The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Warren the reformer v. Sanders the revolutionary

Greg Nash

The media largely have portrayed the dynamic between the Sanders and Warren campaigns as a zero sum game. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) rises, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) must fall. In this imaginary scenario, there is a set pool of progressive voters to be divided between the two true progressive candidates, so that every point gained by one is lost by the other. 

This analysis stems from the two candidates’ surface-level similarities. Both are progressive, believe in big change, and have no qualms about taking on wealthy special interests. But polls show something very different from the Beltway wisdom. According to the Real Clear Politics average, Sanders started June with a polling average of 16.5 percent and he stands today, after Warren’s significant polling uptick, at a virtually unchanged 16.9 percent. In fact, if you wanted to see whose loss was Warren’s gain, you might look towards former Vice President Joe Biden, who lost 3 points over the course of the month in which Warren gained 4 points. 

How is this possible? How could Warren gain without Sanders taking a hit in the polls? Well, when you dig into the data, it turns out that Warren and Sanders have very different coalitions. A recent Monmouth University poll found that Warren beats Sanders among white, college-educated and liberal voters. Sanders outperformed Warren among high school-educated voters, those who identify as moderate or conservative, and voters of color. 

Other polls, such as this one from Economist/YouGov, identify similar coalitions of support. It’s the classic wine track versus beer track divide — and it’s kind of fascinating. In spite of all the hand-wringing about how socialism will doom Sanders to the left-wing fringe, he actually does better among moderate and conservative voters than any candidate except Biden. But, more to the point, while the media have struggled to identify significant differences between Sanders and Warren, the fact that they appeal to divergent coalitions implies that the voting public has no trouble recognizing major differences in their appeal. 

What does the public see that the media do not? 

If you’re scouring campaign white papers you’re going to have trouble clearly laying out the difference between these two candidates, except by matters of degree. One is all in on “Medicare for all” and the other is all in on universal coverage, with Medicare for all as one of a range of good options. One wants to cancel all student debt; the other wants to cancel most student debt. You’ve got to look bigger-picture at their fundamental approach to politics and philosophy of political change. To state it simply: Sanders is a revolutionary and Warren is a reformer. 

Warren has become well known for her plans. They are detailed, specific, grounded in decades of research and thought by the candidate herself, and they are aimed at what Warren calls “big structural change.” But those plans represent a fundamental view that the systems of politics and economics we have just need some significant updates, not a complete upending. Warren has been unequivocal that she is a capitalist and believes in markets. She identifies this as the most significant ideological split between her and Sanders. 

Warren wants to fix those markets to work better for more people, but she’s not trying to completely upset the apple cart. Her most significant accomplishment in public life probably came before she was sworn in as a U.S. senator, when she helped conceptualize and stand up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It was real change that made a difference and came through the ordinary workings of government. Before that, she began her rise to prominence fighting bad bankruptcy laws that would privilege banks and credit card companies. 

It makes sense that Warren’s reformer approach would appeal to a more well-heeled liberal cohort, people who have concerns about systemic inequities but also have a lived experience of the system working for them — at least some of the time. When Warren says, “I’ve got a plan for that,” she essentially is arguing that we can study and reason our way out of current problems. No surprise that this approach appeals to those with college educations.

Sanders has quite a different theory. His embrace of the radical-sounding “democratic socialist” label speaks to his desire to break with the current system altogether. Sanders frames his political arguments in terms of economic rights, rather than policy plans. You have a right to health care, a living wage and quality education. To hell with what the markets want. His is the more visceral politics. The policy prescriptions are more universal; the details less fully articulated. 

Sanders’ emphasis is on end results, rather than the messy technical details. Universal health care, affordable housing, quality education — he speaks of creating a system to replace the old one. He uses his vaunted email list to organize support for striking workers, engaging in direct action rather than simply offering verbal support and encouragement. He stubbornly insists on maintaining his independence from the Democratic Party, a move at odds with working the levers of power for positive change. 

And Sanders’ message of political revolution lands with a thud among those who are comfortable. Warren, Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and “not sure” all outperform Sanders among those earning more than $100,000. It makes sense, though, that those who have struggled the most under our system would be the most receptive to revolutionary change. Why maintain the rules of the current order when those rules have made your life a struggle?  

The one overlap between Sanders and Warren is their relative appeal to young people. This stands in contrast to Biden, for whom the greatest predictor of support is age. The older you are, the more likely you are to be ridin’ with Biden. This suggests that the progressive tussle between Warren and Sanders is about more than a competition for Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) endorsement; it’s really about the future of the party. 

Already, progressives are setting the pace for new and popular policy ideas. Reformer, or revolutionary? The policies may be similar, but the results could be dramatically different. 

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.

Tags 2020 campaign Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Liberalism Pete Buttigieg progressives

More Campaign News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video