The battle for 2020: Possible Democratic presidential candidates
Kamala Harris sat onstage in a cavernous convention center room in North Charleston, S.C., on Saturday afternoon, extolling the importance of supporting small business owners to around 480 African-American entrepreneurs and their allies.
“Let’s be clear, this is not about a hand-out,” she said. “It’s about a lift up.”
A day later, Bernie Sanders returned as a conquering hero to New Hampshire — a state he won overwhelmingly in the 2016 presidential primary — to tell several thousand boisterous, mostly white supporters that the “political revolution” he started four years ago has since gone on to consume most of the Democratic Party.
“Those ideas that we talked about when we came here to New Hampshire four years years ago, ideas that seemed so very radical at that time,” Sanders said. “Well, today, virtually all of those ideas are supported by a majority of the American people and they are being supported by Democratic candidates from school board to president of the United States.”
This weekend’s dueling campaign stops offered a window into the distinctive paths to the nomination two of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential contenders are seeking, with an emphasis on different states, messages and core constituencies.
For Harris of California, the second-ever black woman to serve in the Senate, it’s a path that indisputably runs through South Carolina and other diverse states. She made that clear repeatedly during a two-day swing through this crucial early primary state, where the majority of the Democratic electorate is African-American.
“This is my second trip to South Carolina,” Harris told a crowd gathered for a meet-and-greet in St. George, S.C. on Saturday, promising to “be here many, many times.” And in fact, it was her third trip since declaring.
“You will see so much of me,” she pledged again at a town hall Friday in Hemingway, S.C.
On her previous visit, she drew 1,000-person crowds to town halls in Charleston and Columbia, while this time around she kept the focus largely on retail politicking in smaller towns, before heading back to the Charleston area on Saturday.
In interviews with more than two dozen voters and elected officials in South Carolina, Harris was routinely described as a top-three contender in the state, along with Sen. Cory Booker and former Vice President Joe Biden, if he runs. Sanders was a favorite of some college students and younger voters, but barely came up with older voters or Democratic officials.
“Biden has the political experience, Booker, being a senator, I think he’s really progressive, and with her being progressive and a female as well,” Tracey Foxworth, 52, said, explaining her top three choices as she waited to see Harris at a soul food restaurant in Myrtle Beach—an event that felt fitting in part, Foxworth said, because it was International Women’s Day.
In her stops across the state this weekend, sorority sisters from Alpha Kappa Alpha, Harris’s historically black sorority, were often present to cheer her on. At the Charleston Black Expo Economic Empowerment Summit, they were seemingly on hand at every turn as Harris navigated through a crush of selfie seekers to talk with small business owners, asking about their biggest challenges and details of their products, and learning how to make a basket from sweetgrass.
On the stump, Harris, like Sanders, didn’t shy away from touting progressive policies. “I’m a proponent of Medicare for All,” she often said, though in South Carolina this weekend that wasn’t much of an applause line. But in contrast to her rival, Harris sometimes wrapped her liberal priorities in language that could appeal to a broader audience.
“All of those small business owners out there, they know,” she said, when addressing how to pay for policies like free community college and debt-free college. “They don’t look at things as like, ‘how am I going to pay for it,’ when they’re talking about investing in their business. They know it’s an investment and the analysis is, ‘what is the return on my investment?’ … Well, investing in the education of our young people will reap us huge return on that investment, and that’s how we need to think about it.”
Sanders, meanwhile, enters the race in a different and stronger place than Harris: after finishing second in the 2016 primary, he and Biden are at the top of the early 2020 polls.
But the Vermont senator made clear in his first visit to New Hampshire since launching his 2020 bid that this state remains special to him, recounting how his underdog campaign once trailed Hillary Clinton here by 30 or 40 points. He would eventually win more than 60 percent of the vote in the state.
“To the people of New Hampshire, let me say that you helped begin a political revolution in 2016,” Sanders said, talking over the thundering applause and cheers of his supporters. “And with your help on this campaign, we are going to complete what we started here.”
Sanders supporters bristle at the suggestion that he uniquely struggles with nonwhite voters, saying that although Clinton won them in 2016, he still performed well with young black and Latino voters. Indeed, Sanders himself reiterated his success with young people during his speech, saying that he won “more votes from young people —black, white, Latino, Asian-American, Native American — than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined.”
Sanders’ speech was a reminder of how, in his view, his once-unique agenda of single-payer health care and a $15 minimum wage have become staples of Democratic candidates everywhere. It was exactly what many of his strongest supporters wanted to hear.
“He’s the only person who gets it -- it’s about the rich people versus the poor people,” said Randy Tweedie, a 43-year-old from New Market, N.H., who backed Sanders in 2016. “That’s the most important thing.”
Still, if Sanders wants to repeat his victory in New Hampshire, he has some work to do. In a much more crowded field, polls show him with roughly one-third of the level of support he had in 2016. New Hampshire voters and strategists described Sanders’ New Hampshire campaign as something between a fragile frontrunner and one of several leading candidates.
For instance, Aaron Levin voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary and is still a fan of the senator. But the 52-year-old from Easthampton, Mass., said this time around he plans to support South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Asked why, Levin said last time around he faced a binary choice between Clinton and Sanders.
“This time,” Levin said, “it’s 12 to one.”