Primary Candidates and Voters Weigh Vision Vs. Policy As 2020 Campaign Ramps Up

Apr 10, 2019

For the growing field of Democrats running for president, the early stage of the campaign includes an important choice: whether to try and inspire with grand ideas, or focus on the details of policy from the get-go.

Candidates who've been in New Hampshire recently are landing on very different sides of that question -- but some voters would rather have it both ways.

When South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg introduced himself to voters during a stop in Concord last weekend, he wanted them to know something up front:  

"I'm a policy guy, and you need to know where each of us stands on the policy questions of the day," he said. "But maybe we would be well served not to go right into the 14-point plan and the PowerPoint deck before we've explained why."

He went on to speak, in broad strokes, about what he considers core Democratic ideals.

Meanwhile, 30 miles north in Laconia, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was taking part in a roundtable about paid family leave -- a top issue for her and for New Hampshire Democrats right now.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Gillibrand didn't exactly roll out a 14-point plan, but she didn't shy away from specifics:

"A point-five percent of everyone's income makes it an earned benefit that makes it affordable and makes it pay for itself," Gillibrand said, citing a detail from a family leave proposal currently progressing in New Hampshire's state legislature.

This contrast -- between sweeping talk of ideals and the nitty-gritty of policy -- is one all the candidates for president are trying to navigate right now.

Gillibrand clearly took the detailed approach in Laconia -- including listening to the personal stories of people on the panel.

Sarah Sadowski of Concord talked about her daughter's birth injury, which has led to a lifelong disability and costly medical care. Afterward, Sadowski said she felt like Gillibrand understood why an issue like family leave matters to her.

"This is the first time I've been able to tell this story publicly without crying," Sadowski said. "So having an empathetic listener is a big part of that. I can tell how badly she wants to make this happen."

For Gillibrand, this is why these policy-centric events matter. She says they're a chance to connect with voters where they live about their top issues.

"I don't think you can serve others well if you don't listen to them first, and that's why roundtables and community meetings are the most important way for me to campaign but also, more importantly, govern," she says.

And Gillibrand isn't the only candidate using that strategy.

On a recent trip to the North Country, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren delved into the opioid crisis by touring a treatment center in Bethlehem. Shannon Howland is a patient there.

"Having a candidate like Senator Warren and knowing where she stands and how much she wants to help makes a huge difference," Howland says. "I think that other candidates following in her footsteps will see some success. But the more broad visits, I think, are kind of just not as effective to the voters."

Others are most inspired by the broad rhetoric -- the kind former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke used during his first New Hampshire visit, at Keene State College.

"If we fix our democracy, we will then be able to fix every single one of these challenges that I just laid out," O'Rourke said toward the end of his speech. "There's been no better moment, no greater moment, for us to define ourselves by our ambitions."

"... the more broad visits, I think, are kind of just not as effective to the voters." - Shannon Howland

That style resonated with people like Gene Andersen of Rindge.

"I think that a kind of person that can just get people really excited and follow them is somewhat the kind of person you need for president," Andersen says.

But plenty of voters hope to hear a little of both. Twenty-three-year-old Brandon Smith was at a Buttigieg event last weekend, and said he's listening for how candidates talk about big goals.

"I've seen most of them speak at this point, and I think [Buttigieg's] message is a little bit more forthright and clear on exactly what he wants as a president," Smith says, "as opposed to the others who are just jumping around between different issues sometimes."

As for how the candidates will turn their big ideas into policy proposals -- Smith and other voters say at this stage of a long campaign, they're willing to wait and see.

NHPR's Britta Greene contributed reporting to this story.