The biggest questions about the 2020 Democratic presidential 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 running for their party’s nomination next year to be its standard-bearer in the 2020 election.
Former Vice President Joe Biden finally jumped in, establishing himself as an early if unproven frontrunner. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders have been in the fray for months. Beto O’Rourke is also in. Pete Buttigieg picked up some steam.
The Democratic field includes 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. The debates start in June, with most candidates getting a chance to appear on stage, but the number of participants will start to be winnowed in the third debate in September. The lineup for the first Democratic debate in late June was recently announced, with 20 candidates split up over two nights.
Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will face Trump, who has already raised more than $100 million for reelection to a second term. Recent history tells us 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 nominees 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 the 2020 election?
On the Republican side, there is of course President Donald Trump.
A few Republican officials — former Ohio Gov. John Kasich 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.
The only GOPer willing to make the leap so far is former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a libertarian-leaning Republican who has officially entered the race.
On the Democratic side, the field is set, barring some unexpected late entries. They are, in rough order of public profile:
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 apparently wasn’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 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. 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, however. Still, for many of the Democratic left, Sanders is the only candidate with the credibility to pursue their top-tier issues, like Medicare-for-all.
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. Based on the early polls and media hype, Harris has made the biggest splash of any Democrats not named Sanders.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): The Massachusetts senator 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 got on the ground early 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. 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.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY): Gillibrand has evolved over the years from a centrist Democrat in the House to a progressive. She 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.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO): Bennet is a well-regarded but nationally little-known senator. He tacks toward the center ideologically. The passion that fuels his candidacy is a fervent frustration with the way Washington works now. Bennet believes Americans are not nearly as divided as the parties in Washington and is positioning himself accordingly.
Former Rep. 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. The open question is whether his self-evidence political talents are matched by policy substance.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: De Blasio, mayor of America’s biggest city and already the unlikely victor of a contentious Democratic primary to get there, is touting his progressive achievements in the Big Apple as a model for the nation: enacting universal pre-K, ending stop-and-frisk, and an ambitious local health care program.
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.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: Inslee is centering his work on environmental issues and the threat of climate change. He has pushed a bill to get his home state off coal energy and all other carbon-producing energy sources by 2045. It hasn’t always been smooth — voters in Washington rejected an Inslee-supported carbon fee in 2015 — but the governor hopes to quickly build a profile by focusing relentlessly on humanity’s direst existential threat.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock: Bullock, a two-term Democratic governor in a Trump-friendly state, is campaigning as a Washington outsider who will confront moneyed interests and reform campaign finance. He can also claim the successful expansion of Medicaid, with the buy-in of a Republican legislature, to showcase his bipartisan bona fides.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: Hickenlooper is a moderate ex-governor who is pitching his ability to work across the aisle. On the issues, he can tout his record on gun violence, environmental regulations, and expanding Medicaid. He conveys an everyman persona, having founded a Denver brewery before he ever ran for public office.
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.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA): The California Democrat has gained a bit of a profile from his role on the House Intelligence Committee, which has taken much of the responsibility for investigating the Trump administration over the last two years. He’s selling his candidacy as one focused on national security.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH): The Ohio congressman is pitching himself as the Democratic answer for Trump Country, arguing he can connect with the blue-collar workers the party has lost in the Midwest. He cited the closure of the Lordstown GM plant in his home state as part of his motivation for running. Ryan has a history of long-shot bids: he challenged Nancy Pelosi for the House Democratic leader post in 2016.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA): Another Pelosi skeptic who helped lead the unsuccessful rebellion to stop her from becoming House Speaker again in 2016. Moulton, who represents a district in Massachusetts and is an Iraq War veteran, is positioning himself as a moderate in contrast to the socialist energy animating the left and seeking to take over his party.
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.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel: The 88-year-old former senator, famed for reading the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record, is running 2020’s oddest campaign. Two teenagers convinced Gravel to launch a protest candidacy targeting the center-left and the forever war of mainstream American foreign policy.
Andrew Yang: A 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.
Marianne 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.
Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam: The mayor of a Miami suburb, it seems safe to assume Messam has the lowest name recognition of any Democrat in the race. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he’s raised wages for city workers as mayor and confronted the Republican-led state government over gun control.
Former Rep. Joe Sestak: The retired three-star admiral and former Pennsylvania representative in Congress is a late entry to the race, announcing his campaign three days before the first Democratic debates. Sestak is pitching himself heavily on his naval experience — his campaign logo prominently features the moniker “Adm. Joe” — and the global leadership experience that he says it provides.
Who else might run for president in the 2020 election?
The field might finally be set. There are a handful of names we’re still watching — former senator, Secretary of State and presidential nominee John Kerry and Georgia state senator Stacey Abrams chief among them — but otherwise, we have all the candidates we’re going to get.
When are the 2020 Democratic presidential primary election debates?
The Democratic National Committee announced it will hold 12 debates, starting in June 2019 and extending into 2020.
Given the huge field, the debates will be split across two nights to start with. The first night of the first debate, Wednesday, June 26, will start at 9 pm ET and the candidates on stage will be: Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. John Delaney, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Tim Ryan, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
The lineup for the following night, June 27, also starting at 9 pm ET, will be: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Michael Bennet, author Marianne Williamson, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
We know the following details about the next debates:
- July 30 and 31 in Detroit, MI
- September 12, location TBD
- October, date and location TBD
The first two debates will have up to 20 candidates and likely be spread over two nights, with participation decided by lottery. The third debate might also require two nights, depending on how many candidates meet the new and more stringent qualification criteria the DNC is instituting.
For those third and fourth debates starting in September, candidates will need to attain either 130,000 individual donors or more than 2 percent in at least four national or early primary state polls. At the moment, that would shrink the field considerably, from upwards of 20 candidates to only a half dozen or so. Things still could change, of course.
When are the 2020 Democratic presidential 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 so many candidates trying to prove that 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, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont primaries
- March 7: Louisiana primary
- March 10: Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio primaries; North Dakota caucuses
- 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 presidential 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, though they generally have to hit a minimum threshold of 15 percent to be awarded any delegates.
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 could 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.