar.
Some want to stick with Sanders out of loyalty; he’s the one who popularized a more liberal message in 2016. Others prefer a fresher voice and see that in Warren. For some, Sanders’ rumpled and cantankerous style and missionary zeal for a grassroots uprising hold strong appeal. And some prefer Warren’s more upbeat, professorial mien, and her detailed approach to “big, structural change.”
One former Sanders supporter who now backs Warren relayed a friend’s analogy for differentiating: Sanders wants to burn down the house and rebuild from scratch. Warren plans to gut and renovate it.
Laura Mistretta, 27, from Burlington, Vt., Sanders’ hometown, said she was impressed with Warren but pointed to Sanders’ promise of a sweeping change not just to policy, but to the entire political landscape.
“His theory of change really involves organizing people and really is honest that to pass the bold policies we need is going to require organizing people across the country,” Mistretta said.
Warren supporters emphasized her tangible policy ideas.
“Bernie has a passion that I very much relate to and respect, but she has the details,” said Megan Peterson, 24, from Walpole, Mass. Added her mother, Kathy Davis: “Bernie doesn’t know where the money will come from.”
They are pulling support from very different groups: Sanders does better with young people, blacks, and Hispanics, as well as those with lower incomes and without college degrees, polls show. Warren excels with highly educated and wealthier voters, and her support is more heavily white.
Warren is more popular with voters who are highly engaged in politics, according to polling by Morning Consult, a political information outfit. Sanders does better with people who are less interested, which his camp points to as evidence that he can bring new voters aboard.
But many seem to see appeal in both. Eight in 10 Sanders supporters would be enthusiastic or satisfied with a Warren nomination, and a similar share of Warren believers would feel the same if Sanders led the ticket, a September CBS/YouGov poll found.
Some of the mutual admiration may come from the campaigns themselves: Warren and Sanders have made their friendship clear, and despite competing in a similar lane, have avoided attacking each other.
Eventually, though, liberal voters will have to choose. In assessing their options, one of the most common differences came down to those who wanted to stick with Sanders as the original firebrand and loved that his message hasn’t changed for decades, vs. those who favored a novel voice — and the idea of finally putting a woman in the White House.
“He’s been consistent throughout,” said Atlant Schmidt, a Sanders supporter. He wanted Warren to carry the liberal banner in 2016, but after decades of also supporting Sanders, he’s sticking with the Vermont senator now.
Ironically, though, Sanders’ success in altering the Democratic debate has in some ways cut against him. Now that many Democratic candidates support his ideas, or versions of them, he isn’t so distinct.
“I was ready to move on after 2016,” said Jacqueline Chretien, 37, a New Hampshire state representative who supported Sanders that year but wore a Warren T-shirt to the Democratic gathering Saturday. She thinks Warren pushes the same progressive agenda as Sanders does, in new packaging. “She’s also able to summarize it into something that’s catchy and can catch on.”
Some argued that while Sanders’ ideas were eye-opening in 2016, Warren has become the party’s new intellectual force.
“Elizabeth has the ideas and she’s bringing the energy,” said Sylvia Larsen, a former New Hampshire state Senate president who has hosted Warren and several other candidates at her Concord home, but hasn’t endorsed. “America likes a fresh face, and Bernie’s not very fresh.”
Others said they’re not worried about the differences for now because they still have time to consider.
“I love Elizabeth for her story and where she’s come from. As a woman, I’ve lived some of her stories,” said Dana Theokas, 41, of Chester, N.H. “I love Bernie because he’s always been Bernie. It’s amazing that he’s brought these policies to the top.”