Some 20 people were crammed into Colin Peterson’s modest second-story apartment in the Spring Hill neighborhood of Somerville around 9:30 a.m. last Saturday morning.
The crowd turned out on a bright but chilly weekend morning to carpool up to New Hampshire to canvas for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign three days before voters began casting ballots in the state’s all-important primary.
Peterson, who works in higher education, has been organizing in Somerville for Sanders for a month now and quickly listed his reasons for supporting the senator.
“I think he’d be a socially revolutionary president. I think he’s the best person to beat Trump. I think that he addresses longstanding problems that people don’t want to acknowledge in our society,” Peterson said.
The canvassers paused on Peterson’s porch for a group photo before piling into cars for the two-hour drive to the Commonwealth’s northern neighbor. As they smiled on the porch with a pair of Sanders’ campaign signs, a passing driver shouted “Elizabeth Warren for president” out his window.
“We like her too,” someone in the group shouted back.
In Somerville, the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary seems more like a two-horse race between the race’s two most progressive candidates, Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Both senators are the only ones in Somerville with well-organized groups of supporters who coordinate dozens of events each month in the run-up to the Commonwealth’s March 3 Super Tuesday primary.
Warren and Sanders also dominate the money race in Somerville, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington D.C. based transparency non-profit. Warren has raised $205,230 from the city during the 2020 cycle followed by Sanders with $117,031 raised. Former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg trails at third with less than half of Sanders’ haul.
At Tufts, Sanders and Warren are some of the only candidates with dedicated student groups. Warren has also garnered the vast majority of donations from Tufts affiliates, a Daily investigation found last year.
The dynamics in Somerville epitomize the duel between the two candidates trying to stake out their claim as the standard bearer for the left-wing of the Democratic Party.
Energized activists and politicians on both sides of that divide have been working for months to win over their friends and neighbors in this city that could play a large part in either campaign.
On Tuesday morning as the first ballots were being cast in New Hampshire, more than a dozen Warren supporters assembled outside Porter Square Books just over the Somerville line in Cambridge to carpool north and turn out votes for Warren.
Somerville resident Pamela Blittersdorf has been making the trek every weekend for months. She attended Warren’s campaign launch nearly a year ago in Lawrence, Mass., but says that she supported Warren’s bid for the presidency long before that.
“She’s smart. She’s capable. She’s anti-corruption,” Blittersdorf said.
Despite the strong feelings from their supporters, both Sanders and Warren share many of the same policy positions, according to Brian Schaffner, the Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies at Tufts.
“There’s not that much daylight between them on most issues. I think it’s more about rhetoric when it comes to those issues,” Schaffner said.
Schaffner highlights that Sanders proudly labels himself a democratic socialist while Warren promotes “accountable capitalism.”
This semantic rift points to an underlying difference in the way the candidates are perceived to approach the issues on which the two find so much agreement. Warren is regarded as more willing to work within the system to get her policies passed while Sanders advocates for overturning that system in a “political revolution,” according to Schaffner.
That is exactly the kind of thinking that brought Zachary Gabor around to supporting Vermont Senator Sanders after supporting Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary.
“I’m out here for Bernie, and I never would have been out here four years ago,” he said at the carpool meet-up on Saturday. “I never would have been out here for another candidate because of the way [Sanders] thinks political change happens.”
Warren just cannot match Sanders’ political vision for the country, said Gabor, a graduate student who lives in Somerville.
But Sanders’ ambitious political vision, which has attracted some voters like Gabor, repels others, Schaffner said.
“People who are turned off by Sanders are turned off by that kind of thinking about politics in this wistful way that they don’t necessarily buy as realistic,” Schaffner said.
Standing in the rain and cold waiting to get in the car to New Hampshire, another Warren supporter, Anne Haggerty, said that her choice of Warren over Sanders came down to who could better turn their bold rhetoric into reality.
“Nothing’s going to get done in Washington if we don’t accept that we have to compromise, and I think that she’s the most willing to face that and do that,” Haggerty, a Medford resident, said.
Somerville’s political class is just as divided between Sanders and Warren as the voters they represent.
Ayanna Pressley, who represents Somerville in the House of Representatives, is a national co-chair of Warren’s campaign. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone was up in New Hampshire two weeks ago campaigning for her.
However, State Representative Mike Connolly supports Sanders.
Schaffner is dismissive of the effect local endorsements can have on votes, as most people who know whom their local representatives are voting for have already made up their minds. However, local endorsements can help mobilize volunteers for candidates.
One thing that local endorsements cannot change at this point is the campaigns’ momentum, Schaffner explained — which, after Warren’s fourth-place finish in New Hampshire Tuesday night, has shifted sharply in Sanders’ favor.
According to Schaffner, Warren must beat Sanders in places like Somerville to have a shot at the nomination.
“If she can’t beat him in Massachusetts handily, I think she’s in big trouble,” Schaffner said.
Another challenge for Warren is Sanders’ previous strong performances in Somerville. In the primary four years ago, Sanders beat Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 15 points in the city even while losing in neighboring Cambridge, Medford and Boston.
Blittersdorf said she knows plenty of people in her city will end up choosing Sanders over Warren, but she is not worried.
“All any of us can do is support the candidate we support and see what happens,” Blittersdorf said.