DOVER, N.H. — The Democrats standing in a cold New Hampshire parking lot are desperate for change after years of Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency.
But like Democratic voters across the country, they’re grappling with a core question as they size up their party’s leading candidates just three weeks before primary voting begins: How much change is too much in 2020?
It is a question that has plagued candidates and voters alike over the last year in the Democratic Party’s quest to identify the person best positioned to defeat Trump in November. And on the eve of the party’s first primary, voters are torn over a slate of high-profile candidates — ranging from a self-avowed socialist to a billionaire Wall Street baron — who represent the broad spectrum of change, ideologically and symbolically, that is today’s deeply divided Democratic Party.
Just ask the two dozen voters who waited outside a recent over-packed Dover, New Hampshire, campaign appearance for Elizabeth Warren, the progressive Massachusetts senator and the only woman in the top tier, whose campaign mantra is “big, bold change.”
“I want to see massive change. I worry about my daughter’s future — she’s 6,” said 38-year-old Democrat Margaret Langsenkamp, who hasn’t settled on a candidate but is leaning toward Warren or Cory Booker. “But I’m also practical about what the American people can stomach. We have to beat Trump.”
Langsenkamp conceded that Warren, her preferred candidate, might struggle in a general election to defend her “socialist leanings.”
With four candidates knotted at the top of primary polls, it could take several more months for the Democratic Party to sort out its high-stakes dilemma. Party officials have so far downplayed concerns about a protracted primary battle — never mind the oft-whispered prospect of a so-called contested convention — but they are encouraging the candidates to keep it positive as they debate the kind of change the party should fight for.
“The voters are thirsting, desperately, for aspirational messages,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley. “They want to hear about something positive. They want to hear about a moving-forward sort of change. They want to be told that there’s a better tomorrow. If you look back over the last 100 years, that’s been the winning message of every Democratic presidential candidate.”
Buckley downplayed the differences between the candidates on defining issues like health care, the economy and education, suggesting they all favor a similar path forward, even if some would change the system faster than others.
“It’s, ‘Are we going to get there tomorrow or are we going to get there next week?'” he said.
But symbolically at least, each of the top four candidates represents a distinct path forward.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a 77-year-old lifelong politician, offers primary voters a safe and familiar option while emphasizing a pragmatic approach to governing. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78, is embracing his status as a democratic socialist and the only top-tier candidate who would fight to replace the private health insurance market with a government-backed universal system immediately after taking office. Warren, 70, is careful to describe herself as a capitalist, but she also has a record fighting corporations and agrees with Sanders’ call to transform the nation’s political and economic systems. And Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Midwestern former mayor who is openly gay and served in the military, represents dramatic change on paper but is more aligned with Biden on policy.
With Iowa’s caucuses just 21 days away, and New Hampshire’s eight days later, the sense of urgency was palpable as rival campaigns sought to distinguish themselves while courting primary voters across several states over the weekend.
Biden, campaigning in Nevada, dispatched another popular moderate to New Hampshire to remind primary voters that the path to the White House runs through Midwestern states where many worry his party is veering too far left.
Rep. Conor Lamb, whose 2017 special-election victory in a deep-red western Pennsylvania district was the first sign of a post-Trump blue wave, told 30 or so voters in a local activist’s living room that Biden represents the most important kind of change in Washington: “He’s putting his chips on things that can actually get done.”
In an interview, Lamb raised doubts about whether swing voters in his district would embrace the kind of change that Warren and Sanders are fighting for.
“It’s hard to say” whether Warren or Sanders could beat Trump in a general election, he said. “I can just say they’re going to have a lot of hills to climb in western Pennsylvania.”
Aware of the criticism from the party’s left wing that Biden’s approach is too cautious, his campaign notes that his policy agenda is more ambitious in some cases than that of Hillary Clinton in 2016. And Biden’s support for a government-backed “public option” in health care, while more modest than Sanders’ preferred “Medicare for All,” would arguably represent the most dramatic legislative achievement since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
“We can bring back this country in a way that is a new level of progress that we’ve never seen before,” Biden declared at a weekend appearance in Las Vegas.
Buttigieg has cast himself as a different kind of change agent.
The boyish-looking Democrat represents the generational change that has long powered shifts in Democratic leadership, starting with John F. Kennedy 60 years ago. He is also the first top-tier contender for a major party nomination who is gay, a distinction that quickly made him a celebrity in major fundraising circles.
He typically mentions his age and sexuality only indirectly in a core message more broadly focused on the urgency a young outsider brings to the nation’s most pressing policy problems. He regularly asks his audiences, “Are you ready to change the channel?” — a question that might be aimed at Trump, but could be just as easily referring to Biden, Warren or Sanders.
“I’m running to be the president who can help America, pick up the pieces and move on to what comes next,” Buttigieg said over the weekend at a union hall just off the Las Vegas Strip.
Polls help illustrate Democratic voters’ struggle to decide the kind of change they want in 2020.
A Quinnipiac University poll found last fall that half of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters favor a candidate who represents major change — in style and policy, while about 4 in 10 preferred a nominee who would pursue modest changes considered easier to pass into law.
It was much the same in a September poll by Fox News in which half of Democratic and likely Democratic voters said they preferred a candidate who would fundamentally change the political system, while just about as many said they wanted a return to the political system before Trump’s presidency.
Warren, like Sanders, has staked her candidacy on the notion that a return to the system that preceded Trump is not good enough.
“Our country is in a crisis — a crisis — and Washington insiders and media pundits and even people in our party don’t want to admit it,” she said in Dover as the overflow crowd listened from the parking lot. “They think that wanting some vague campaign that kind of nibbles around the edges of what is broken is a winning strategy. They are wrong. If the best Democrats can offer is business as usual after Donald Trump, Democrats will lose.”
Associated Press writers Michelle Price in Las Vegas and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.