When Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his first presidential campaign, he was going it alone – the only candidate in a small 2016 contest offering a loud and clear contrast with Hillary Clinton, who had effectively cleared the field before the primary began.
Among the potential progressive alternatives to stand down that year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the one with the largest following. She had only been in the Senate since 2013, but her record of fighting corporate influence in Washington helped make her the target of a “draft” campaign launched by liberal groups. Warren’s decision not to run helped elevate Sanders and set the stage for a fierce primary that would transform him into a frontrunner in his second presidential bid and one of the Democratic Party’s most influential figures.
This time around, though, the story is different. Warren is firmly in the fight – and her ascent has given rise to complex questions over what the progressive coalition looks like and how much overlap there actually is between the candidates’ respective camps.
The 2020 primary has more than 20 candidates and, with the exception of Vice President Joe Biden, all the top tier hopefuls sound a lot more like Sanders than Clinton. That, as Sanders often points out on the stump, is a testament to the success of his last campaign and the force of his progressive message.
But there is no 2020 contender with whom he shares a greater affinity – both politically and personally – than Warren. Their non-aggression pact has held throughout the early months of the campaign, with both routinely pivoting away from opportunities to draw sharp distinctions between their candidacies.
During the first debate – when they were on separate nights – Warren made a point of pulling Sanders close, raising her hand to make clear her support for “Medicare for All” and saying, “I’m with Bernie” on health care.
Sanders has been friendly, too. Asked this weekend what he expected from sharing a debate stage with Warren next week in Detroit, he answered simply, “Intelligence.”
Progressive activists and strategists routinely applaud these demonstrations, in part because they fear an open rift between Sanders and Warren could divide a movement they fought for years to build. But the near-absence of any major policy gaps between the two, despite their different approaches to campaigning and divergent ideological backgrounds, has created a mix of risk – over dividing the vote – and opportunity – to broaden the progressive coalition.
Across Iowa this weekend, Democrats at rallies for Warren and Sanders mostly praised both candidates, but offered a variety of reasons for why they were leaning toward one or the other.
Vickie Janfma, 68, a retired nurse, told CNN she supported Sanders during the 2016 primary, but was “totally behind” Warren this time around.
“I was hoping that she would run back in 2016,” Janfma said. “This time, there’s a possibility (Warren) could get it and I just decided to pick the person I always wanted to be the candidate.”
The demographic profiles of Sanders and Warren voters, as viewed through early polling, reflect certain fault lines that go beyond ideology. The first CNN poll after the Miami debates in June showed both Sanders and Warren with overwhelmingly positive ratings from self-described liberal voters – with Sanders at 80% favorable to 15% unfavorable and Warren enjoying a similar 71%-13% split.
But their respective cores of support come from different places. Sanders, according to recent polling, enjoys a strong grip on younger, working-class and less-educated voters. Warren, meanwhile, has done better with older, college-educated voters, and polls stronger with women than Sanders.
Sanders’s support, as seen in a recent Fox News survey in South Carolina, drew more from black voters (15%) than white voters (12%). Warren did about the same with white voters, at 11%, but was only the first choice for 2% of black voters, whom she has gone to great lengths to court with a series of plans tailored to address concerns specific to the African American community.
In another CNN poll, this one conducted by the University of New Hampshire in the Granite State, Sanders and Warren were deadlocked overall – with 19%, behind only Biden. They shared the highest favorability numbers, both at 67%, and came in first (Warren at 22%) and second (Sanders at 20%) when voters were asked to name their second choice for the nomination. But Warren’s numbers have been mostly ticking up, while Sanders’ are largely staying level or trending slightly downward.
Some Iowa Democrats viewed Warren as a fresher face, deserving of an opportunity where Sanders had come up short four years ago.
“They are pretty similar in the things they stand for,” said Simone Garber, 32, during an event in Sioux City, Iowa. She backed Sanders in 2016, and reiterated her support for him, his positions and his ability to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020.
“But he tried it in 2016,” Garber said, “and he never made it.”
For many Democrats who picked Sanders in the 2016 primary, the choice ahead will be more difficult than deciding between the two leading progressives.
Ben Mullin, another Sanders supporter in 2016, said he was “leaning toward” caucusing for Sanders again in 2020, but wasn’t ready to commit. Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris are also on his radar.
“There are more options now,” Mullin said, comparing this crowded field to 2016’s smaller menu. “There’s some people that say we need a more fresh face in the Democratic field. … So I would really want to see how the rest of the debates play out in the, see how Bernie’s performance compares to the rest of the field.”
CNN’s MJ Lee contributed to this story.