MANCHESTER, N.H. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) got a rousing reception from a ballroom filled with Democratic activists here Friday night, with multiple standing ovations and a lengthy photo line afterward. In a week when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined the presidential race with a bang, it was the kind of reaction that pointed to the competition to come, here and elsewhere.
With the Democratic field already large and growing, handicapping the contest for the party’s 2020 nomination remains a fool’s errand. Most activists are eager to look but not yet ready to buy. Even at this early stage, it seems inevitable that Warren and Sanders will find themselves in direct competition as the campaign unfolds.
The two senators are fierce critics of what they call a rigged system, which they argue has hurt working and middle-class Americans. Both are scourges of big banks, big corporations and the billionaire class of political donors and influencers. As a result, they are seen — accurately or not — as having overlapping populist messages and therefore potentially overlapping constituencies.
They have something else in common that is likely to bring them into conflict. As next-door neighbors to the state with the nation’s first presidential primary, they enjoy what historically has been a built-in advantage in New Hampshire. That means heightened expectations and the pressure to perform well here. Asked by reporters if she would win the primary here next year, Warren replied, “I’m sure going to try.” She hasn’t much choice.
Warren calls Sanders a friend. They go back many years. “Long before I got involved in electoral politics,” she said in an interview before her speech. The two met at a dinner hosted by Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.). Warren recalled arriving armed with slides and data to illustrate the hollowing out of the middle class. She said Sanders posted some of the material on his website and asked families to share their experiences. She did some town halls with Sanders in Vermont and appeared on his radio show.
Today they have many of the same priorities: Medicare-for-all, for example, which Sanders championed in his 2016 campaign and has been adopted by a number of candidates. She favors other initiatives that call for a more direct government role and more government spending. Her latest is a proposal to provide free or affordable child care to every family in the country, paid for by a 2 percent tax on families with wealth of $50 million or more. The proposal drew enthusiastic applause on Friday night.
President Trump has branded the sum of what Democrats are proposing as socialism, a label he hopes will stick with an electorate still skeptical of Washington and the federal government. Warren is not worried. “Trump will say or do whatever he thinks helps Trump,” she said. “It doesn’t have to bear any relationship to reality. Our job as Democrats is to go out and fight for working people. To show that we understand and that we are committed to fighting for change.”
Sanders proudly labels himself a democratic socialist. Warren has resisted that description for her brand of populist politics. She has said she is not an advocate of government programs for the sake of growing government. She said she does not believe that government can always do better than the market. She says she believes in the power and value of markets, as long as they are fairly regulated. Which is why the agenda she has rolled out over the past months is heavy on rules and regulations. She would like to be seen as the cop on the beat.
“I can only describe myself,” she said when asked to explain how her brand of politics differs from that of Sanders. “I understand how markets work and, when they work well, how much value is created. I also understand that markets without rules are theft. It’s critical to get rules that are right and that make those markets fair for everyone and create real opportunities for all of our kids. That’s the heart of what I fight for.”
Many voters may find the distinctions she draws with Sanders, or with other rivals, difficult to parse. But Warren argues that what she is advocating embodies her life’s work — her experiences as a child in Oklahoma, as a young mother, a law student, a law professor, a public advocate, a senator and now a presidential candidate.
Her Friday speech was made to an audience of more than 900 activists at the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner, the New Hampshire party’s biggest fundraising dinner. She got the coveted platform because one of her advisers called state Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley late last year and asked. It is one small example of the aggressiveness with which she has begun her campaign.
That posture also applies to her message. She is leaned into the battle. On Friday night, she used “fight” or “fighting” at least a dozen times. Her announcement speech was similarly laced with references to fighting. When she was asked if she believed she needed something more aspirational to complement the fighting tone of her message, she immediately pushed back. “Oh, but I think that is aspirational,” she said. “Oh, goodness!”
I suggested that hers is hardly the kind of love-and-justice message projected by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “No. It’s not,” she said. “But it’s about helping this country live up to its best values. People often say to me, in the line afterwards, I had to get my dose of Elizabeth Warren can-do spirit. I had to come see you because now I feel cheered up. It’s about empowerment. It’s about understanding what’s wrong [and] here’s what we can do together to fix it.”
This will be the sixth New Hampshire Democratic primary since 1980 that will feature a candidate from either Massachusetts or Vermont. The only other primary with candidates from both states was in 2004, when then-Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts defeated Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont.
Dean said Friday that the advantage of proximity comes with the challenge of navigating expectations. “They have to worry about that,” he said.
Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, said what usually helps New Hampshire’s neighbors is that they are better known to the state’s voters than their rivals. He thinks that advantage could be lessened this time because of the visibility and prominence of some others who could be in the race.
Andrew Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire polling operation, said one genuine advantage for neighboring candidates is they should understand the New England Democratic electorate — upscale, generally well-educated and “liberal but not ostentatiously liberal.” He too warned about drawing conclusions about which candidates will appeal to which voters, given the size of the field.
Warren carries strengths and weaknesses into the campaign. Her agenda is more detailed than that of most of her rivals. Her depth on domestic issues is notable, and she is able to make complicated issues understandable. She can be a polarizing figure, and she is hampered by continuing questions about her past descriptions of herself as a Native American. She was asked on Friday night about Native Americans and reparations and said they should be part of a broader conversation about compensation for groups that have been historically discriminated against.
What’s clear is that Warren will not shrink from the challenges ahead. When she advocates big, structural changes in the economy or democratic institutions, she brings conviction to the battle. “My view is, we have a better chance of winning a big fight than we do a small fight,” she said. “People understand how deeply broken the system is and feel it in their everyday lives. That’s the core of the movement that will change this country.”
Her challenge will be to persuade Democratic voters that her message is the right one and that she is the most electable messenger against the president in a general election. That will start for keeps in Iowa, but the bigger test will happen here eight days later.