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The biggest questions about the 2020 Democratic primary, answered.
The 2020 presidential campaign is well underway.
Any Democrat with dreams of occupying the Oval Office can see Donald Trump is a vulnerable president who hasn’t broadened his appeal beyond his base. A lot of them are going to run for their party’s nomination next year. Some already are.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar have entered the fray, and a few dozen others are seriously considering runs. The Democratic field promises to include a record number of women and nonwhite candidates, a mix of high-wattage stars and lesser-known contenders who believe they can navigate a fractured field to victory.
Whoever emerges will face Trump, who has already raised more than $100 million for reelection to a second term. History tells us that Americans usually give their presidents another four years. That should lend Trump an advantage. But the president has been historically unpopular during his first term, and the US economy — typically at the top of voters’ minds — has stumbled lately.
Many Democratic voters don’t yet have fully formed opinions of the presumed candidates, even the “big” names: the Beto O’Rourkes, Kamala Harrises, Cory Bookers. The potential candidates with substantial name recognition are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, two older white men in a diversifying party.
We have a long way to go, in other words. It’s silly to pretend anybody knows how this campaign is going to end, and the 2016 election should have humbled all political prognosticators. Still, the 2020 campaign has already started. Here is what you need to know to get oriented:
Who is definitely running for president in 2020?
On the Republican side, there is only President Donald Trump.
A few people — former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, ex-Sen. Jeff Flake, and popular Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — have hinted they might challenge the president in a primary. But any primary challenger would be a huge underdog against the sitting president. Republican leaders have said they want to protect Trump by potentially having state parties change the rules for their primaries to guard against an insurgency.
On the Democratic side, several Democrats have already made it official. (An “exploratory committee,” for legal purposes, means they are already a candidate.) They are, in rough order of public profile:
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): The Massachusetts senator is the biggest name in the field so far. She is proudly progressive, though she tends to position herself as wanting to fix capitalism rather than replace it. She wants to outflank Trump on trade and give workers seats on corporate boards and tax extreme wealth. Warren is already on the ground in Iowa and other early states. (You might have also heard about her releasing a DNA test in an attempt to prove she had Native American roots — a poorly executed attempt to rebut Trump’s “Pocahontas” taunts.)
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA): The former California attorney general started generating White House hype almost as soon as she got to the Senate in 2017. As a younger black woman, she personifies the Democratic Party’s changing nature. She’s endorsed Medicare-for-all and proposed a major middle-class tax credit, though her days as a prosecutor may present problems with the progressive grassroots.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ): The former Newark mayor and part-time firefighter is another fresh face with big ideas like savings accounts for newborns, and he’s also running in a Democratic primary with a lot of black voters. He’ll have to contend, though, with his work promoting charter schools (not a favorite of the teachers unions) and the perception that he’s close with Wall Street. He is likewise almost certainly running, given his staff hires and travel schedule.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY): Gillibrand has evolved over the years from a centrist Democrat in the House to a progressive who endorses Medicare-for-all and universal paid family leave; a pillar of her Senate career has been cracking down on sexual assault in the military. Gillibrand is presenting herself as a young mom in tune with the #MeToo era and the Democratic women who powered the party to historic wins in the 2018 midterms.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): She will look to blend her folksy, Midwestern manner with some crossover appeal, given her history of working across the aisle with Republicans and winning elections handily in a purplish state. Klobuchar is also known for her willingness to crack down on big tech firms, focused on privacy and antitrust issues. She is struggling with a lack of name recognition, however, and she has been the subject of several recent reports about her alleged harsh treatment of staff.
Former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary Julián Castro: Castro got VP buzz in prior elections; now he’s running in his own right after serving in Barack Obama’s Cabinet, on an aspirational message as the grandson of immigrants.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI): Gabbard fires up a certain strain of antiwar progressive. She’ll face tough questions, though, about her apparent friendliness with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and her past comments on LGBTQ rights.
Former Rep. John Delaney: The most notable thing about Delaney is he’s already been running for president for two years, more or less living in Iowa, the first state on the presidential calendar. But he was the first choice of just 1 percent of Iowa Democrats in a recent poll.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Something of a viral political star, though he leads a city of “just” 100,000 people, Buttigieg is a military veteran and a Rhodes scholar, and he would be the first openly LGBTQ president in American history. Redevelopment and infrastructure projects have been staples of his tenure as mayor.
Andrew Yang: Humanitarian-mind entrepreneur who also served under the Obama administration. He’s running on a policy platform that includes, among other things, a universal basic income that would pay out $1,000 a month to every American over age 18.
Mariannae Williamson: A self-proclaimed “bitch for God” who has been a spiritual adviser to Oprah. Her previous political experience is a failed run for Congress as an independent in 2014.
Who else might run for president in 2020?
The rumored Democratic list is long. Let’s start with the two biggest names, both of whom are openly considering a run:
Former Vice President Joe Biden: Biden thought hard about running in 2016, but he decided against it, being so soon after his son Beau’s death and with the party establishment uniformly behind Hillary Clinton. He’s still very popular with Democratic voters, and the former veep reportedly isn’t sure any of the other potential candidates would beat Trump. Though surely inflated by name recognition, Biden has a sizable lead in the early Democratic primary polls.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT): The 2016 runner-up is taking a long look at running again. He has the biggest grassroots base of any potential candidate, and he has been the leader of the push to move the party leftward. But press reports of staff sexual misconduct within his 2016 campaign and a more competitive field will present Sanders with a very different race this time if he chooses to jump in, as recent reports suggest he will.
After Biden and Sanders, who enjoy almost universal name recognition within the Democratic Party, there is a long list of senators, governors, House members, and others who are publicly flirting with a White House bid. We’ll run through them quickly; much of the campaign to come will be getting to know these people.
The senators have gotten the most attention so far, surely thanks in part to a Washington media bias:
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH): The third-term senator is heading to Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early primary states to feel out the support for his own run. He’s been an outspoken economic populist for years and proven an election winner in Ohio, a critical swing state, with blue-collar voters. But he does not have much of a profile outside of his home state and Washington. Brown says he’ll decide in March whether to run.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR): A likable if relatively low-profile Oregon progressive. He’s said he’s thinking about it.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO): Like Merkley, he’s a well-regarded but nationally little-known senator. He tacks toward the center ideologically. It’s not clear if Bennet is doing anything more than thinking about a run.
Then you have the governors:
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: Inslee is likely to center his work on environmental issues and the threat of climate change.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock: Bullock is a two-term moderate Democratic governor in a state Trump won by 20 points. There are certainly some people who think that is the kind of profile Democrats need in a 2020 candidate to beat the president.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe: McAuliffe had a reasonably successful term as Virginia’s governor, considering he faced a Republican-led legislature. He is also well-known among Democratic donors, after years as a Clinton money man. That is also probably the biggest hindrance to his potential candidacy. He has signaled he’d run as an unabashed centrist.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: Hickenlooper is one more moderate ex-governor who could tout his record on gun violence. He conveys an everyman persona, having founded a Denver brewery before he ever ran for office.
Finally, there is everybody else:
Beto O’Rourke: The former Texas Congress member is maybe 2020’s biggest wild card. O’Rourke built a historically successful fundraising apparatus during his losing 2018 Senate run against Ted Cruz. He’s young and he gives a good speech. Obama’s old hands seem to like him. A shadow campaign is already being built. Beto himself is traveling the country, blogging, and figuring out whether to run.
Michael Bloomberg: Every four years, the former NYC mayor wonders whether what the Democratic Party really wants is a former Republican technocrat. He has sounded serious about following through in 2020, but he also seems to recognize his weaknesses running to represent a party drifting leftward.
Eric Holder: Obama’s longtime attorney general has talked quite a bit about running in 2020. He’s journeyed to Iowa to evaluate his support.
The list could go on, and it does. At Vox, we’re also monitoring Reps. Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, and Joe Kennedy III; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. You could add in business executive Mark Cuban.
Outside the two major parties, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz is considering an independent bid as a centrist.
When are the 2020 Democratic primary debates?
The Democratic National Committee announced it will hold 12 debates, starting in June 2019 and extending into 2020. The first four debates will be held in the earliest primary and caucus states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.
Participation won’t be based entirely on a candidate’s polling numbers, senior DNC officials have said. Other factors like grassroots funding could be considered, too, as Vox’s Li Zhou previously reported.
Given the sheer number of candidates, the initial 2019 debates could end up being split across two consecutive nights, with candidates being randomly assigned to one of the two stages.
When are the 2020 Democratic primary election and caucus nights?
The votes that matter won’t be cast for another year. We have 12 months of formal announcements, speeches, policy rollouts, campaign gossip, unpredictable polling, and some debates before any elections happen, when candidates start collecting the delegates they’ll need to claim the nomination.
Early momentum is always critical, especially in a big field with numerous candidates trying to prove they’re viable. With that in mind, the first two months of the primary schedule:
- February 3: Iowa caucuses
- February 11: New Hampshire primary
- February 22: Nevada caucuses
- February 29: South Carolina primary
- March 3 (“Super Tuesday”): Alabama, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont primaries
- March 7: Louisiana primary
- March 10: Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio primaries
- March 17: Arizona, Florida, Illinois primaries
There are at least three more months of primaries and caucuses after that. But the candidates will focus their attention and organizing on the earlier states, and we should know a lot more about the field and the strongest candidates once the first sprint is over.
How do you win the 2020 Democratic nomination?
The short version is you have to win a majority of the delegates.
Every state has different rules for its primary elections or caucuses in terms of allocating delegates. Candidates win delegates proportional to where they finish in the results.
In terms of numbers, there are 4,051 delegates for the 2020 Democratic National Convention (where the nominee will be formally selected) up for grabs during the primary elections. One candidate needs to win at least 2,026 delegates to be nominated.
You might hear talk of a “brokered” or “contested” convention if no candidate gets the necessary delegates to win on the first ballot. But that hasn’t happened for decades, and it’s way too early to think that will happen in 2020. That doesn’t mean it’s not a possibility, but let’s wait for some votes to come in before we start up that parlor game.
Democrats have made one major change from the 2016 primary on “superdelegates” — elected officials, party leaders, and other prominent Democrats who have votes in addition to the regular delegates awarded by state elections. In the past, superdelegates didn’t have to follow any rules and can back whichever candidate they desire and make up their minds at any point in the process. When most of them endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, it gave her a built-in delegate advantage over Bernie Sanders, though she still won enough votes independent of the superdelegates to secure the nomination.
In a series of reforms, the DNC has stripped superdelegates of a vote on the first ballot. So unless the convention has to move to second or third votes because no candidate has the sufficient number of delegates — something that hasn’t happened since the 1950s — superdelegates won’t matter in 2020. (Arguably, they never did. Many pointed out it was unlikely for superdelegates to use their power to overturn the outcome of the primary system, but it nevertheless created consternation within the party.)
Okay. So who will be the next president?
Ha! You almost got me.