Politics

What the Democrats’ 2020 Field Looks Like Now

These seven candidates have early leads. Here’s how each could build on his or her popularity—or blow it.

Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker.
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images, Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images, Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, and Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

It’s officially 2019, which means it’s time to talk about 2020—or more specifically, who could win the Democratic nomination and the right to take on Donald Trump in the general election. Several dozen Democrats have already emerged as potential challengers, with Elizabeth Warren getting a head start on everyone else by announcing her candidacy on New Year’s Eve. And while not all of the other rumored candidates will jump into the race, the party is preparing for the likelihood of so many contenders that they won’t all fit on the debate stage at once.

Although it is way too early to predict who will prevail in what is shaping up to be a long and messy primary, it’s not too early to consider which of the could-be candidates would enter the race with the wind at their backs. Early buzz doesn’t guarantee electoral success, but it certainly helps. Consider: All but one of the major-party nominees in the past quarter-century were polling inside the Top 5 at this point in their nominating cycles, according to a CNN analysis of post-midterm polling averages. The sole exception is Donald Trump, though that was because politicos and pundits were slow to take him seriously given his previous PR stunts; he found significant support once pollsters belatedly began to include him in their list of options.

Will a random Democrat emerge from nowhere like Trump did? Perhaps! Could some other Democrat go from the polling gutter in 2018 to front-runner status in 2019? Possibly! But let’s start the conversation by looking at those men and women who have expressed serious interest in running for president and have earned a significant amount of support in national polling to date—which I’m defining as having polled at 3 percent or higher in multiple major post-midterm surveys, a cutoff that corresponds, roughly, with the typical margin of error in most polls. That admittedly unscientific criteria produces seven White House hopefuls who enter the new year with a head start on what could become a historically crowded primary field.

Joe Biden

Strengths: Before his two terms as vice president, Biden spent 36 years in the Senate, including stints as chairman of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees. He has a working-class brand that can appeal to the Rust Belt and has plenty of Obama nostalgia to appeal to the Democratic base. Polling this far out tells us far more about a politician’s national name recognition than anything else, but it’s still better to be on top than at the bottom, and the former veep has led most major polls taken in the past year. With support in the mid-20s to low-30s, Biden wouldn’t be the prohibitive favorite that Hillary Clinton was when she entered in the mid-60s almost four years ago, but he’d still begin the race as the clear front-runner.

Liabilities: Biden has never been the strongest campaigner: His first White House run ended in a plagiarism scandal and his second included a tone-deaf description of the man who would become the nation’s first black president as “articulate and bright and clean.” Even Biden admits he’s a “gaffe machine.” He’ll also have to contend with his opposition to school integration in the 1970s, his vote for the 1994 crime bill, and his mishandling of the Anita Hill hearings. Even his Obama cred would have its limits with the left, given where the party has moved in the past two years. He would have to answer for his old boss’s use of drones, failure to close Guantánamo Bay, and decision not to prosecute big banks and other bad actors in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. And it remains an open question how he’ll be received by his party’s rank and file, many of whom are clamoring for a candidate who, unlike Biden, passes progressive litmus tests on Medicare for all and a minimum wage increase and who has the lived experience of anyone but an old white dude.

Bernie Sanders

Strengths: The senator from Vermont—technically an independent—has arguably had a bigger impact on the Democratic Party the past two years than anyone else, pulling it left on a host of policy issues, including Medicare for all and the minimum wage. And remarkably, his favorability rating has held relatively steady—and well above water—during that time, no small feat for someone whose name the right uses as shorthand for Big Government. He hasn’t stood pat, either, recently showing renewed interest in taking the lead on climate change, an issue that got short shrift during the 2016 primary but that looks to become a fault line in 2020. He won’t be the only unapologetic progressive running this time around, but his bona fides won’t be in doubt. He easily won last year’s Democracy for America straw poll, a sign that a significant slice of the grassroots left remains in his corner.

Liabilities: Sanders is still beloved by his base, but he’s not exactly picking up where he left off in 2016, when he came far closer to winning the nomination than even he thought possible. He finished the primary season polling in the mid-40s, but he’s spent most of the past year in the high teens, a worrisome development for a candidate who has remained in the spotlight. 2020 will come with new problems: He won’t be able to count on the support of anybody-but-Clinton types who might not have agreed with him on policy but felt they had no other credible choice last time. And he’ll have plenty of competition from the progressive wing of the party, many of whom offer the same policy promises in new packaging. See also: old white dude.

Elizabeth Warren

Strengths: The Massachusetts senator was the left’s first choice to challenge Clinton last time around, and she remains one of the party’s biggest stars. Like Sanders, she’s an economic populist; unlike Sanders, she’s a proud member of the Democratic Party, making her far more palatable to the establishment that pushed Clinton to the nomination. Warren can also make a compelling case for why it’s time for a female president, a message she began delivering more forcefully after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed: “I watched powerful men helping a powerful man make it to an even more powerful position.” The former Harvard Law School professor has also been working hard to expand her policy portfolio, including a recent well-received speech on foreign policy, a topic on which she seems eager to distinguish herself from Sanders.

Liabilities: Warren’s lost at least a little bit of her luster since the left did its best to draft her into the race two years ago. Sanders’ rise has come, at least partially, at her expense. She’s failed to crack double digits in any major poll this year, a troubling sign for someone with her profile. She was baited into releasing a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry, which didn’t do her any favors. And like Biden and Sanders, she’d be in her 70s by the time Election Day rolls around, a potential turnoff for those in the party calling for generational change.

Beto O’Rourke

Strengths: No one has more momentum heading into 2019 than O’Rourke, who proved a magnet for money, celebrity endorsements, and fawning magazine profiles during his ultimately unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas in the midterms. At 46, Beto is young but not too young. As a three-term congressman, he has experience in Washington but not enough to be branded a swamp creature. He’s charismatic online and IRL, and his rejection of labels allows some voters to see in him whatever they want, be it a moderate congressman who’s willing to reach across the aisle or a fiery progressive uninterested in playing it safe at the expense of saying what needs to be said.

Liabilities: A backbencher with no marque legislative achievements to his name, he has—by far—the least impressive professional résumé of any of the most-buzzed-about candidates. He says he “doesn’t know” if he’s a progressive, a self-assessment the left is starting to agree with. Already, could-be presidential hopeful Beto is being put under the microscope in ways that Senate candidate Beto was not, with the left taking issue with what was a rather centrist voting record in the U.S. House. His lack of policy specifics—including his intentionally vague support of “universal health care”—was an asset against Cruz in 2018, but it might not fly in 2020 when his Democratic rivals are offering specifics.

Kamala Harris  

Strengths: The first-term California senator has fared surprisingly well in early polls given she’s a relative newcomer to the national stage—she tends to run even with, and occasionally ahead of, Warren, for instance. As a woman of color—she’s the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother—she offers the kind of lived experience that helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley become breakout stars of the midterms. She’s been a leader on immigration, a staunch defender of Planned Parenthood, and a frequent critic of the criminal justice system, and she talks frankly about race and immigration in both the past and the present tense. (“We are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are Native American or your people were kidnapped and placed on a slave ship, your people are immigrants.”) And as a former state attorney general, she’s particularly well-equipped to hit Trump on everything from corruption to the Constitution. She also could get a boost in her delegate-rich backyard now that California has moved up its Democratic primary to early March.

Liabilities: Her roots as a prosecutor could make things difficult for her in a party that has grown increasingly critical of the criminal justice system, and civil rights advocates and other progressive activists have already complained that she was too cautious and/or too calculating while a district attorney in San Francisco and, later, state attorney general. As AG, she refused to prosecute or even seriously investigate Steve Mnuchin’s former company, OneWest, for potentially illegal foreclosures, something the left has never forgiven her for. And while being a woman of color may help her stand out in a crowded field without many, she’ll nonetheless be running against racist and misogynistic headwinds that are sadly still present in this country.

Cory Booker

Strengths: The New Jersey senator likes to talk about things like “civic grace” and “courageous empathy.” His inclusive brand of politics may remind voters of Obama and will definitely mark a stark contrast to Trump. He can deliver a strong stump speech and has a knack for social media. And liberals will find a lot to love in his policy platform, which includes support for marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, a federal jobs guarantee, and Medicare for all. While Booker isn’t yet attracting the same national attention as the big names on the list, Democratic activists appear ready to give him a long look, offering him a potential launching pad in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Liabilities: Booker’s earnestness and soaring rhetoric will rub some people the wrong way, as will his efforts to grab the spotlight—two qualities on full display in his “I am Spartacus” moment during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. He’s also a friend of Wall Street and high finance, which he made clear back in 2012 when he defended Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital and urged Democrats to “stop attacking private equity.” More recently, he voted against Sanders-sponsored legislation that would have created a reserve fund to allow Americans to buy cheap prescription drugs from Canada, a vote that he drew considerable heat for from the left.

Amy Klobuchar

Strengths: The Minnesota senator squeaks onto this list—she hasn’t exceeded 3 percent in any major national poll to date—but she saw her national profile grow considerably last year. Previously, her name was more likely to be found on lists of potential VP picks, but now she’s seen by some, including Rachel Maddow, as better suited for the top of the ticket. Klobuchar won her third term in November by 24 points in a state that Trump lost by just one point in 2016, allowing her to tout an ability to win back the kind of Midwestern swing voters who proved crucial to Trump’s victory last time around. She bills herself as a mild-mannered pragmatist willing to reach across the aisle, which could help her stand out in a field full of fiery progressives and combative #resistance types. And she doesn’t shy away from confrontation despite the Midwestern Nice vibe, as she demonstrated with her “I have no drinking problem, judge” clash with Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.

Liabilities: The flip side of being a pragmatist is that you can look like you’re playing small ball while everyone else is swinging for the fences. Minnesota Republicans deride her as “the senator of small things” for her focus on things like banning lead in toys and improving swimming pool safety. But perhaps her biggest vulnerability is on big-ticket issues like health care, where she has stopped short of backing Medicare for all, which her critics on the left see as evidence that she’s not willing to think big on the issues that matter most.

Those are just seven of the Democrats who could mount a credible primary campaign this year and next. Plenty more are eager to try. Despite their low polling numbers now, you’re going to hear more about Kirsten Gillibrand and Sherrod Brown and Julián Castro (who recently launched his exploratory committee). A national newcomer like Andrew Gillum or Stacey Abrams could make a splash should they decide to get in. Democrats with a lower national profile but without a recent electoral loss on their record could also attract the spotlight, be it Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti or Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. And there are those who could bankroll their own campaigns to consider: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, environmental activist Tom Steyer, and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, among them. The only thing that would truly be a surprise in 2019 is if there were no surprises. But the seven on this short list can reasonably expect one thing, should they decide to run: Their early popularity will provide an initial platform to make their case directly to the Democratic base. The other could-be candidates won’t necessarily have that luxury. Their immediate concern, then, won’t be how their pitch will be received but whether enough primary voters will even be able to hear it over the competing noise.