The race to eject Donald Trump from the White House has begun in earnest, with a wide range of candidates pitching themselves as the best man or woman for the job. Here’s everything you need to know.
The former Vice President currently finds himself the frontrunner in a crowded Democratic field, at least for now. While Biden’s support has dropped off substantially since his entry into the race in April, he still leads the RCP polling average by about 12 percentage points.
As the former President’s right-hand man, Biden’s appeal resides largely in the nostalgia with which many Democrats view the Obama years. His message is simple – ‘I’m the best-placed candidate to defeat Donald Trump and return us to normality’. Unfortunately for Biden, while that definitely resonates with some, ‘normality’ is not what many other Democratic primary voters have in mind (at least in terms of policy).
In a party which has, over the past four years, shifted substantially to the left on healthcare, immigration, education and the environment, Biden is pitching himself as unapologetically moderate. While other candidates advocate for universal healthcare, free college tuition and a ‘Green New Deal’, his own policy agenda essentially aims to build upon what was achieved under President Obama.
While he currently benefits from the goodwill and near-universal name recognition afforded by his eight-year Vice Presidential term, there are reasons to believe that the former will erode dramatically once voters start to view Biden as his own candidate, as opposed to a mere symbol of the Obama White House. Chief among them is his highly controversial record on race issues, something which was already brought to light during the first Democratic debate.
As Senator for Delaware, Biden opposed racial integration in schools, later stating that it should have been a question for states as opposed to the federal government (the same excuse given by hardline segregationists for opposing the Civil Right Act, or indeed for supporting slavery). It was a position which left many Democrats uncomfortable in 1988 (when Biden first ran for President), nevermind in 2020. As pointed out by California Senator Kamala Harris, Biden was also on good terms with Strom Thurmond, arguably the Senate’s most notorious post-war white supremacist, and even gave a speech at the latter’s funeral.
For many others, Biden’s age (76, or 78 by the time he would become President) is a problem in itself. Combined with his moderate views, it has certainly left many questioning whether the torch should be passed to a newer generation, as opposed to someone who first ran for president over thirty years ago.
At the time of writing, Joe Biden remains a frontrunner, yet I doubt that will last as other candidates become better known and Biden’s name recognition becomes less of a decisive factor. Furthermore, given that his single biggest drop in polling occurred immediately after his poor showing in the inaugural debate, Biden’s support may decline further as his candidacy is exposed to further scrutiny.
Odds of winning: slim
The independent Senator from Vermont who’s 2016 Presidential bid caused Hillary Clinton a brief panic is back for another go. Sanders is a darling of the Democratic Party’s left-wing. A self-described ‘Democratic Socialist’, he supports ‘Medicare for All’ (expanding the current government-run healthcare plan for those over 65 to cover every citizen), free higher education and the cancellation of all $1.6 trillion of US student debt, funded by a tax on Wall Street speculation, and, among other things, a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Sanders enters the 2020 race in both a stronger and more challenging position than the one he found himself in four years ago. On the one hand, he now benefits from huge name recognition (second only to Joe Biden) and his campaign is no longer the frantic startup that it was in 2016. His staffers are experienced, his message discipline is sharp, and his activist base massive and well mobilised.
However, the fractured and crowded primary field is a significant obstacle to Sanders, who, in 2016, was able to effectively rally everyone who didn’t like Hillary Clinton, including those who weren’t necessarily fans of his radical policy programme. This time around, progressive Democrats have a much wider range of candidates to choose from, a number of whom then aren’t quite as old, white and male as the 77-year-old Bernie.
Furthermore, Sanders is no longer the only candidate with an unashamedly progressive agenda, with others also calling for Medicare for All and free college tuition. Supporters of the Vermont Senator will often argue that it is largely due to his efforts that such ideas have become mainstream, which is no doubt true. However, that does nothing to escape the fact that his radicalism is no longer as much of a unique selling point. It is certainly ironic that his status among the 2020 frontrunners would not have been possible without his 2016 run, yet he may also prove a victim of the latter’s relative success.
As things currently stand, Sanders is effectively tied for second place with Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren (the three candidates creeping up on Joe Biden are within half a percentage point of each other in the polling average). The good news for him is that he maintains an arguably larger and better-motivated core base of supporters than his closest competitors, but the bad news is that his ability to expand his overall coalition is arguably weaker (especially in Southern states). Sanders remains, at least to an extent, a factional candidate.
Odds of winning: not great, not terrible
Senator for California and the state’s former Attorney General, Harris is a formidable primary candidate who gained frontrunner status following her impressive performance at the first Democratic debate. In fact, at this point in time, I would even say that she’s the most likely to end up being the Democratic nominee. Here’s why:
First, in terms of identity, Harris checks all the right boxes. She is relatively young (54), and the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. I know there are many who believe these things to be unimportant, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important to large parts of the Democratic primary electorate (which, in the era of Me Too and Black Lives Matter, they certainly are).
Historically speaking, it is very difficult to become the Democratic nominee without first winning the support of the party’s African American base (which is large, reliable, and a decisive voter block in crucial early primary states such as South Carolina). Failing with this demographic is a major reason why Sanders lost to Clinton in 2016, and why he’s in trouble now. It is also why Harris made a point out of highlighting Joe Biden’s record on race issues (the former Vice-President currently leads with black voters). As the only non-white candidate among the frontrunners, she is uniquely well placed in this regard.
In terms of policy, Harris has one of the most progressive voting records in the Senate. Like other candidates, she has also adopted parts of the 2016 Sanders platform, most notably Medicare for All. In turn, Sanders supporters insist that her embrace of left-wing policy is merely a cynical electoral move and that Harris cannot be trusted to actually fight for these things if she ever gets elected.
Her record as a prosecutor, and later attorney general, presents its own challenges. Essentially, for many progressives, she swings far too much towards ‘law and order’. Most notably, as California’s attorney general, Harris argued against early releases for non-violent offenders and threatened to jail parents whose kids repeatedly committed truancy. Should these issues better come to light, voters might start wondering whether the person they are electing is Kamala Harris the liberal Senator or Kamala Harris the cop. This also has the potential to hurt her standing with African American and Hispanic voters, who are still disproportionately affected by the US criminal justice system.
Overall, Harris’s strength stems from her potential in uniting the many corners of the Democratic Party. While Joe Biden appeals largely to older, moderate voters and Sanders almost exclusively to the younger progressive wing, Harris could be moderate enough for those who still shudder at the word ‘Socialism’ but just about progressive enough for those who don’t want a return to Obama era centrism. Finally, given that her name recognition is still the lowest among the top four, Harris has an arguably better chance to grow her support alongside increased exposure.
Odds of winning: considerable
The first of the Democratic frontrunners to officially announce her candidacy, Warren’s campaign got off to a rough start. The former Harvard Professor and serving Massachusetts Senator got embroiled in a minor row regarding her claims to Native American ancestry and subsequently failed to gain momentum throughout early 2019. However, over the past three months, Warren’s policy-driven campaign has slowly but surely taken her from 5th to 3rd and now to tied 2nd place in the national polling average.
Something that separates Warren from the rest of the Democratic frontrunners is a near-total lack of a personality cult. As far as her supporters are concerned, this is a serious campaign with serious policy proposals, and the policy should speak for itself. Rejecting soundbites in favour of “evidence-based progressivism” is something they take great pride in, and Warren, who has traditionally fallen behind in the likeability contests which tend to dominate American politics, has wholeheartedly embraced that. “Warren has a plan for that” has become the campaign’s unofficial slogan, found on t-shirts sold on their official website next to mugs stating, “I want my coffee like I want the middle class: STRONG”.
Yet such an analysis is only half true. As Mark Schmitt argues in the New York Times, Warren is not just a ‘human face on a binder of policy papers. The policy documents are the personality.’ They present an image of a candidate who is wonkish, understands the detail and is greatly knowledgable about the issues which most affect American’s lives. To that effect, there is much humanity to be found in the bookworm.
So what are these policies which everyone is so excited about? On healthcare, Warren is practically indistinguishable from Sanders in her support for Medicare for All. On education, it’s essentially the same story – make university tuition-free and cancel (most) student debt. But she also has a detailed plan for universal childcare. And a detailed plan for breaking up big tech. And a detailed plan for affordable housing. And for an ultra-millionaire tax. And a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Puerto Rico. You get the idea.
Warren’s critics to the left of the party counter that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, and that, faced with a Republican Senate leadership that will obstruct her at every turn, policy detail will count for nothing. However, her supporters will no doubt counter that, even if plans are useless, planning is indispensable. That you still need to explain how you will pay for stuff, even if certain details are subject to change. They will also point to her experience in setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, maybe the most progressive thing to have ever happened during the Obama presidency.
Bernie Sanders is certainly the most direct comparison to Warren, with both candidates targeting the Democratic Party’s left-wing. But it would be wrong to present the two as ideologically indistinguishable. Unlike Sanders, Warren has never claimed to be a Socialist. Instead, she is far more akin to a traditional progressive, not so much interested in slowly overturning the capitalist system but instead forcing it to serve democracy and the public interest.
I also think that Warren has a much clearer path to the nomination, mainly because her support is nowhere near as factional, and therefore leaves more room for expansion. While a significant proportion of it does come from the progressive wing, recent polling suggests that the dominant second preference among her supporters is actually Harris, not Sanders. Meanwhile, the sober nature of Warren’s campaign, as well as its more covert, as opposed to Sanders’ defiantly overt, style of populism, can potentially appeal to the ‘return to normality’ sentiment which drives so much of Joe Biden’s appeal.
Running such a policy-heavy campaign has its challenges. It leaves a candidate with less room for manoeuvrability and, with so many proposals, some of them are bound to be less popular than others. Moreover, the overwhelming body of political science research is, at best, inconclusive as to whether voters as a whole even care that much about policy. That’s what conventional electioneering logic dictates anyway, but then again, much conventional logic said that Trump could never become President, and yet here we are.
Odds of winning: decent
The Mayor of South Bend, the fourth largest city in Indiana, would really like you to know that he is 37-years-old. His favourite soundbite is about what the world will look like in 2054, the year he will get to the current age of the current President. And if Buttigieg is lucky enough to be elected next year, he will be the youngest President in American history.
‘Mayor Pete’ would also really like to tell you about his resume. Buttigieg studied at Harvard, and then at Oxford. He worked for John Kerry, and for the management consulting firm McKinsey. He served in Afghanistan as a naval intelligence officer. He also knows more languages than you’ve had hot dinners. He is young, smart, articulate, gay, the Mayor of a small midwestern city and a veteran! You probably couldn’t design a more perfect primary candidate if you tried. But is he too good to be true?
Six months ago, nobody outside of South Bend knew who Pete Buttigieg even is. Right now, he is polling at just over 5 per cent, well ahead of most of the pack. In a sense, Buttigieg’s campaign is the polar opposite of Warren’s. While the latter is in the business of selling policy, the product Pete Buttigieg wants to sell you is, well, Pete Buttigieg. At least that’s the criticism many have levied at him. “It’s all about Pete”.
That’s not entirely unfair, either. Until recently, his website had no policies listed on it at all, and even now Buttigieg prefers to speak in themes and generalities. Instead of hard details, what you will find are abstract ideas: Freedom, Security, Democracy. And while that may sound a bit pretentious, Buttigieg appeals to a certain corner of the Democratic base which is desperate to wrestle back concepts such as freedom and security from the political right.
Some of Buttigieg’s rhetoric is definitely popcorn for left-wing intellectuals. When he talks about a positive conception of liberty, of freedom to rather than freedom from, or about taking back Christian values from conservatives, it is very hard for the latter not to get excited. And he is right to make a point out of this. It is, after all, a huge failure of the American left that it has allowed its opponents to monopolise ideas such as freedom.
And so Buttigieg would like to remind you how you’re not truly free if you can’t leave your job for fear of losing health insurance, or if you can’t achieve your greatest potential because university is unaffordable. He will also remind you that the government is far from the only thing which can make you unfree. That your bank can make you unfree. That the county clerk can make you unfree. That crushing medical debt can make you unfree. As I said, this kind of stuff is practically cocaine for left-wing intellectuals (source: I am a politics student).
Buttigieg’s problem, however, is that most Democratic primary voters are not left-wing intellectuals. Many of them will certainly like what he’s saying, and many will even like him personally, but most are still unsure as to why exactly they should make him President, his very impressive resume aside. Buttigieg’s support is not strictly speaking factional, but it is spectacularly narrow demographically. To put it simply, Mayor Pete appeals to young college-educated white liberals. Meanwhile, his support among African Americans is basically zero. I think his team knows this, given that his first comprehensive policy proposal is a plan for racial justice named after the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Buttigieg’s impeccable resume has also found itself called into question by the left. While he may like to present himself as a Democrat who can win in the industrial Midwest, South Bend, they’ll contend, is actually a fairly typical middle-class college town. Moreover, his record as Mayor stinks of technocratic neoliberalism, complete with aggressive gentrification and a rather appalling record on police brutality. And surely, Buttigieg’s age aside, a former McKinsey employee and naval intelligence officer who studied at the worlds most elite universities is hardly a break from the status quo? Buttigieg’s bid for the nomination remains a longshot, but he might make a very tempting Vice Presidential pick for one of the other frontrunners. And if Trump ends up being re-elected next year, we’ll almost certainly see him again in 2024. He is, after all, still quite young.
Odds of winning: very slim
In no particular order: Cory Booker, Michael Bennett, Bill de Blasio, Steve Bullock, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, Mike Gravel, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Yang, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam, Tim Ryan, Tom Steyer, Joe Sestak, and Marianne Williamson.
All of the above candidates are currently polling at under 3 per cent, and most of them at under 1 per cent. I don’t think any of them stand a chance, so for that reason (and because time is finite), I won’t be providing a deep overview. That said:
Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur whose big idea is a form of universal basic income that would see every adult American receive $1000 a month (although it’s not actually that simple). Depending on who you ask, it is either a brilliant way of ensuring economic security in the age of automation or a libertarian trojan horse intended to destroy the welfare state. He is very popular on Twitter and in YouTube comment sections, but that has failed to translate into real-world support. I believe he is also the favourite candidate of Bournebrook’s Economics Editor, Oliver Stanley, so there’s that.
Tulsi Gabbard is a Hawaiian congresswoman who is essentially running as the anti-war candidate. Like Yang, she is very popular online (and with some Trump fans) but that also hasn’t translated into polling.
Bill de Blasio is the current Mayor of New York and no one is quite sure why he is doing this. Mike Gravel is a former Senator from Alaska and is only doing this because the teenagers running his campaign want to see him insult Joe Biden in the debates.
Beto O’Rourke is most famous for losing a Texas Senate race (his was an admittedly impressive performance for a Democrat). Cory Booker is a Senator from New Jersey. Amy Klobuchar is a Senator from Minnesota. Kirsten Gillibrand is a Senator from New York. Michael Bennet is a Senator from Colorado. John Delaney and John Hickenlooper are only running to tell you how bad Socialism is. Marianne Williamson is probably just running to sell her books.
Combined odds of winning: hopeless
The Known Unknowns
Much of what we know about these elections concerns what we don’t know. We don’t know how future debates will impact upon each candidate’s support (although, if the first debate is any indication, Joe Biden has much to be concerned about). We don’t know just how much impact endorsements will make. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are currently leading in this regard, but Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar are also doing quite well, and their polling figures are dire in comparison. Neither do we know how much momentum given candidates will gain due to strong performances in early primary states, or where other candidates’ support will go once they drop out of the race (polling around second preferences gives us some ideas, but it’s far from conclusive right now).
If the field remains packed well into next spring, we are potentially looking at a contested convention where no single candidate has a majority of delegates. In this scenario, we don’t know which frontrunner party elites will unite behind, although we do know that it probably won’t be Bernie Sanders. We also don’t know how important policy will be in voters’ considerations, or if any of the frontrunners will be hit by a sudden scandal that will sink their candidacy.
Most importantly, we don’t know how each candidate will perform against the ultimate opponent, Donald Trump. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders currently poll best against the incumbent President, but Presidential election polling is historically unreliable at this point in the cycle. We know that US Presidents tend to get re-elected (the last incumbent who failed to do so was George H.W. Bush some 27 years ago). But we don’t know what impact an unexpected recession might have upon Trump’s electoral fortunes. There are some who will even say that, in the era of Trump and Brexit, we don’t really know anything about politics anymore.
Photo by DonkeyHotey on Flickr.