At this early stage of the U.S. Democratic Presidential primary race the absence of an obvious heir to the Obama legacy means that the field is open to a larger number of candidates than usual. If the 2016 cycle is anything to go by we will probably have to wait until the Spring before candidates begin to formally announce their intentions to run in the race.
However, hints made by candidates in interviews, the activity of candidates in key primary and caucus states, reports of meetings held with major donors and party backers, and moves by candidates to clarify their policy positions can give a strong indicator of which Democratic hopefuls are positioning themselves to run.
At this point an ‘invisible primary’ is taking place in which candidates will seek out donors to finance a campaign, which will remove lower-profile candidates who cannot raise sufficient funds from the list of potential nominees. These are the most likely candidates to make the nomination at this stage in the contest.
1. Joe Biden (Former Vice President and Senator for Delaware)
On Monday evening Biden hinted strongly at a presidential bid when he told an interviewer that he was, “the most qualified person in the country to be president”. In terms of political experience this is true given his thirty-six years in the Senate and his Vice Presidency under Obama.
Biden finished in fifth place during the 2008 primaries and decided not to run in 2016, but his chances have been transformed in the last ten years by his two terms as Vice President. His strong affiliation to the Obama years should work in his favour, but at the age of seventy-six he would struggle to emulate the youthful enthusiasm of Obama’s campaign. In CNN’s first poll he led the field of likely Democratic nominees for the presidential contest.
Biden’s campaign would be likely to focus upon defending Obama era policies such as Obama’s flagship healthcare scheme and his creation of a path to citizenship for young people brought illegally to the country as children. He has also indicated that his campaign would focus upon regaining the Rust Belt vote for the Democrats, which they lost when white, working-class voters in North-Eastern manufacturing states defected to Trump.
However, the other major voting group that the Democrats must bring on board is white women, 52% of whom defected to Trump in 2016. In 1991 Biden was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that approved Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court in spite of allegations of sexual assault. Since then Trump has attempted to distract attention away from his own sexual assault allegations by accusing Biden of having a “long history of… groping”, which in a presidential contest would detract from the ability of the Democrats to draw attention to Trump’s own string of sexist policies and assault allegations.
Following Trump’s success in bringing women forward to accuse Bill Clinton in 2016, accusations of sexual assault are likely to be a major feature of the 2020 race if Biden is nominated. If women came forward to accuse Biden then the Democrats would have to hold the same kind of investigation that they demanded of Kavanaugh, which could have the potential to derail his campaign.
2. Sen. Kamala Harris (California)
In contrast to Biden’s performance during the Clarence Thomas’s hearings, Kamala Harris made a name for herself during the Kavanaugh hearings as an advocate for women’s rights. For the moment betting sites have positioned her as joint favourite alongside Beto O’Rourke to take the nomination. She may face an uphill struggle since a recent poll found that 53% of voters have never heard of her, but Obama and Sanders both demonstrated that they could make a strong showing in the primaries despite starting the process as relative unknowns.
Harris has only been a member of the Senate for two years, which means that her record is clean by comparison to older candidates such as Biden, Sanders, or Warren. This would provide Trump with less material with which to brand Harris as ‘crooked’. The mid-terms also demonstrated the willingness of the Democrats to field fresh, progressive, diverse candidates.
During her short time in the Senate Harris has managed to gain valuable experience through her seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her experience as a prosecutor and Attorney General of California was apparent during her tough questioning of Kavanaugh and Jeff Sessions, which would prove itself a tremendous asset in a debate with Trump.
Her background in law has also helped her to recapture the language of law and order utilised by the Republicans in the interests of the Democrats. This may eventually be decisive in a debate over the weighty electoral issues of illegal immigration, drug use, and terrorism. Throughout the hearings Harris also proved herself to be a compelling and articulate public speaker. However, as the most junior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee she risks losing her position now that the Republicans have gained seats in the Senate.
3. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont)
Sanders also looks to be highly likely to enter the race, although his wife has stated that he will prioritise beating Trump over his own personal desire to be President. Much like Corbyn, Sanders has a strong personal following on the liberal left but has struggled in the past to attract swing voters from the centre.
Sanders practices the politics of principles on the major issues of universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, and tuition-free college education, but he has often been unwilling to reach compromises with his fellow Democrats. In 2016 the rift between himself and Clinton was so large that following the primaries a number of his supporters defected to the Trump campaign. However, in 2020 this would be unlikely since the other potential candidates for the most part align much more closely with Sanders’ own views than with those of Hillary Clinton.
4. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts)
In September Warren announced that she would take “a hard look” at mounting a 2020 presidential run, which seems even more likely since Warren’s team have sought out the support of Democratic officeholders in the key primary and caucus states of Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina. In preparation for the campaign she will take a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee in order to improve her expertise on foreign policy, which has been a weak spot for Warren in the past.
In a recent speech and Foreign Affairs article Warren set out her vision for a foreign policy approach that would reverse some of the processes of globalisation that have taken place since the Cold War. In this she has a great deal in common not only with Bernie Sanders, but also with Donald Trump. A tough stance on the outsourcing of jobs to China could be crucial in retaking the Rust Belt states by playing Trump at his own game.
In past confrontations with Trump, however, Warren has not always come out on top. Just in the last few weeks Warren’s attempt to settle an old score over her Native American ancestry was derailed when Native American leaders criticised her for using their heritage for political capital. Trump has already nicknamed her ‘Pocahontas’, and the nickname would most likely stick during the election.
5. Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey)
Cory Booker is almost certainly going to announce a presidential run after meeting with Obama’s aides and embarking upon the mandatory trip to Iowa. He initially made a name for himself by moving into a slum housing project in 1998 to draw attention to issues of drug dealing, poor quality housing, and predatory landlords in his own City Council district. His meteoric rise into the Senate from that point has raised hopes that he could continue to the presidency.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Kavanaugh hearings were not only a contest between the Democrats and Trump’s nominee, but were also an early battle between Harris and Booker for the presidential nomination. Both were able to use the hearings to set out their positions on abortion, campaign finance reform, and the legality of a potential attempt by Trump to block the Mueller investigation. However, given that the positions set out by the pair were fairly similar, the contest fell down to Harris’s experience in interviewing witnesses as a prosecutor. The two will continue to tussle over the chance to mount a hope-and-change campaign like that of Obama, and their fortunes may soon reverse if Harris loses her seat on the committee.
Booker’s own confession that he groped a classmate during his time in high school is also highly likely to become a point of contention during the primary contests, especially in light of the Democratic drive to keep white female voters on board.
6. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas 16th District)
Until a month ago Beto O’Rourke was relatively unknown as a young representative from Texas. During the mid-terms he caused a major upset when he came within a margin of 51-48 from taking a Texas Senate seat from the prominent Republican Ted Cruz. The narrow defeat was treated as a victory by Democratic strategists because it brought the state of Texas back into play for the first time since 1993. This might have had quite a lot to do with the fact that Ted Cruz is the most hated Republican in the Senate (as Trump rightly observed back in 2016, “everybody hates him”). Nevertheless, the contest demonstrated O’Rourke’s ability to energise voters and to raise large amounts of money from donors.
O’Rourke met with Obama’s former aides, who encouraged him to attempt to emulate Obama’s 2008 campaign. So far he has refused to rule out the possibility of doing so. The question is whether O’Rourke can maintain the same momentum for the next year and a half once pitted against more established Democratic hopefuls, especially since Cruz eventually won the Texas seat. The surprise of his breakthrough in the last few weeks accounts for his high betting odds, but it would be a mistake to bet on him this early in the race. O’Rourke has also been placed under pressure to contest the other Texas Senate seat in 2020 rather than mounting a bid for the presidency, and so it remains to be seen which office he will decide to run for.
The nominee won’t be Hillary Clinton, Dwayne the Rock Johnson or Oprah, but other Democratic hopefuls are worth watching
Clinton has hinted that she would “like to be president”, but the only person who responded warmly to the suggestion was Donald Trump. Since then she told responders firmly that, “I’m going to be supporting other people who are running for office”.
Trump’s win was not the first time in U.S. history that a celebrity has taken the presidency. President Ronald Reagan has eighty roles listed on IMDb, including a lead role in the comedy ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’. Despite this, the Democrats tend to recognise that just because somebody has the public profile and money to run does not necessarily mean that they are properly qualified for the Presidency.
In spite of continued rumours, Oprah ruled herself out back in February. Dwayne the Rock Johnson also responded to rumours of a presidential bid through a spoof on Saturday Night Live in which he ‘announced’ his 2020 campaign, but later he clarified that he was only joking. A number of business people have strongly hinted at a 2020 bid, but their hopes of following in the footsteps of Trump are very slim considering the Democratic Party’s higher standards.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Sherrod Brown are amongst others who have avoided ruling out their interest in the primary contest. However, given the number of higher profile candidates already manoeuvring towards a run it seems unlikely that donors would choose to gamble on an unlikely candidate. As a result their odds of progressing to the stage at which they would announce their candidacy are low.
Having said this, Beto O’Rourke would have been amongst these unlikely outsiders a few weeks ago and the odds of each candidate are likely to change dramatically within the next year and a half. The best advice at this stage would be to avoid betting on any candidate, and to be prepared to see the field shift as the contest unrolls.