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Presidential Campaign 2020: Democratic Candidates

Published 22 April 2019 | 4,716 words | Categories: News, Politics

There are a lot of people running on the Democrat side, so I decided to make a list and put my initial thoughts on how likely I think they are to become president. I'd make a post for the Republican side as well, but Trump is the only real contender and he doesn’t warrant an entire post. Everyone has a general idea of what he’ll say and do as he campaigns for re-election, and the primary threat to that is the economy according to investors, analysts, and plenty of voters. There is one person running against Trump in the primaries so far, Former Governor Bill Weld, and no one expects him to have a real chance. Also, I'm a registered Democrat, so I'll have to figure out which person to vote for.

The big test for Democratic candidates will be initial fundraising and support. It’s a crowded field and garnering enough publicity to stay in the top 10 is essential, which means the first step is qualifying for June's debate. Most of them actually have. The DNC will be limiting the stage to 20 people just in case that many qualify, they've increased the thresholds for the third debate. (Which could eliminate half the current candidates.)

The Candidates

Alphabetical order by last name, then their primary political experience:

Michael Bennet (Senator)
Joe Biden (White House)
Cory Booker (Senator)
Steve Bullock (Governor)
Pete Buttigieg (Mayor)
Julián Castro (White House)
Bill de Blasio (Mayor)
John Delaney (Representative)
Tulsi Gabbard (Representative)
Kirsten Gillibrand (Senator)
Mike Gravel (Senator)
Kamala Harris (Senator)
John Hickenlooper (Governor)
Jay Inslee (Governor)
Amy Klobuchar (Senator)
Wayne Messam (Mayor)
Seth Moulton (Representative)
Beto O'Rourke (Representative)
Tim Ryan (Representative)
Bernie Sanders (Senator)
Tom Steyer (No political experience)
Eric Swalwell (Representative)
Elizabeth Warren (Senator)
Marianne Williamson (No political experience)
Andrew Yang (No political experience)

Poll Data

RealClearPolitics poll average for 3/21-4/21, top 10:

  1. Biden 29.2% 
  2. Sanders 22.2% 
  3. Harris 8.2% 
  4. O'Rourke 7.4% 
  5. Buttigieg 6.8% 
  6. Warren 6% 
  7. Booker 3.2% 
  8. Klobuchar 1.6% 
  9. Yang 1.2% 
  10. Castro 1.2% 

RealClearPolitics poll average for 7/27-8/5, top 10:

  1. Biden 32% 
  2. Sanders 17.2% 
  3. Warren 15%
  4. Harris 9.3% 
  5. Buttigieg 5.3%
  6. O'Rourke 3% 
  7. Booker 1.8% 
  8. Yang 1.3% 
  9. Castro 1.2%
  10. Gabbard 0.8% 

Initial Thoughts and Observations

Michael Bennet

"Michael Bennet, the moderate, studious Democratic senator from Colorado known for his work on education and immigration reform, announced his candidacy for president on [May 2nd]. He joins a field so packed with candidates that it now includes six of his colleagues in the Senate and his former boss, John Hickenlooper, a past governor of Colorado." (NYT)

Another unremarkable moderate joins the race as Democrat #22, and my question is: why? Especially when he says he won't give up even if he can't qualify for the debates.

Joe Biden

It was disingenuous for polls to include him since he didn’t know himself if he was running. I didn’t expect him to run because he keeps shooting himself in the foot. For example, this bit covered by Yahoo News. Some people have asked for Biden to apologize for his questionable actions, but he’s making jokes instead. And people do NOT like jokes about sexual assault or pedophilia. He’s likely been advised not to bother running because he may have a hard time getting crucial votes.

He’s decided to run at the last minute anyway, even though his campaign still isn't put together. (Biden is far enough behind that a satire site shows up as the first result when you search "Biden 2020.") Polls do show that many people believe he’s the strongest candidate versus Trump. Lots of name recognition as a former Vice President. Trump himself said Sanders or Biden will likely be his opponent this fall; possibly because Biden/Sanders currently have more than half of potential voters according to polls. I'm not so sure Biden can win though. Not given his poor policy record, his uncomfortable personal actions, being a "gaffe machine," the diverse field he has to compete against, being nearly 80 years old, and how he's an easy target.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about Biden as the polls imply. "Of course, now that Biden is preparing to run on Obama’s legacy, he will tell you that he’s always been the darling of liberal groups.... The trouble for Biden is, his record on all of these matters and others isn’t particularly great." (JM) "He has to defend the pre-Trump era. If he described Trump the way Sanders and Warren do—as the product of a decades-long, bipartisan descent into oligarchy—he’d be condemning himself." (TA)

Update: Biden's campaign strategy, as of late May 2019, is to only do enough campaigning for people to remember he's running. And he's still doing the touching he said he wouldn't.

Cory Booker

The DNC probably likes him more than the average voter. In general I'd say he has a 50/50 chance of winning. Against Biden, Sanders, Harris, and the rest of the field though? He's going to have a hard time and might fall out of the top 10. It depends on what the other candidates do and how effective his campaign strategy is.

Steve Bullock

"Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced on Tuesday [May 14] that he's running for president, appealing to primary voters as a Democrat elected twice in a largely Republican state and joining a primary field of nearly two dozen candidates.... While Bullock's more moderate positions could be problematic in a party that's been moving more toward the left, he has adopted some liberal stances recently, including support for an assault weapons ban. Bullock also expanded Medicaid in his state, while working with a GOP legislature, and protected public lands." (NPR)

Another mostly-unknown moderate joins the race as Democrat #23. Or #21 depending on your criteria. Either way, he's coming in late, and has less than a month to qualify for the first debate. He probably won't make it.

Pete Buttigieg

As a relatively bipartisan mayor and LGBT veteran he might be able to appeal to both sides. But can a guy whose last name looks like “Butt-gig” make it to the finish line? (I know that’s not how to say his name. Having a hard-to-pronounce name which is easily turned into insults probably isn’t good though. He'd have to run against Trump, after all.) (Update: Trump applied "Alfred E. Neuman" to Buttigieg. I expected him to go lower than that.)

He’s mostly popular with the younger crowd, partly because it’s neat to see one of their own stepping up, but historically this demographic is bad at showing up to the polls. He’s quickly growing in popularity so he could have a chance. However, he doesn’t have much minority support, which is generally viewed as crucial for Democratic candidates. So the support is a little shaky and it's hard to say yet if he can win. He does prove that this can be anyone's game - he went from unknown to superstar in one month.

Julián Castro

He was a mayor in San Antonio and then “the youngest member of President Obama's Cabinet, serving as the 16th United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 2014 to 2017.” (Wikipedia) Political positions are standard for a Democrat, although he’s slightly more pro-immigrant/minority than some peers.

Like most candidates he has to do a lot more work to potentially win. Fundraising numbers are currently bad, which isn’t a good sign, and his name is too similar to “Fidel Castro” for older voters. Otherwise he seems decent despite the lack of media coverage, and has a strong educational background. He can probably remain in the top 10, if only just. He might go the way of Jeb Bush if he can't shake things up.

Bill de Blasio

And we have candidate #24, the unpopular NYC mayor, announcing his run on May 16th. Or, as The Week put it, "Bill de Blasio squeezes into the Democratic clown car." I'm not sure who wanted him to run, because even his advisers said not to. And he doesn't have much time to try qualifying for the debates. Bill's shaky rationale for running seems to be "NYC's problems should be solved by the federal government, not New York." I doubt he'll get far on that platform.

"The termed-out politician, known for his habitual tardiness, finally decided to run after five months of toying with a White House bid.... Local political experts can’t fathom what prompted the mayor to take the plunge.... What’s more, people just don’t like him, polls show. De Blasio has the dubious distinction of being the only candidate or potential candidate out of 23 contenders to earn a negative rating among national Democrats in a March Monmouth University survey. At home, the numbers are even worse. A staggering 76 percent of Big Apple voters don’t think he should run, according to an April Quinnipiac University Poll." (NYP)

John Delaney

Voters don't want to bring in another finance guy who rolls around in piles of money during his spare time. Self-funding a campaign has too many echoes of Trump for most Democrats. I'd say he has zero chances of winning while he gives off the "Trump but more liberal" vibe. The fact he was the first Democrat to announce hasn't helped him so far either, because he's still polling at 1% or less despite starting in June 2017. He should see how the lack of momentum doesn't bode well. In the bottom 3 of most polls despite almost two years of campaigning? He's wasting time at this point.

Tulsi Gabbard

Doesn't have a spotless record but she does have a chance at making it to the top 5. She has more foreign policy experience than the other candidates, and Democrats may want to ramp up positive international ties after Trump doing Trump things to world leaders over the past couple years. And, of course, the USA's typical interventionist policy of trying to topple foreign leaders and maintain endless war needs to be addressed. Gabbard is one of the few talking about this. (Others have signed a pledge: Gravel, Sanders, Warren, Yang.)

If she can also articulate good economic/climate plans, she can potentially win. The main problem there is that people don’t care about policy too much; they say they do, but as the 2016 election demonstrated, feelings are more important than facts when it comes to getting votes. Many of the 2020 candidates have similar ideas so policy positions are even less important than usual. Being unique and likable is more essential for 2020, so we have to see what she does. Currently she's far from the #1 choice for the Democrats, given her history. They'd find her acceptable in a showdown versus Trump, but that's true of most candidates.

Also: I'm interested in seeing what comes of her being on The Joe Rogan Experience. It's the #3 podcast on Apple and Gabbard's two appearances have a combined 2.2 million views on Youtube. Bernie Sanders has been drawing crowds of 10,000 to 15,000, and in 2016 had an event with 28,000 people. A single appearance on Joe Rogan blows that out of the water. (Andrew Yang also went on Joe Rogan's podcast. On Youtube it's nearing 3 million views.) 

Kirsten Gillibrand

Has a questionable past for policy decisions and general comments. Popular with some demographics though, mostly those who really like Hillary Clinton. Overall she doesn’t stand out and will have a tough time breaking into the top 10. There are established names like Sanders/Warren plus up-and-comers like O’Rourke/Buttigieg to beat.

Mike Gravel

He’s 88 years old and not even running to win. Those who don't want to win won't, simple as that. He's basically a sane version of Vermin Supreme.

Update: Mike Gravel is now running to win. Maybe. I'm not 100% sure either way, but he does have a good social media team. Getting into the debates will at least be entertaining, because "Mike Gravel, with no chance whatsoever of winning the nomination, can say as he pleases." (CA) That is, of course, if he can get enough support to qualify for the debates.

Update: Actually no, he's not running anymore. Gravel dropped out and endorsed Sanders on August 7th.

Kamala Harris

She's the favorite with some segments of the Democratic party, or at least was until Biden formally announced his candidacy. It's possible her numbers might not take a hit from that since Biden is a bad candidate, but who knows. Democrats seem unusually divided on her. Harris still has a fair shot during primaries and she’s consistently remained in the top 5 so far.

Nate Silver says "Early-state Democratic activists have very different views of the candidates than the polls" and data implies activists favor Harris. Scott Adams, who was the first public figure to predict Trump winning in 2016, said Harris is the media's first choice - although she's currently "boring." It remains to be seen whether that can change. Or the media might move on to another candidate; and why not, when there are 20+ options?

John Hickenlooper

Who? “John Wright Hickenlooper Jr. is an American politician and businessman who served as the 42nd Governor of Colorado from 2011 to 2019…. In 2005, he was named by Time as one of the top five big-city mayors in the U.S.” (Wikipedia)

He has degrees in English and Geology, and seems to have done pretty well with Colorado while Mayor and then Governor. So far his fundraising isn’t amazing though. Half the donors are from his home state. I'd say he has a chance of making it to the top 10 but not top 5.

Update: Hickenlooper dropped out on August 15th.

Jay Inslee

Who? “ American politician, author, and lawyer serving as the 23rd and current governor of Washington since 2013. A member of the Democratic Party, he served in the United States House of Representatives from 1993 to 1995 and again from 1999 until 2012.” (Wikipedia)

Like most candidates, he’s going to have a hard time standing out in a crowded field, and he’s behind in polls/fundraising. To break into the top 10, candidates will have to outshine bottom-of-the-list Castro/Yang, and... good luck with that. Inslee is unlikely to get further than his current position, especially with his climate-change angle not being unique. He's a long-shot candidate at best.

Update: Inslee dropped out on August 22nd.

Amy Klobuchar

She's more moderate than some other candidates, which gives her a slight edge in a general election, but the Democratic party is moving further left. Anyone who doesn't have at least one radical idea will be left behind. I think she'll struggle to outshine Harris, Sanders, etc. unless she gets unusually high levels of media support. Does the average Democrat want a bland moderate as their #1 choice? Doubtful. Klobuchar is unlikely to stay in the top 10.

Wayne Messam

I don’t see anything except good things about him, but again, can any virtual unknowns stand out in this field? His policies are standard for a Democrat so his Jamaican roots will have to do a lot of legwork in keeping him unique. Right now he's polling at less than 1% so first he needs enough support to get into the DNC debates. Anyone who can't do that should drop out.

Seth Moulton

Never heard of him. An apparent critic of DNC leadership like Tim Ryan, NPR believes his main opponents will be the increasingly popular Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke. It's hard to see how he can be a serious contender as candidate #21 (announcing his run April 22nd) when his ideas aren't exactly thrillingly unique.

"Entering an already-crowded presidential race this late as a relatively no-name candidate is an utter shot in the dark, but it’s possible Moulton plans to give up on Congress entirely and use the image-bump of a presidential campaign to run for governor at the end of Charlie Baker’s second term in 2022." (SN)

Beto O'Rourke

Most people who recognize his name do so because he almost beat Ted Cruz in a Senate race. But no one likes Ted, and Beto was the loser in that contest, so there's nothing to brag about. However, O’Rourke did display the ability to run a decent election campaign, and he does have some appeal. He might be too out there for a general election, but we’ll see. His fans seem to be heading over to Buttigieg since there’s some overlap; O'Rourke is steadily dropping in the polls. We'll find out if he can stay in the top 5 as time goes on. 

Tim Ryan

Who? “ American politician serving as the U.S. Representative for Ohio's 13th congressional district since 2003…. In November 2016, Ryan launched an unsuccessful challenge to unseat Nancy Pelosi as party leader of the House Democrats…. When he took office in January 2003, he was the youngest Democrat in the House, at 29 years of age. He has been reelected five times...” (Wikipedia)

The DNC may not want to support him given his challenge to Pelosi, but he seems popular among his constituents and has a chance to translate that to national support. He's educated and seems qualified; otherwise he’s unremarkable, doesn’t look like he’ll promise a lot of change, and his boring logo reflects that. He won’t win because the other candidates are more exciting. Maybe he'll be considered for Vice President again to contrast a louder candidate, almost like a liberal Mike Pence.

Bernie Sanders

He still has momentum from 2016 but I think his chances of winning are slightly worse than before. He's also doing the same thing the DNC hated in 2016, running as a Democrat only for the presidential election and remaining an independent otherwise. They're going to try and shut him out like last time, especially now he’s competing with Joe Biden. It's a diverse field - can Sanders stay at the top despite pressure from establishment Democrats? 

He draws a crowd yet many candidates now hold similar policy positions. Sanders has a lot of name recognition and I think he’ll easily stay in the top 5. With younger and more exciting candidates in the running, however, it’s not completely clear he’ll remain a favorite. He's playing it safe while the field remains divided. Obama’s former campaign manager believes Sanders will be in the top 3 for Democratic nominees in 2020 yet won’t be able to beat Trump. There might be something to that.

Also, Sanders' slogan this time is "Not me. Us." What candidate seriously says "not me" when they're running? Bad move.

Tom Steyer

Update, July 9th: Almost candidate #25, although Eric Swalwell dropped out so we're still at 24 candidates total.

"Billionaire activist Tom Steyer said Tuesday that he will run for president in 2020, entering the crowded Democratic field late in the race with a pledge to focus on climate change and reforming the political system. The former hedge fund manager will spend at least $100 million on his presidential campaign, spokesman Alberto Lammers said. But Steyer’s late entrance will pose some difficulties. To qualify for the Democratic debates at the end of the month, Steyer will have to receive donations from at least 65,000 unique donors and poll at 1% or higher in three qualifying polls in the next week — a virtual impossibility." (CNBC)

I doubt he'll get far. John Delaney already showed us that self-funding a campaign and outspending opponents doesn't necessarily translate to support in the polls. Steyer isn't bringing anything new to the table, and younger Democrats aren't keen on electing a generic white guy over the age of 60. Steyer should use his $100 million for making a real difference in the world, like donating to charity instead of buying ads.

Eric Swalwell

Who? “ American politician from California, who serves as the U.S. Representative from California's 15th congressional district.” (Wikipedia) He seems to be running mostly on gun control. Otherwise his policy positions are standard for a Democrat. The rest of his Wikipedia page is tl;dr so I’m not sure if he’s done anything to stand out yet. He probably won't win the nomination, especially since he was the 19th person to announce he's running. People are going to start tuning out these announcements and getting fatigued by the sheer number of choices. The favorites are already established for about 45% of voters.

Update: Swalwell dropped out on July 8th.

Elizabeth Warren

Iffy chances of winning, given her recent ethnicity controversy and how other candidates outshine her on general policy ideas. If she was vice president for Bernie Sanders she'd have a better chance of stepping into the White House. She has name recognition, and tries to do what she can, but her platform isn't currently as solid as others. And she can't beat Trump, who would have a field day running against her. She's already a favorite target of his. Warren could've gone far in 2016 but shot herself in the foot several times since then. Still, Warren does have significant amounts of support. It remains to seen whether she can enhance those numbers. Versus the other big names, it could be a tough job.

Warren's wealth-distribution ideas also tend to be on the extreme side. There has to be a delicate balance, because aggressively pursuing high taxes on the 1% will result in them leaving for other countries. They're the ones who can afford to do so, after all. It's better to close tax loopholes before thinking about raising taxes, and I haven't seen Warren mention that yet. (Only penalties.) Warren's new idea to tax things people already paid tax on has too many obvious flaws. Corporations and individuals have been abusing loopholes for decades. High-tax states like New York are already overly dependent on high earners, who could fracture (or end) some social programs if pushed too hard too fast. NY is currently having budget issues. For example, in recent news: "Cuomo blames Trump and his 2017 tax cut legislation for prompting New York's wealthiest taxpayers to change their legal address to another state... the loss of federal deductibility greatly affects the 1 percent of taxpayers who pay almost half of New York’s taxes and he notes they are highly mobile, able to move their legal residence out of New York easily." This is true even on a small scale, for example people dodging soda taxes by buying elsewhere.

Personally I think Andrew Yang's "Freedom Dividend" is a better idea than simply asking to raise taxes on the rich. Even if they should be paying more, they currently have ways not to. It's potentially better to first focus on the 99 percent, then work from there as "trickle-up" policy, while closing loopholes.

Marianne Williamson

Inexperienced, unrecognizable in the political sphere, and Democrats aren't going to vote for someone who's running primarily on the idea of bringing a "moral and spiritual awakening" to Americans. That might be an angle for a Republican candidate, but many liberals won’t go for that, particularly when they have 20+ other choices. Williamson has a 0% chance of winning.

Update: Now that I've seen Williamson in action, she's more reasonable (and entertaining) than I expected. I still doubt she'll win, but maybe it's a 1% chance instead of 0%.

Andrew Yang

“Among the many, many Democrats who will seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, most probably agree on a handful of core issues…. Only one of them will be focused on the robot apocalypse.” (NYT)

A few odd ideas but I think he's trying to tackle important issues in realistic ways. Other candidates haven't mentioned problems like the impending threat of automation, nor do they seem to have a plan to help working-class Americans survive it. Yang's main problem is that he doesn't have national recognition like Sanders or Warren and has to get his name out there. (It's working so far, although not a rise like Buttigieg's.) He has a good chance of beating Trump in the general election; Trump won partly based on promises for economic revitalization and Yang can do one better since Trump hasn't delivered for many voters. Yang may seem appropriately radical-left for the primaries, and steal some thunder from Bernie Sanders for people who believe Sanders is too socialist-friendly.

However, a noticeable portion of Yang’s growing support is coming from people who aren’t Democrats. He’s been on a number of high-profile interviews/podcasts with more moderate leanings, which isn’t necessarily the demographic you want in Democratic primaries. Some states are closed. Yang's attracted attention from conservative elements and internet trolls who may not be an asset during this early period. He’s also said some things conservatives dislike, but I’m not sure if that’s intentional (to disavow their support) or he believes what he says.

So can Andrew Yang win the Democratic nomination? Potentially, but it's too early to say for sure.

Conclusion as of April 2019

Of the 20+ candidates for the Democratic Nomination, I expect that the top 10 will largely remain the same as polls currently show (at least for the next few months). I bet the top 9 will be (in no particular order) Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke, and Andrew Yang. The 10th spot will go to John Hickenlooper or Elizabeth Warren. I may change my mind after the upcoming debates, if I decide to watch them for some reason.

The field is too wide, and the order of the day for each candidate is "stand out or drop out." As long as they don't stand out for the wrong reasons.

Updates to this post

DISCLOSURE: I gave small one-time donations ($1-10) to candidates Gabbard, Gravel, Williamson, and Yang, wanting to see more of them in the debates.

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