The biggest questions about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, answered.
The 2020 presidential primary campaign field is winnowing down quickly now that the votes are being cast.
Any Democrat with dreams of occupying the Oval Office saw Donald Trump is a vulnerable president who hasn’t broadened his appeal beyond his base. A lot of them decided to run for their party’s nomination to be its standard-bearer in the 2020 election.
Two candidates look stronger than the rest: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, especially after their respective delegate hauls on Super Tuesday. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who rose to join the top of the field but then faded, has vowed to plug on.
At this point, most candidates have dropped out: The latest are former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who won the Iowa caucuses and finished a close second in New Hampshire, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who couldn’t parlay a strong-third-place finish in New Hampshire into momentum anywhere else. Billionaire activist Tom Steyer also exited after the South Carolina contest.
The Democratic field once included a record number of women and nonwhite candidates, a mix of high-wattage stars and lesser-known contenders who believed they could navigate a fractured field to victory. The debates started in June, with most candidates getting a chance to appear on stage, but the number of participants started to shrink in the third debate in September. The next Democratic debate will be held on March 15.
Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will face Trump, who along with the Republican National Committee has already raised more than $300 million for his reelection campaign. Recent history tells us Americans usually give their presidents another four years, which should lend Trump an advantage. But the president has been historically unpopular during his first term, and Biden and Sanders look competitive in a hypothetical general election match-up.
The past few months have demonstrated that really anything can happen. It’s silly to pretend anybody knows how this contest is going to end, and the 2016 election should have humbled all political prognosticators. Still, the 2020 campaign is well underway. Here is what you need to know to get oriented.
Who is running for president in the 2020 election?
On the Republican side, there is of course President Donald Trump.
A few prominent Republican officials had hinted they might challenge the president, though that’s very unlikely now. Any primary challenger would be a huge underdog against the sitting president. Republican leaders have said they want to protect Trump by having state parties change the rules for their primaries to guard against an insurgency.
The GOPer trying to supplant him is former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a libertarian-leaning Republican. Two others dropped out of the race: Onetime radio host and former Rep. Joe Walsh, who has apologized for saying racist things on Twitter, and former Rep. Mark Sanford, an ideological conservative who was a member of the Freedom Caucus while he was in the House. No other Republican is going to topple Trump, we can safely say.
On the Democratic side, the field is finally shrinking. The contenders, in rough order of standing, are:
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT): The 2016 runner-up is running again. He has the biggest grassroots base of any potential candidate and has led the push to move the party leftward. A more competitive field has presented Sanders with a very different race this time. The senator recently had a heart attack while on the campaign trail; while he’s recovering, he has openly said he won’t be able to get back to the breakneck speed of events he once had. Still, for many on the Democratic left, Sanders is the only candidate with the credibility to pursue their top-tier issues, like Medicare-for-all.
Former Vice President Joe Biden: Biden thought hard about running in 2016, but he decided against it, being so soon after his son Beau’s death and with the party establishment uniformly behind Hillary Clinton. He’s still very popular with Democratic voters, and the former veep apparently wasn’t sure any of the other potential candidates would beat Trump. Though surely inflated by name recognition, Biden had a sizable early lead in the early Democratic national polls that has since dropped sharply.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): The Massachusetts senator is proudly progressive, though she tends to position herself as wanting to fix capitalism rather than replace it. She wants to outflank Trump on trade, give workers seats on corporate boards, and tax extreme wealth. Warren got on the ground early in Iowa and other early states and, like Sanders, is not seeking money from high-dollar donors. (You also might have heard about her releasing a DNA test in an attempt to prove she had Native American roots — a poorly executed early attempt to rebut Trump’s “Pocahontas” taunts.)
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI): Gabbard fires up a certain strain of antiwar progressive. She’s faced tough questions, though, about her apparent friendliness with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and her past comments on LGBTQ rights.
Who has dropped out of the 2020 presidential campaign?
Quite a few Democrats have already given up the ghost, with some of the big names withdrawing once they faltered in the primaries.
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg: Bloomberg had toyed with a Democratic presidential run, even though he governed the country’s biggest city as an independent, for a while. Late in the game, he finally decided to take a shot, filing for the primary in Alabama ahead of the deadline there. He had a few policy wins that he can tout to Democratic voters, most notably on guns, but a centrist billionaire with some policy ideas that are anathema to the progressive ultimately struggled to unite the party behind him, especially after lackluster debate performances.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Something of a viral political star, though he led a city of “just” 100,000 people, Buttigieg is a military veteran and a Rhodes scholar, and he would have been the first openly LGBTQ president in American history.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): She tried to blend her folksy, Midwestern manner with some crossover appeal, given her history of working across the aisle with Republicans and winning elections handily in a purplish state.
Tom Steyer: The billionaire Democratic donor first rose to political prominence for his focus on combating climate change, and started a crusade to convince congressional Democrats to impeach Trump.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ): The former Newark, New Jersey, mayor and part-time firefighter was a fresh face with big ideas like savings accounts for newborns, but his work promoting charter schools (not a favorite of the teachers unions) and the perception that he’s close with Wall Street both posed challenges to his candidacy from the start.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA): The former California attorney general started generating White House hype almost as soon as she got to the Senate in 2017. As a younger black woman, she personified the Democratic Party’s changing nature. Harris made a big splash in early polls, but she dropped after stumbles over health care and never recovered.
Andrew Yang: A humanitarian-minded entrepreneur who also served in the Obama administration, he ran on a policy platform that includes, among other things, a universal basic income that would pay out $1,000 a month to every American over 18.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke: The former Texas Congress member was once 2020’s biggest wild card. O’Rourke built a historically successful fundraising apparatus during his losing 2018 Senate run against Ted Cruz, but couldn’t translate it into a viable presidential bid.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: De Blasio, the mayor of America’s biggest city and already the unlikely victor of a contentious Democratic primary to get there, touted his progressive achievements in the Big Apple as a model for the nation: enacting universal pre-K, ending stop-and-frisk, and creating an ambitious local health care program.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY): Gillibrand had evolved over the years from a centrist Democrat in the House to a progressive. She was presenting herself as a young mom in tune with the Me Too era and the Democratic women who powered the party to historic wins in the 2018 midterms.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO): Bennet is a well-regarded but nationally little-known senator. He tacks toward the center ideologically, and the passion that fueled his candidacy was a fervent frustration with the way Washington works now.
Former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary Julián Castro: Castro got VP buzz in prior elections; this time, he ran in his own right after serving in Obama’s Cabinet on an aspirational message as the grandson of immigrants.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: Hickenlooper is a moderate ex-governor who pitched his ability to work across the aisle. After dropping out of the presidential race, he decided to run for the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 instead.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: Inslee centered his work on environmental issues and the threat of climate change. He has pushed a bill to get his home state off coal energy and all other carbon-producing energy sources by 2045. He has opted instead to seek a third term as governor.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA): Another Nancy Pelosi skeptic who helped lead the unsuccessful rebellion to stop her from becoming House speaker again in 2016. The Massachusetts representative, who is an Iraq War veteran, positioned himself as a moderate in contrast to the socialist energy animating the left and seeking to take over his party.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH): The Ohio Congress member pitched himself as the Democratic answer for Trump country, arguing he can connect with the blue-collar workers the party has lost in the Midwest.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel: The 88-year-old former senator, famed for reading the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record, ran 2020’s oddest campaign. Two teenagers convinced Gravel to launch a protest candidacy targeting the center left and the forever wars of mainstream American foreign policy. He endorsed Gabbard and Sanders after he exited the race.
Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam: The mayor of a Miami suburb, Messam had perhaps the lowest name recognition of any Democrat in the race. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he’s raised wages for city workers as mayor and confronted the Republican-led state government over gun control.
Former Rep. Joe Sestak: The retired three-star admiral and former Pennsylvania representative in Congress was a late entry to the race, announcing his campaign three days before the first Democratic debates. Sestak pitched himself heavily on his naval experience — his campaign logo prominently features the moniker “Adm. Joe” — and the global leadership experience he says it provides.
Marianne Williamson: A self-proclaimed “bitch for God” who has been a spiritual adviser to Oprah. Her previous political experience was a failed run for Congress as an independent in 2014.
Former Rep. John Delaney: The most notable thing about Delaney was he ran for president for over two years, more or less living in Iowa, the first state on the presidential calendar. But he rarely polled above 1 percent there or anywhere else.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick: Patrick had sworn off a presidential bid months ago, but he reversed course and jumped into the campaign. He never made a mark.
When are the next 2020 Democratic presidential primary election debates?
The Democratic National Committee announced it would hold 12 debates, starting in June 2019 and extending into 2020.
The next Democratic debate is March 15 and will be held in Phoenix, Arizona. To date, candidates must either have won a Democratic National Convention delegate in Iowa or hit a certain percentage in national or early-state polls to qualify, but the qualifying thresholds for the next debate have not yet been set.
When are the 2020 Democratic presidential primary election and caucus nights?
Early momentum is always critical, especially in a big field with so many candidates trying to prove that they’re viable. With that in mind, here are the next two months of the Democratic primary schedule:
- March 3 (“Super Tuesday”): Alabama, California, Colorado, Democrats Abroad, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Vermont primaries; American Samoa caucuses
- March 10: Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Washington primaries; North Dakota caucuses
- March 14: Northern Mariana primary
- March 17: Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio
- March 24: Georgia
- March 29: Puerto Rico
- April 4: Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, Wyoming
- April 7: Wisconsin
- April 28: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island
How do you win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination?
The short version is you have to win a majority of the delegates.
Every state has different rules for its primary elections or caucuses in terms of allocating delegates. Candidates win delegates proportional to where they finish in the results, though they generally have to hit a minimum threshold of 15 percent to be awarded any delegates.
In terms of numbers, there will be an estimated 3,979 delegates for the 2020 Democratic National Convention (where the nominee will be formally selected) up for grabs during the primary elections. One candidate needs to win at least 1,991 delegates to be nominated.
You might hear talk of a “brokered” or “contested” convention if no candidate gets the necessary delegates to win on the first ballot. That could definitely happen in 2020; the FiveThirtyEight forecast thinks it’s a 2-in-3 chance. If that should happen, all bets are off. There hasn’t been a brokered convention in decades.
Democrats have made one major change from the 2016 primary on “superdelegates” — elected officials, party leaders, and other prominent Democrats who have votes in addition to the regular delegates awarded by state elections. In the past, superdelegates didn’t have to follow any rules and could back whichever candidate they desire and make up their minds at any point in the process. When most of them endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, it gave her a built-in delegate advantage over Bernie Sanders, though she still won enough votes independent of the superdelegates to secure the nomination.
In a series of reforms, the DNC has stripped superdelegates of a vote on the first ballot. So unless the convention has to move to second or third votes because no candidate has a sufficient number of delegates — something that hasn’t happened since the 1950s — superdelegates won’t matter in 2020. (Arguably, they never did. Many pointed out it was unlikely for superdelegates to use their power to overturn the outcome of the primary system, but it nevertheless created consternation within the party.)
Okay. So who will be the next president?
Ha! You almost got me.
Author: Dylan Scott