The biggest questions about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, answered.
The 2020 presidential primary campaign field has started to winnow down now that the first states votes.
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 ran for their party’s nomination to be its standard-bearer in the 2020 election.
There has been a clear top tier of four candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden — the early, if unimposing, frontrunner who has faltered in Iowa and New Hampshire; Sen. Bernie Sanders who is off to a pretty good start; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who rose to join the top of the field but then faded and just disappointed in New Hampshire; and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who won the Iowa caucuses and finished a close second in New Hampshire. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has moved herself closer to this class with with strong performances in Iowa and especially New Hampshire.
The field had expanded up until the last minute. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, steadily rising in national polls, filed for the Alabama primary right before the deadline.
The Democratic field included a record number of women and nonwhite candidates, a mix of high-wattage stars and lesser-known contenders who believe they can 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 February 19.
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 he now faces an impeachment trial after an explosive scandal in which he asked the Ukrainian president for political dirt on Biden. Impeachment polling doesn’t look great for Trump.
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 has already started. 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 Republican officials — former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and popular Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — have hinted they might challenge the president in a primary. But any primary challenger would be a huge underdog against the sitting president. Republican leaders have said they want to protect Trump by potentially having state parties change the rules for their primaries to guard against an insurgency.
The GOPers trying to supplant him are former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a libertarian-leaning Republican who has officially entered the race, and onetime radio host and former Rep. Joe Walsh, who has apologized for saying racist things on Twitter. Former Rep. Mark Sanford, an ideological conservative who was a member of the Freedom Caucus while he was in the House, briefly pursued a primary challenge but has already dropped out. No other Republican is going to topple Trump, we can safely say.
On the Democratic side, the field is mostly set after these unexpected late entries, and candidates have started to drop out. The contenders, in rough order of standing, are:
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. However, Warren briefly (and very narrowly) surpassed him.
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.
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.)
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Something of a viral political star, though he leads a city of “just” 100,000 people, Buttigieg is a military veteran and a Rhodes scholar, and he would be the first openly LGBTQ president in American history. Redevelopment and infrastructure projects have been staples of his tenure as mayor, but he’s also gotten plenty of questions about how he handled racial issues in South Bend.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): She will look 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. Klobuchar is also known for her willingness to crack down on big tech firms on privacy and antitrust issues. She struggles with a lack of name recognition, however, and she has been the subject of several reports about her alleged harsh treatment of staff.
Former New York City Mayor Michael 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 has 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 base has not been a successful model in 2020 so far.
Tom Steyer: The billionaire Democratic donor has decided to enter the arena. He first rose to political prominence for his focus on combating climate change, and lately he has been on a crusade to convince congressional Democrats to impeach Trump. Steyer is positioning himself as a (well-funded) outsider running against a host of lifelong politicians.
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.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ): The former Newark, New Jersey, mayor and part-time firefighter failed to break out of the low single digits in polls, despite early predictions that he could be a major contender in the race. He 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, and his message of love and unity never quite caught on with voters.
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. She had endorsed Medicare-for-all and proposed a major middle-class tax credit, though her days as a prosecutor presented problems with the progressive grassroots. 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. He’s young, and he gives a good speech. Obama’s old hands seemed to like him. The open question was whether his self-evidenced political talents were matched by policy substance.
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 endorsed Medicare-for-all and universal paid family leave; a pillar of her Senate career has been cracking down on sexual assault in the military. Gillibrand 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. The passion that fuels his candidacy is a fervent frustration with the way Washington works now. Bennet believes Americans are not nearly as divided as the parties in Washington and is positioning himself accordingly.
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. On the issues, he touted his record on gun violence, environmental regulations, and expanding Medicaid. He conveyed an everyman persona, having founded a Denver brewery before he ever ran for public office. 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. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing — voters in Washington rejected an Inslee-supported carbon fee in 2015 — but the governor hoped to quickly build a profile by focusing relentlessly on the dire threat to humanity. 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. He cited the closure of the Lordstown GM plant in his home state as part of his motivation for running. Ryan has a history of long-shot bids: He challenged Pelosi for the House Democratic leader post in 2016.
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’s 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 February 19 and will be held in Las Vegas. Candidates must either have won a Democratic National Convention delegate in Iowa or New Hampshire or they must hit 12 percent or more in two polls in Nevada and South Carolina or 10 percent or more in four polls in those state or in national surveys.
The candidates who have met the polling and donor thresholds:
- Former Vice President Joe Biden
- Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
- Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
- Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg haven’t qualified yet, but the latter is getting close. Tulsi Gabbard doesn’t look likely to qualify.
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, the first two months of the primary schedule:
- February 3: Iowa caucuses
- February 11: New Hampshire primary
- February 22: Nevada caucuses
- February 29: South Carolina primary
- March 3 (“Super Tuesday”): Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Vermont primaries
- March 7: Louisiana primary
- March 10: Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio primaries; North Dakota caucuses
- March 17: Arizona, Florida, and Illinois primaries
There are at least three more months of primaries and caucuses after that. But the candidates will focus their attention and organizing on the earlier states, and we should know a lot more about the field and the strongest candidates once the first sprint is over.
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 1,990 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. But that hasn’t happened for decades, and it’s way too early to think that will happen in 2020. That doesn’t mean it’s not a possibility, but let’s wait for some votes to come in before we start up that parlor game.
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