WASHINGTON—The 2016 Democratic presidential primary: a coronation. The 2020 primary: a battle royale.
Four years after almost every possible candidate conceded the nomination to a dominant Hillary Clinton, the party is about to have an unpredictable everybody-into-the-pool scrap to be chosen as the candidate to challenge Donald Trump.
And it’s starting already.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced this week that she was launching an exploratory committee, which allows her to raise money and hire staff. Former housing secretary Julian Castro has scheduled an announcement for Jan. 12.
Over the next few months, they will be joined by a mix of the party’s who’s-who and who’s-that. The “first debate,” scheduled for June, will almost certainly have to be split into two debates to accommodate the large field.
That field will likely be the most personally diverse ever to seek the presidency, featuring multiple women and people of colour. On policy, the candidates will tend toward the unabashed liberalism now favoured by much of the party’s base — though there will be significant differences in their choices of issue emphasis, in the ways they depart from progressive orthodoxy and in how they approach President Donald Trump.
The best-known hypothetical candidates are former vice-president Joe Biden and Clinton’s main challenger, democratic socialist Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, both of whom have been unsubtly laying groundwork. Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic Texas congressman who gained national attention during his unsuccessful Senate run against Ted Cruz, is also mulling a run.
So are — deep breath now — California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg…
…among others. Former attorney general Eric Holder, wealthy environmentalist Tom Steyer, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and California Rep. Eric Swalwell have all expressed interest.
After two years of relative party unity in fighting Trump’s initiatives, members of the grassroots “resistance” will have to choose an affirmative party identity. They could go any number of ways. The list of prospects includes people known for fiery oratory and for low-key affability, for ideological rigidity and for shape-shifting, for focusing on economic injustice and on racial injustice. It includes champions and skeptics of free trade, advocates and opponents of free college tuition, billionaires and critics of the billionaire class, Washington veterans and relative newcomers.
The leaders in extremely-early opinion polls — which should be treated mostly as measures of how widely the candidates’ names are currently known — are Biden and Sanders. Both have devout fans. But as white men of age 76 and 77, they will be challenged by what seems to be a desire in much of the party base for fresh faces.
“I think the country is looking for excitement. I think they’re looking for someone who is not a part of the Washington conversation. And I think they’re looking for new ideas,” said Democratic strategist Jennifer Holdsworth. “People that most of the country has never heard of,” she said, “are ultimately going to be much closer to the top than people think.”
In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats elected a record number of women and people of colour to Congress. “I think that the Democratic electorate is hungry for either a woman or a person of colour,” said Kate Maeder, a party strategist in California.
“I think we just kind of need to clean house with the old white male guard,” said Lori Goldstein, party chair in Adams County, Colorado. “And we need to keep our younger folks invested in all of this, and I think we’ve lost a lot of them because of the old white male guard.”
The first voting is 13 months away. Mayra Rivera-Vazquez, Democratic chair in Beaufort County, South Carolina, said local party members want diverse candidates but will reserve judgment until the candidates make their pitches.
“You hear the common names, but probably there are probably going to be other names too. So we don’t know. We’ll see,” she said. “We have a spectrum of all thinkers there. It’s too early to decide what type of presidential candidate the Democrats want. Let’s see when they come here: what are going to be the issues, what are they going to offer, what is the message?”
California’s move of its primary to March, from the traditional June, will require candidates to change the way they approach the early months. The nation’s most populous state has long been an afterthought because of how late it came in the process. Now, its racially diverse Democratic electorate will begin casting ballots in early voting on the same February day as the first caucuses are held in the small, heavily white state of Iowa.
Candidates will have to figure out how to establish national personas in a media environment dominated by Trump. And they will have to decide how to navigate the uncompromising mood of an increasingly left-leaning party base while also retaining their viability among the moderates who may decide the general election — and while convincing the base that they are best positioned to beat Trump.
So far, it has been full-speed ahead to the left. Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Warren and Sanders have all endorsed the idea of a federal jobs guarantee. In 2016, Sanders’s endorsement of single-payer health care, “Medicare for All,” made him a left-wing novelty. In 2020, that position is expected to be a Democratic standard.
Sanders has already won one early victory. After furious complaints from him and his allies, the party voted this summer to sharply limit the power of “superdelegates,” the party elites who previously got to vote for whichever candidate they wanted no matter what regular voters decided.
10 potential Democratic candidates
- Joe Biden, former vice-president
Strengths in the primary: Personal fondness of most Democrats, reputation for connecting with white working class, association with Barack Obama.
Weaknesses in the primary: Age, error-prone campaign past, past conservative votes, handling of Anita Hill hearing.
- Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator
Strengths: Anti-Wall St. credibility, reputation for unyielding liberalism.
Weaknesses: Low approval ratings with broader public, decision to take DNA test to prove claim to Native American heritage.
- Bernie Sanders, independent Vermont senator
Strengths: Perceived authenticity, progressive record, voter loyalty established in 2016.
Weaknesses: Age, unpopularity among some Clinton devotees, weakness with Black voters, distance from the Democratic party.
- Sherrod Brown, Ohio senator
Strengths: Record of electoral success with white working class.
Weaknesses: Support for Trump’s trade policy, past allegation of 1980s domestic abuse (by ex-wife who now supports him).
- Kamala Harris, California senator
Strengths: Lawyerly eloquence, varied personal background, popularity in California.
Weaknesses: Centrist decisions as a prosecutor.
- Cory Booker, New Jersey senator
Strengths: Powerful oratory, focus on racial inequality.
Weaknesses: History of Wall St. ties, mixed results as Newark mayor.
- Julian Castro, former housing secretary
Strengths: Service in Obama administration, Latino identity.
Weaknesses: Never elected to office higher than mayor, non-fluency in Spanish.
- Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor
Strengths: Wealth, leadership on gun control.
Weaknesses: Wealth, conservative positions.
- Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator
Strengths: “Minnesota nice” likability, broad appeal in Midwestern states.
Weaknesses: Low national profile, relatively conservative voting record.
- Beto O’Rourke, Texas congressman
Strengths: Charisma, fundraising prowess, youth.
Weaknesses: Never held office higher than the House, relatively conservative voting record.
Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8