WARNER, N.H. — Memorial Day flags fluttered along East Main Street Monday in this town of 2,900. Under a blue sky, people sat outside listening to live music at Schoodacs Coffee House.
And on a grassy hill down the street, Senator Bernie Sanders preached his homily of transforming the government and the economy so it “works for all of us, not just the one percent.”
His familiar pitch resonated with many in the friendly crowd of hundreds. But Sanders faces a drastically different political environment than he did on the presidential campaign trail four years ago. There are now 23 other Democrats, many of whom frame themselves as progressive fighters working to upend a broken system, too.
The White House hopeful is refining his brand, framing himself as an early and vocal leader on issues that have come into the Democratic Party’s mainstream, from decriminalizing marijuana to Medicare-for-all to boosting the minimum wage. Four years ago, campaigning in the Granite State, Sanders was pushing for a $15-per-hour national wage floor.
“At that point, that idea was perceived to be a very radical idea,” Sanders told the crowd. “But do you know what’s happened over the last four years? Seven states in this country have raised the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. And, in many ways, that effort began here in New Hampshire,” he said.
Still, 8½ months before primary voters are expected to go to the polls in New Hampshire, Sanders doesn’t look likely to recreate his more-than-20 percentage point trouncing over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Two recent polls of state Democratic primary voters found Sanders trailing former vice president Joe Biden, and one of them found Sanders tied for second with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Plenty of voters are still weighing their options in a field that runs the gamut from Senator Elizabeth Warren to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to Governor Jay Inslee of Washington.
Eric Scheuch, a 20-year-old from New London, N.H., who just finished his sophomore year at Columbia University, said he liked Sanders because he has “a really ambitious platform.”
But Scheuch said he hasn’t made up his mind on how he’ll vote in his first presidential primary election next year. The independent said he’s looking for a Democrat who can win and a candidate who has good ideas and can enact them.
“You can have all the ideas in the world, but if you can’t get them into law, they’re just pieces of paper,” he said.
Before the Sanders event, Denis Murphy, a 58-year-old independent who lives in nearby Bradford, N.H., was eyeing the long line of people waiting to get Ben & Jerry’s ice cream served by the brand’s eponymous founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, steadfast Sanders supporters.
Murphy said he’s in the process of gathering information on the Democratic presidential candidates. As for Sanders, Murphy said he “liked him last time ’round.” But at this point in the election cycle, he hasn’t “seen much of the other crew yet.”
John Kendall, a 75-year-old from Georges Mills, N.H., rolled into Warner in his 1992 Buick Roadmaster hearse, which had a big Sanders sign in the window.
The registered independent worked on Sanders’s campaign in 2016 and is supporting him again.
“I think Bernie is the original. He’s had the same message going back to the ’60s!” Kendall said. “However, I would go with any liberal progressive if it came down to it.”
In his speech, Sanders staked out positions that could appeal to a swath of independent voters in New Hampshire, a state where undeclared voters can pick their ballot on primary day.
He said Trump aides were talking about the need to go to war in Iran, a turn of events he painted in apocalyptic tones.
“What it would mean is an Orwellian scenario where we are in perpetual warfare! Endless wars, generation after generation! Massive military budgets fighting wars,” he said.
Sanders said he is working with “some honest conservatives on this issue because not only would a war with Iran be a disaster, it happens to be unconstitutional.”
(The Constitution gives Congress, rather than the executive branch, the power to declare war, though the last congressional declaration of war was in 1942.)
Domestic issues, however, made up the balance of his speech, and were top of mind for several voters in Warner on Monday.
Peter Eklof, a 75-year-old Concord, N.H., resident, was walking down East Main Street, but hadn’t come for the rally. He expressed admiration for the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont.
Eklof said he would “endorse everything about Sanders,” and was particularly jazzed by the senator’s stance in favor of universal access to health care and education.
In the Air Force and after, Eklof said he lived overseas, including in France. “I got used to socialist thinking and was shocked about how people would confuse it with something evil when I got home,” he said.
Before the event, Jane Maine, a Leominster resident in her 60s who supported Sanders in 2016 and is supporting him again, said the swirl of a big pack of Democrats doesn’t matter at this early stage.
As for other progressive candidates in the race this time around, she sees them as following where Sanders has long been.
“He’s moved the Democratic platform to the left, without a doubt,” she said after cheering Sanders at the Warner speech. “He’s true blue.”
Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.