The Slatest

“Who Is That Guy?” A Guide to the Underdogs of the 2020 Democratic Debates.

John Delaney, Eric Swalwell, Bill de Blasio, Julian Castro, John Hickenlooper, Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Jay Inslee, Marianne Williamson, Michael Bennet, Tim Ryan, and Matt Danforth.
The other Democratic candidates.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by United States Congress, Sean Rayford/Getty Images, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images, Washington State, Jerod Harris/Getty Images for the Environmental Media Association, Zach Gibson/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images.

After what has seemed like 45 years or so of preliminary campaigning, it’s finally time to (hopefully) start narrowing the Democratic primary field. The first step in that process will be a pair of debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights in Miami during which many American voters will just be starting the process of figuring out who everyone is in the first place. There will be 20 presidential aspirants participating in the debates, and even some of the candidates who met the Democratic National Committee’s polling-and-fundraising threshold for inclusion are still relatively unknown. Here is a guide to these underdogs: who they are, why they’re doing this, and whether you should care about them, in left-to-right order of where they’ll be standing onstage.

FIRST DEBATE

Democratic presidential candidate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio talks with the crowd during a Democratic Black Caucus meeting on May 18 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Bill de Blasio.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images.

Bill de Blasio

Who he is: Mayor of New York City.
Why he says he’s running: To “put working people first” by taking his brand of ambitious progressive policy national—and to defeat Donald Trump, whom he insists for some reason on calling “Con Don.”
Should he be getting more attention? Hear me out—yes!
What for? De Blasio’s performance as mayor of New York has been marked by aloof indifference and petty feuding, and now he’s running in what you might describe as “extreme last place” if you go by net favorability rating. But he’s also overseen the end of the racially discriminatory NYPD practice of stop-and-frisk policing—a move that, contrary to conservative warnings, has not caused crime rates to increase. And he followed through on a campaign promise by introducing universal free pre-K for New York City children. Only a few other candidates could plausibly claim to have actually put working people first to the extent that he has.
Why isn’t he getting more attention? De Blasio is personally a bit charmless and politically seems to lack an attention span. He’s like Bernie Sanders without the rousing rhetoric or Elizabeth Warren without the comprehensive command of detail, and given that both of those people are also running and were more popular than him to begin with, there’s little reason to take his candidacy seriously.
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: 0.4 percent.

Tim Ryan.
Tim Ryan.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Tim Ryan

Who he is: A 45-year-old congressman from Ohio who ran unsuccessfully for minority leader in 2016 and initially opposed Nancy Pelosi’s bid to become speaker of the House this year as well.
Why he says he’s running: Because he believes that Democrats need to abandon so-called identity politics issues and leftism in order to “unify” the country around policies that emphasize the importance of “free enterprise.” (If those things sound a lot like what Nancy Pelosi might say too, well, that’s part of Tim Ryan’s problem.)
Should he be getting more attention? No.
Why not? There are several other candidates who espouse more or less the same beliefs as Ryan but have more impressive résumés and/or have demonstrated a greater capacity to discuss their worldview in a way that interests Democratic primary voters.
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: 0.6 percent.

Julián Castro.
Julián Castro.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Julián Castro

Who he is: Former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama.
Why he says he’s running: To promote progressive policies on issues like education and immigration that would help other families have the American dream–style opportunities that his own did. (Castro’s grandmother moved to Texas from Mexico as a 6-year-old orphan; his mother was a Chicano activist; and he and his twin brother Joaquin attended Stanford on scholarship.)
Should he be getting more attention? Yes, at least a little.
What for? Under Castro’s supervision, the Department of Housing and Urban Development finalized something called the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule—a means of incentivizing municipalities to desegregate housing that had literally been in the works since the Nixon administration—in 2015. Given the connections between housing segregation and other pervasive problems in the U.S., it’s one of the most potentially far-reaching policy achievements that any 2020 candidate can say they had a role in. (Unfortunately, Ben Carson and Trump canceled the rule’s implementation last year.)
Why isn’t he getting more attention? He’s a dull, by-the-numbers speaker, and Beto O’Rourke stole his “Democrat who might be able to win in Texas” mojo in 2018.
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: 0.8 percent.

Tulsi Gabbard.
Tulsi Gabbard.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by United States Congress.

Tulsi Gabbard

Who she is: A 38-year-old Hawaii congresswoman and Iraq veteran.
Why she says she’s running: To promote progressive policies like “Medicare for All” and, she says, to stand against the national security establishment “war hawks” who are perpetually pushing for the U.S. to engage in disastrous regime-change campaigns abroad.
Should she be getting more attention? No.
Why not? Gabbard has run an erratic campaign staffed by people close to the abusive-sounding leader of the small Hare Krishna–like sect in which she grew up, and her alleged peace-directed principles are applied with weird inconsistency. She’s an apologist, for instance, for Syrian war crimes perpetrator Bashar al-Assad and has suggested Barack Obama betrayed the memory of the Sept. 11 attacks by failing to bomb rebel al-Qaida sects in Assad’s country. The Nation, a publication that is itself extremely skeptical of military aggression, has accused Gabbard of using non-interventionist rhetoric to hide an “affinity for authoritarians, nationalists, and Islamophobes.”
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: 0.5 percent.

Jay Inslee.
Jay Inslee.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Washington State.

Jay Inslee

Who he is: Governor of Washington; also a former congressman and prosecutor.
Why he says he’s running: To draw attention to the crisis of climate change. (He’s currently trying to get the Democratic National Committee to make the issue the sole subject of an entire debate.)
Should he be getting more attention? Yes.
What for? I’m not a climate change expert, but it does seem like many people who are experts believe that factual evidence suggests rising temperatures may soon bring about the end of all life on Earth. I agree with Jay Inslee that such a possibility is concerning.
Why isn’t he getting more attention? YOLO?
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: 0.5 percent, which is also the percentage of the human population that will survive the Great Fire Wars of the 2050s.

John K. Delaney.
John K. Delaney.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by United States Congress.

John Delaney

Who he is: A former three-term congressman from a gerrymandered Maryland district who started his presidential campaign in freakin’ July 2017.
Why he says he’s running: At this point, Delaney’s main public goal seems to be convincing voters that single-payer health care is politically and practically inadvisable. (He has his own universal-coverage proposal, in which the government would guarantee access to a set of basic health services that individuals and organizations could then supplement by buying private plans.)
Should he be getting more attention? Not him, personally. But his arguments, yes.
What for? Delaney’s bid to get attention by being the guy who denounces Medicare for All as “political suicide”—and who then compares his critics to Donald Trump when he gets pushback for it—is selfish. As Pete Buttigieg has demonstrated, there are ways to pitch more incremental approaches to universal coverage without attacking the broadly popular Medicare for All brand that the Democratic nominee may well end up running on (and it’s rich for Delaney to suggest that he knows what does and doesn’t work politically when he’s polling at 0.5 percent). But the arguments Delaney is making are ones that the eventual nominee is going to have to reckon with, even if he is making them in a counterproductive, bombastic way.
Why isn’t he getting more attention? Because he is a physically nondescript and previously obscure three-term congressman whose main issue is disparaging an idea that most Democratic primary voters say they favor.
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: 0.5 percent.

SECOND DEBATE

Marianne Williamson.
Marianne Williamson.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for the Environmental Media Association.

Marianne Williamson

Who she is: A spirituality-oriented self-help author and speaker who appeared frequently on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Why she says she’s running: To promote progressive policy positions (she’s pro-reparations, for example) within the kind of soft-therapeutic framework you’d expect from the author of
A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight Forever. (“Weight that disappears from your body but not from your soul is simply recycling outward for a while but is almost certain to return.”)
Should she be getting more attention? No.
Why not? Just last week Williamson issued an empirically bogus claim that polls are biased against her and asserted that she does not trust pro-vaccine “propaganda.” The Democrats are supposed to be the major party that’s against reality denial and scammy pseudoscience, right?
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: She is not polling well enough to appear on the average.

John Hickenlooper.
John Hickenlooper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

John Hickenlooper

Who he is: Co-founder of a Denver brewpub who became Denver mayor and a two-term Colorado governor.
Why he says he’s running: To heal America’s “crisis of division” with a brand of Rocky Mountain Democratic idealism that’s socially liberal but respects rugged capitalist entrepreneurship.
Should he be getting more attention? A bit.
What for? While the economic platforms proposed by most “centrist” Democrats amount to letting Wall Street donors write deregulation bills, Hickenlooper’s ideas for “leveling the playing field for small business” are a real stab at addressing contemporary economic inequality via non-socialist means.
Why isn’t he getting more attention? Joe Biden is a better-known, better-funded candidate for Democrats who are looking for an affable, non-socialist nominee, while Warren got a head start in the race to win over econ journalists.
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: 0.3 percent.

Andrew Yang.
Andrew Yang.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images.

Andrew Yang

Who he is: A technology entrepreneur and nonprofit executive.
Why he says he’s running: To discuss the potentially mega-disruptive problem of automation-related job loss, to promote the cause of universal basic income as a potential solution, and to generally provide a self-described nerd’s perspective on public policy.
Should he be getting more attention? Yes.
What for? Yang comes across as serious and well-informed, but at the same time his campaign—and its unofficial online support brigade, the Yang Gang—has a kind of loose, playful spirit that you rarely see in politics. While his willingness to publicly chew over subjects ranging from mixed martial arts regulation to mandatory circumcision is probably unorthodox enough to keep him from being a real contender, the fact that it’s considered “unorthodox” to use a presidential election as an opportunity to discuss a wide variety of ambitious ideas for solving problems probably says more about the rest of us than it does about him.
Why isn’t he getting more attention? He has no previous experience in politics, and the central issue of his campaign is robots taking our jobs.
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: 1.3 percent.

Michael Bennet.
Michael Bennet.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images.

Michael Bennet

Who he is: Colorado senator and former private equity executive.
Why he says he’s running: To “tell the truth.” And to “unify the American people” by promoting policy ideas that emphasize the importance of the “private sector.”
Should he be getting more attention? No.
Why not? There are, like, 10 white, male, business-friendly Democrats who were already in the race when Bennet announced. One of them is even from Colorado! Also, his plan is to “tell the truth”? OK, Bono. Next!
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: 0.4 percent.

Eric Swalwell.
Eric Swalwell.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by United States Congress.

Eric Swalwell

Who he is: A 38-year-old former prosecutor and four-term congressman from Northern California who makes the rounds on cable news in his capacity as a member of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees investigating Trump.
Why he says he’s running: To “make sure that if you work hard it adds up to doing better and dreaming bigger.” No, really, that is his motto!
Should he be getting more attention? It pains me to say this, but yes.
What for? Swalwell’s gun violence plan, which includes planks like universal background checks as well as measures intended to prevent domestic violence shootings and suicides, is one of the more ambitious and specific proposals on the subject that has been issued by a 2020 candidate.
Why isn’t he getting more attention? He’s young but doesn’t have the public speaking charisma of comparably inexperienced candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, while his “dreaming bigger” catchphrase might be the worst political slogan I’ve ever heard.
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: He is not polling well enough to appear on the average.

Composite of a bunch of men combined, including Bill Clinton, Woodrow Wilson, and George Bush.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ali Morshedlou on Unsplash, Spencer Russell on Unsplash, kyryll ushakov on Unsplash, and National Archives.

Matt Danforth

Who he is: A three-term suburban Virginia congressman who chairs the House Subcommittee on Cyber Troops, worked previously as a prosecutor and Amazon lobbyist, and identifies himself on social media as a “proud husband and dad.”
Why he says he’s running: Danforth has said that “we need to step back and think about what we really stand for” and stresses the importance of defeating Trump, whom he has referred to as “Darth Vader Donald.”
Should he be getting more attention? No.
Why not? He is a made-up composite character that Slate created by feeding the biographies of all the other middle-aged white congressmen who are running for president into a computer.
Current RealClearPolitics polling average: N/A

Enjoy the debates, everyone. Team Danforth!