MANCHESTER, N.H. — The battle for the hearts of New Hampshire progressives is on. And now, for the first time, Senator Elizabeth Warren is winning it.
For months, Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders have been campaigning for the same swath of Democratic voters, which Sanders won overwhelmingly in his 2016 primary race against Hillary Clinton.
But five months before 2020’s first presidential primary, Warren is rising. She won a two-minute standing ovation from thousands of party activists Saturday, came out on top in a poll released Sunday, and is seen as the one to beat, according to interviews with approximately two dozen New Hampshire Democrats this week.
“There isn’t one precise reason or moment you can point to that has driven her rise,” said Michael Ceraso, who until recently ran South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign in New Hampshire. “Warren just has the best campaign in New Hampshire; they are everywhere. They are like a great baseball team: good pitching, good hitting, good fielding, and very few errors. And now they are getting some wins.”
The Cambridge Democrat’s momentum in New Hampshire will serve as the backdrop for what could be a key debate Thursday night, when Warren will appear for the first time on the same stage as all the top-tier candidates, including Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden.
Biden, for his part, notably unveiled several lines of attack against Warren on Tuesday — but not Sanders — signaling her front-runner status.
Sanders’ campaign is ceding nothing. While the candidates themselves have been careful not to attack each other publicly, their campaigns are duking it out among the party faithful from Hanover to Hampton.
Warren personally called Carlos Cardona, chairman of the local Democratic Party in Laconia, to woo the 30-year-old former state representative to back her campaign.
Sanders, however, one-upped his Massachusetts rival. The Vermont Democrat showed up to Cardona’s house for dinner.
Cardona endorsed Sanders a few days ago, but he got a window into the intensity of the fight.
“The Warren campaign was constantly in contact,” Cardona said. “The whole process was crazy.”
Kathleen Kelley, a Randolph, N.H., activist and former state Senate candidate, was choosing between Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Warren.
As Kelly was at the bedside of her dying mother, she got a call from Warren.
After weighing the options, she decided to back Warren earlier this year.
“At first I thought she was this fancy Harvard Law School professor, but then I got to see her and learn more,” Kelly said. “You see she is really a Midwesterner and her life story just really connected to me.”
The Warren campaign did not speak on the record for this story.
In an interview with the Globe over the weekend, Sanders declined to criticize Warren and also demurred on whether he thinks New Hampshire will be a contest between just him and Warren.
“I am not going to speculate,” Sanders said. “Joe is a strong candidate. Elizabeth is a strong candidate. You never know what’s going to happen with five months to go.”
Biden, the national front-runner, is decidedly less engaged in the on-the-ground combat that has been waged by the campaigns of Warren and Sanders.
Biden has spent approximately half the time campaigning in New Hampshire that Warren and Sanders have, according to the NECN schedule tracker.
And the polling trends suggest voters are increasingly looking elsewhere.
Over the course of the summer in New Hampshire, Biden lost steam, while Warren caught up and Sanders held steady. That has solidified a three-person top tier of Democrats.
The trends suggest that while the fight may eventually be a Warren-Sanders battle, it isn’t yet a zero-sum contest between the two Senate septuagenarians.
Warren’s growth recently has come from voters dumping other candidates for her, surveys show.
For example, in the June CBS/YouGov New Hampshire poll, Warren had just 17 percent, in third and bunched up with several other candidates.
But Sunday’s CBS/YouGov poll of 526 likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters put Warren with 27 percent, Biden at 26 percent, and Sanders at 25 percent — a statistical tie. Warren’s gain of 10 percent didn't come from Sanders, who also gained in the poll. Instead, it appears she benefited from the drop of Biden, Buttigieg, Booker, and former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
For close observers of the presidential horse race, this is no surprise. For months, polling nationally and in early states has found that Warren is a strong second choice of survey respondents. This means that if a preferred candidate falters, the voter might jump to Warren next.
“As the field continues to winnow and consolidate around three in the top tier, the person on the rise is Warren,” said David Paleologos, the head of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which has conducted polls in Iowa and New Hampshire in the last month. “The more people drop out or fade, the polls indicate that Warren will disproportionately benefit.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the process of how Kathleen Kelley chose which presidential candidate to back.