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The gathering of political progressives found itself almost spoilt for choice by the Democratic presidential field for 2020

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks at Netroots.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks at Netroots.
Photograph: Elizabeth Robertson/AP

Among nearly 4,000 progressive activists and organizers gathered in Philadelphia this week for the 14th and largest Netroots Nation convention, the 2020 presidential race felt like a turning point. Between Elizabeth Warren’s policy plans and Bernie Sanders’ grassroots energy, progressive ideas are dominating the Democratic primary.

“We’re tired of waiting for change,” said Yvette Simpson, chief executive of Democracy for America. “We’re tired of talking about compromising with the other side when it always requires us to compromise our values. I do believe we are ready for a bold champion.”

At panels, breakout sessions and happy hours, attendees marveled at their options: two uncompromising liberal senators in the top tier of a crowded primary, flanked by other candidates who have warmed to progressive ideas. Several attendees said they would be equally pleased if Sanders or Warren were the nominee.

But lines were nonetheless being drawn.

Arlene Geiger, from New York, said she wanted to elect the “smartest person in the room”.

“Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate I truly support,” she said, adding: “Wall Street is scared shitless of her.”

Geiger supported Sanders in 2016 but said Warren’s journey from midwestern college dropout to Harvard law professor and pre-eminent scholar of bankruptcy law, all before entering politics, showed her grit and intellectual capacity.

“She cares deeply about the issues from a progressive’s point of view that she came to not through ideological conviction but through her own life experiences and her own research,” she said.

More than two dozen attendees cited Warren as a top choice, though they hadn’t made up their minds. As alternatives, they mentioned California Senator Kamala Harris and, occasionally, the former housing secretary Julián Castro.

Sola Adenekan, a first-time attendee, said she was impressed by Warren’s work on behalf of victims of predatory lending practices, which disproportionately affected people of color.

“She’s had the most thought-out, well-laid-out policies of all the candidates,” she said. “And that has forced the other candidates to come to the table with policies of merit.”

Sanders supporters were harder to find. Several said they would welcome a Warren administration.

Mark Schaeffer, an activist in Albany, New York, and a member of Democratic Socialists of America, which has endorsed Sanders, said the Vermont senator has the “clearest analysis of the need to change the system”. But he liked Warren too and believed she had adopted Sanders’ bold stance on climate issues.

“I think she has a lot of good immediate proposals but I think she’s less oriented toward system change,” he said. “And that is what we need to face a threat that is bigger than the current threat to our democracy – which is very, very serious – the threat of catastrophic global overheating.”

‘He’s letting Warren have the conversation to herself’

Warren, attending her ninth Netroots, participated in the presidential forum on Saturday. Sanders did not, his absence a source of some tension.

“Is Bernie going to come here tomorrow to talk to us?” one activist asked Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator who is a co-chair of Sanders’ campaign, during a Friday panel titled Black, Brown and In Charge: New Movement Leaders and the Future of the Left.

“That’s not really the topic of this panel,” the moderator said.

“I’m here,” Turner said.

The conference’s third presidential forum featured only a handful of candidates for the Democratic nomination, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Castro and Washington governor Jay Inslee joining Warren.

Organizers called Sanders’ absence a “missed opportunity”.

“It’s 3,500 of the most engaged progressives in politics and he has decided that he is not going to talk to them,” said Carolyn Fiddler, spokeswoman for the Daily Kos website, a major sponsor. She added: “He’s letting Warren have the conversation to herself … and I don’t know why he would do that.”

In Phoenix in 2015, Sanders and Martin O’Malley – but not Hillary Clinton – participated. Both were interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists. This year, Sanders received a mixed reception at a She the People event in Texas.

Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos who moderated the presidential panel, has been publicly critical of Sanders. “Bernie Sanders goes on Fox [News], but he’s afraid of ME?” he tweeted. “Sheesh.”

The campaign said Sanders’ absence was due to a scheduling conflict. Turner rejected any suggestion the senator was “ceding” ground.

“His presence is here,” she said. “What he’s standing for is here. And then I am here. Progressives should feel very confident and assured that the senator is rooted in this movement and that is going to change the dynamics of this country.”

Warren was welcomed to the forum with deafening applause and the crowd chanting her name – a noticeably more enthusiastic response than the other candidates at the forum.

Netroots 2019 began after the first debate reshaped the race. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Warren surged to second behind Joe Biden with the support of 19% of likely voters compared with 26% for the former VP. Sanders tied Harris at 13%. Warren raised $19m in the second quarter. Sanders raised $18.2m.

The Sanders campaign has emphasized his role in pushing policy ideas like Medicare for All and free college into the mainstream. Warren has grabbed attention with proposals including an immigration plan.

Groans and eye rolls

Netroots also provided a pulse check on progressive support for the other presidential hopefuls. Unsurprisingly, there was not much love for Biden. On Friday, dozens of immigration activists held a demonstration at his campaign headquarters in the city with family members of people deported by the Obama administration.

Activists protest immigration policy in Philadelphia on Friday.

Activists protest immigration policy in Philadelphia on Friday. Photograph: Jarrett Renshaw/Reuters

On a wall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, attendees could bet on who will drop out next, an exercise seemingly based more on wishful thinking than reality. As of Saturday morning, Biden and Sanders led the way. No one was betting on Warren or Harris.

Any mention of Tom Steyer, the billionaire who jumped in this week, elicited groans and eye rolls. There was little patience for candidates like the Montana governor, Steve Bullock, or former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, moderates who some urged to run for the Senate instead.

The conference also took place amid a bitter row between the House Democratic leadership and a group of newly elected members known as “the Squad”: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Netroots welcomed Pressley, Tlaib and Omar with applause and a standing ovation.

“The women of color who entered Congress – they’re more than four votes,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People and moderator, referring to comments Pelosi made to the New York Times about the political influence of “the Squad”.

“For millions of us, these women of color in Congress represent generations of blood, sweat and tears and struggle for us to have representation. And yet, if you’ve read the news, they’ve faced attacks all year from the right wing and from Democratic party leadership.”

That prompted boos.

Omar referred to “a constant struggle with people who have power about sharing that power” and said: “We are not really in the business of asking for the share of that power. We’re in the business of trying to grab that power and return it to the people.”

In a session titled “Why Biden Is The Least Electable Major Democrat in 2020”, one audience member asked: “Would you support Biden if he were the nominee?” All of the panelists emphatically agreed that they would.

But they said there was little evidence that nominating an “older white man who appeals to moderates” would help beat Donald Trump.

“What are we so afraid of?” said Rebecca Katz, a New York-based progressive strategist. “Every time we show someone who is Republican-lite, we lose.”