The Warren vs. Sanders battle for liberal hearts

The Warren vs. Sanders battle for liberal hearts
© Greg Nash

The gathering of progressive activists at Netroots in Philadelphia this week focused attention on the battle for liberal hearts and minds in the Democratic presidential fight between Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Biden, Sanders tax plans would raise less revenue than claimed: studies MORE and Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden MORE.

In 2016, the conference was packed with Sanders supporters. This year there were some Sanders people, some Warren supporters and scattered supporters of the other Democratic candidates. That reflects the difference between the 2016 and 2020 Democratic presidential campaigns.

Warren was the only presidential candidate to speak to the convention. A strong showing by Warren could further undermine the support Sanders has with progressive voters.


The Democratic leader board

The large number of candidates makes it difficult for Democratic primary voters to process information. But voters with the help of the Democratic National Committee’s debate requirements have a way of sorting things out.

And so, they have. We have only four Democratic candidates who poll in double digits. The Democrats are still seven months away from the Iowa caucuses, but the race is starting to take shape. There are still a couple of dozen candidates, but a clear pecking order has emerged.

A new poll conducted for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal is consistent with other national polls conducted since the debates. There are four candidates in the first tier and not much distance between them. The top four are former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden MORE at 26 percent, Warren at 19 percent and California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCalifornia Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Steyer spokesperson: 'I don't think necessarily that Tom has bought anything' Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor MORE and Sanders at 13 percent. 

To simplify things even more, there are two very liberal candidates, Warren and Sanders, and two moderately liberal contenders, Biden and Harris, on the leader board in the fight for the nomination.

Eventually, the dynamics will be even more clear when one of the two contenders in each of the two groups emerges as a favorite. Then there will be two finalists. The campaign is not a four-way battle but rather two two-way battles.


So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Harris went after Biden so hard in the first round of the Democratic debates. We will also see an increased level of tension between Sanders and Warren.

Warren vs Sanders

Warren has lapped Sanders in recent polls and she also raised more money in the second quarter than he did. Why has Warren become a threat to Sanders candidacy after he came ever so close to winning the Democratic nomination in 2016?

Voters care as much about the personal story of the candidates as they do about the policy positions of the candidates. Most people vote for people not for policy positions. You can talk about issues until the cows come home but when push comes to shove at the ballot box, it’s the personality of the candidates that seals the deal.

The New York Times quoted longtime Sanders aide Jeff Weaver saying, “If you want somebody to talk about their cooking, their dog, their wardrobe, travel habits or favorite books, Bernie Sanders is not your candidate.”

The problem for Sanders is voters want to know about the personality and interests of the candidates. If you don’t let them into your life, you will have problems winning. Candidates need to establish credibility with voters personally before people accept their ideas.

Sanders rarely discusses his background and his life before politics. Warren has gained prominence as the ideas’ candidate. It clearly has worked because she has a significant lead in the NBC poll over the Vermont Senator among Democrats who want “large scale” policy proposals (29 percent to 13 percent). The big difference between Warren and Sanders is she tells a personal story that accentuates her ideas.

Whenever Warren appears before voters she starts with her personal story. She discusses growing up in a family in rural Oklahoma that could barely make ends meet. She tells voters that she became a professor at Harvard and the nation’s foremost expert of the predatory bank attacks on middle class families, just like her family.

Political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantrill wrote “Many Americans are philosophical conservatives but operational liberals.” Many people support programs like Social Security and Medicare but still consider themselves conservatives. Many Democrats are philosophical capitalists and operational socialists — so is Elizabeth Warren.

Sanders spends a lot of time explaining why being a socialist is not a bad thing. But when you’re explaining, you’re losing. The one thing that voters know about Sanders is that he’s a socialist. Many older voters who like Sanders’ positions on the issues are uncomfortable with the socialist label.

Warren shares many of Sanders’ positions on key issues but she also goes out of her way to describe herself as a capitalist. To many Democratic primary voters, she is Bernie without the ideological baggage. 

Round No. 2 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezSanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Impeachment trial forces senators to scrap fundraisers Ocasio-Cortez knocks Biden: He 'helped sell the invasion of Iraq' and 'spent years working to cut Social Security' MORE (D-N.Y.) is a key figure in the battle between Sanders and Warren because she is the most visible member of the U.S. House of Representatives who is very liberal. For that reason, both Sanders and Warren desperately want her endorsement.

Ocasio-Cortez supported Sanders in 2016 but has complemented Warren on several occasions. Losing her support would be a significant blow to Sanders. Her position represents many progressive primary voters who supported Sanders last time but are now considering Warren.

The next Democratic debates on July 30 and 31 might clarify the race even more. Play close attention to the festivities because the NBC poll indicates that only 12 percent of the Democratic voters have a strong commitment to one of the candidates. 

Focus on the exchanges between Sanders and Warren and between Biden and Harris. There’s still a lot of wiggle room in the Democratic race and many twists and turns ahead for the candidates.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of a radio podcast “Deadline D.C. With Brad Bannon” that airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter @BradBannon.