The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sanders and Warren have a similar message, but they’re battling different weaknesses

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) greets a young girl during a town hall campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) greets a young girl during a town hall campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

ORANGE CITY, Iowa — A week before Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) face off on a presidential debate stage for the first time, the two darlings of the Democratic Party’s left wing swept through Iowa, offering similar populist messages to audiences they’re wooing to shore up their candidacies.

Both camps acknowledge that just one standard-bearer for the liberal wing of the party will emerge from the early primaries. Each is hoping for a victory here.

Their trips highlighted that Warren and Sanders are betting their candidacies on divergent strategies, and they believe they can grow in different areas. Warren, faced with questions of electability, is trying to show her message appeals in unlikely places. Sanders, meanwhile, is fishing for votes among older Iowans more likely to support former vice president Joe Biden.

Warren packed a town hall on a steamy Friday morning in northwestern Iowa’s Sioux County, a picturesque patch of the state where the corn fields are dotted with occasional billboards supporting the military or advocating against abortion rights. Her campaign is hoping that strong showings in places like this can quiet critics who say her message is too divisive.

Sanders focused his tour of Iowa on seniors, holding intimate events designed to woo voters who’ve been mostly unpersuaded his candidacy.

For now, the two New England senators continued to avoid direct attacks on one another. Neither sees much benefit in alienating the other’s supporters or undermining one another’s core message.

Sanders told reporters in Afton, Iowa, on Saturday that he expects “intelligence” from Warren on the debate stage in Detroit. An aide echoed that message, saying “there’s every reason to believe he’ll be quite cordial” to Warren when the two face off.

Warren, too, has shown no eagerness to fight. She declined to criticize Sanders after The Washington Post reported that some of his unionized campaign workers have been in a standoff with upper management over pay, arguing that they are being compensated at a rate that’s effectively lower than the $15 minimum wage he supports and has made central to his message.

“Look, I’m not here to knock another Democrat,” Warren said. During the last debate, Warren offered full-throated support for Sanders’s signature issue, declaring “I’m with Bernie on Medicare-for-all.”

Throughout Iowa, the message from the two was strikingly similar, in broad strokes and with specifics. Both promised to appoint an attorney general who will use existing law to break up monopolies. Both blamed lobbyists and the power of major companies for gridlock in Washington. Both said the federal government is working for the wealthy, but not the poor.

So far, though, they’ve appealed to different swaths of the electorate. Sanders’s supporters are largely male, between the ages of 18 and 39, with a household income under $50,000 a year, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Warren’s support is stronger among voters over 40, women and those with a college education.

One of Warren’s key weaknesses is that many Democrats question whether she would be able to beat President Trump. Just 8 percent of Democratic-leaning voters in the recent Post survey say Warren is the candidate with the best shot of defeating him.

To combat this argument, Warren has campaigned in ruby-red parts of the country. She held a forum on her plan to curb opioid abuse in Kermit, W.Va., a county where voters overwhelmingly backed Trump. Aides said her town hall in Orange City — a town in a county where more than 80 percent backed Trump in 2016 — was another attempt to show there’s an appetite for her brand of politics outside liberal corridors.

“I feel like this is family,” Warren told the crowd of more than 275 people packed in an airy event hall Friday morning in Orange City.

She wove her humble origins into her pitch and cast her rise to the peak of academia as a natural outgrowth of her childhood dream of becoming an elementary school teacher. She rooted her chosen field — consumer and corporate bankruptcy law — in her family’s financial hardships.

“Maybe like any kid who had my kind of background, I taught money,” Warren said, describing her decision to focus on business as a law professor. “I wanted to learn every rule, every twist, every strategy, so I did it all,” she said, listing contract law, commercial law, corporate finance, secured transactions and debtor-creditor law.

The reaction was positive, but several in the audience still had concerns.

“She’s got probably the best ideas in the field,” said Mike Earll, 61, as he waited with his wife to have a photo taken with Warren. The couple traveled from their home in nearby Osceola County, another heavily conservative area.

But he’s still considering other candidates, including Biden, in part because he worries Warren will have trouble winning a general election.

“Trump is so willing to do personal attacks, I mean he’s already done that with the senator with the Pocahontas comments,” Earll said, one of several voters to mention her previous claims that she was a Native American.

Still, Warren is making inroads in the Hawkeye State and rising in the polls. Ahead of her visit, state Rep. Liz Bennett (D), who caucused for Sanders in 2016, announced that she would endorse Warren.

“I really took a lot of time to think about this decision,” said Bennett, a liberal leader in the state. She backed Warren because of the senator’s focus on plans, saying that she learned her lesson about trusting broad statements of “hope and change” after being disappointed by President Obama’s inability to deliver on key promises.

Like Warren, Sanders made an effort over the past few days to get out of his comfort zone, holding a “conversation” with seniors in Council Bluffs, a coffee with retirees in Ottumwa and releasing a plan to shore up Social Security ahead of his AARP forum.

A recent Washington Post poll showed just 7 percent of Democratic-leaning respondents over the age of 65 backed Sanders. Biden leads the pack among older voters, with 44 percent of Democratic-leaning respondents saying they would support him.

More than a quarter of the Democrats who participated in the Iowa caucuses last time were over 65. They overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton, contributing to her narrow victory.

Even as he took questions from seniors in Council Bluffs, Sanders mused about why he is so popular among younger voters. One reason, he said, is “the general idealism of young people and their vision for a much more just society.”

But Sanders’s aides believe he can make inroads with Biden voters. In Council Bluffs, when he took questions at an AARP-sponsored forum, he spoke at length about an ongoing flap with Biden over Medicare-for-all, a fight he relishes.

“Joe is a friend of mine,” Sanders said. “But we should not have distortions of what Medicare-for-all stands for,” referencing a comment Biden made saying there would be a gap in care if the country transitioned to Sanders’s plan.

“My only criticism of Joe on this one is he basically provided misinformation about what Medicare-for-all is,” Sanders said.

There was some evidence Sanders’s critiques resonated.

“I was a Biden supporter, but he’s just flip-flopped all over the place,” said Terrena Borrego, 37 from Clarinda, Iowa, after she watched Sanders at Council Bluffs.

Sanders is also wooing voters with smaller events, where he has more of a chance to have a conversation. On a stormy Saturday night, he drove to Nevada, Iowa, and addressed about 100 farmers packed into a red barn in the middle of a corn field.

With occasional flashes of lightning in the distance, he answered questions about water quality, soybean prices, grain reserves, topsoil and even a local flap over an influx of hog manure. (“I think people have the right to breathe air that doesn’t smell,” Sanders said, coming down against the hogs.)

Like so many voters, Jerry Donovan, 82, said he’s torn.

“They are both saying really useful things,” Donovan said, after hearing Sanders speak. “I’m keeping my powder dry — it’s between Bernie and Mrs. Warren. I think they’re both out of the same box.”