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September 10th, 2019

So, who are the Democratic 2020 presidential candidates?


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

September 10th, 2019

So, who are the Democratic 2020 presidential candidates?


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ahead of the third Democratic debate this Thursday, USAPP blog Managing Editor, Chris Gilson, profiles each of the candidates who have qualified for the debate and their chances for breaking out into the top polling tier.


Top Tier – polling above 20 percent

Former Vice-President Joe Biden

Who are they? If you only know one candidate in the Democratic race, it’s probably Joe Biden. Biden was Barack Obama’s Vice President from 2008 to 2016; before that he served in the US Senate representing Delaware from 1973 to 2008.

What policies are they pushing? Biden is a moderate, establishment Democrat, very much in the vein of his former boss. His policies like free college and increasing the power of labor unions have been described as aimed at middle class workers; he also has an $1.7 trillion climate plan that would see the US move to net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Why might they break out? Biden doesn’t have to. He’s been the clear frontrunner since the nomination campaign kicked off. 

Potential bumps in the road While his lead is fairly commanding right now, with the rise of young Democrats like New York House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, moderate older white males are looking less and less like the future of the Democratic Party. His record on issues like busing and his predilection for gaffes could see his support start to erode as we head towards the first primaries.

You might not know that… He pulled out of a 1988 presidential run after, among other things, being accused of plagiarizing an earlier speech by Neil Kinnock, the then leader of the UK Labour Party.

What are they polling? (median of last five polls as of 10 September): 26 percent

Joe Biden” by Marc Nozell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Second Tier – polling 10-20 percent

Senator Bernie Sanders

Who are they? The one-time Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders has sat as an independent Senator from that state since 2007, and before that as a US House Member from 1991 to 2007. His unsuccessful Democratic presidential run in 2016 saw him do much better than had been expected; by the contest’s end he won 46 percent of Democratic delegates compared to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 54 percent.

What policies are they pushing? As an unabashed democratic socialist, Sanders supports policies that would have been seen as impossibly liberal only five years ago: Medicare for All (a move to an NHS-style healthcare system), free public college, breaking up large banks, a $15 minimum wage, and a $16 trillion climate change plan.

Why might they break out? For now, out of all the other candidates, Bernie has shortest distance to climb to beat Biden. If the US does indeed slip into recession in the next year, as many are worried about, then his worker-friendly policies may look more and more appealing to voters. 

Potential bumps in the road Sanders had a shot at the White House in 2016 and wasn’t successful, so some may ask, “why then, this time around?” This combined with the fact that ‘socialism’ has always been a difficult word in US politics, may make his path to the 2020 nomination a difficult one. 

You might not know that… Bernie Sanders’ brother, Larry, was a Councillor for the UK Green Party in Oxfordshire from 2005 to 2013.

What are they polling (median of last five polls as of 10 September) 17 percent

IMG_5530” by Matt A.J. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Who are they? Originally an academic, Warren has been a US Senator for Massachusetts since 2013, following a stint as a Special Adviser to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency whose creation she heavily campaigned for following the financial crisis.

What policies are they pushing? More moderate than Bernie Sanders, Warren still advocates policies which will address inequality and make society fairer such as universal child care, free college and ending student debt, wealth taxes and breaking up big tech companies. Her signature line has become “I have a plan for that”.

Why might they break out? Between them, Sanders and Warren have largely cornered the ideological left of the Democratic Party’s base of voters. As someone who believes that capitalism needs to be reformed rather than ditched, Warren may be better placed to court moderates if Biden begins to falter. 

Potential bumps in the road Poor handling of a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry back in May 2019 may have hurt her favorability, and for some, mostly on the right, her ideas have been accused of being potentially too bold for the American people.

You might not know that… Until 1996, Warren was a registered Republican.

What are they polling (median of last five polls as of 10 September) 13 percent

Elizabeth Warren‘ by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

Third Tier – polling 5-10 percent

Senator Kamala Harris

Who are they? Hailing from California, Kamala Harris was San Francisco’s first woman District Attorney from 2004 to 2017, and the state’s first black and woman Attorney General until 2017. In 2016 she was elected to the US Senate for the Golden State, and is only the second black woman to win a Senate seat. Harris (along with fellow Democratic contender Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota) stood out during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court Senate confirmation hearings last year for her sharp questioning, a skill honed during her time as a prosecutor.

What policies are they pushing? Though more moderate than Warren or Sanders, Harris has signed up to Sanders’ Medicare for All bill as a US Senator, wants to expand tax credits for the middle class, ban the death penalty at the national level, halt the sales of assault-style weapons, and has proposed an $100 billion fund for black homeowners to close the racial inequality gap.

Why might they break out? As a black woman – and a moderate – Harris may better reflect where the Democratic Party is compared to older white candidates like Biden, Sanders and Warren. Harris was named the winner of the first Democratic debate in June, after calling out Joe Biden for his previous remarks about working with segregationist Senators and his past opposition for busing. 

Potential bumps in the road Harris has faced some criticism for her tenure as District Attorney and Attorney General in California. While claiming to be a reformer, many see her record to have been one which was more reflective of the 1990s ‘tough on crime’ approach.

You might not know that… As the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, Harris was also the first Indian-American woman to serve as a US Senator.

What are they polling (median of last five polls as of 10 September) 6 percent 

Kamala Harris‘ by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Who are they? Once called the ‘future of the Democratic Party’ by President Obama, since 2012 Pete Buttigieg has been the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a town of just over 100,000 people (for UK readers, this is the same population as Gillingham or Worcester).

What policies are they pushing? ‘Mayor Pete’ is fairly centre-left in his policy positions, supporting stronger labor protections, universal gun background checks a single-payer healthcare system, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Why might they break out? Compared to some of the other candidates, Buttigieg is very young (Biden had been in the Senate for nearly a decade when Buttigieg was born in 1982). Combined with his relatively moderate positions, this could make Buttigieg an appealing candidate for younger voters. His status as a Midwesterner may also help him reach out to Democrats who may feel left out by coastal cosmopolitans like Biden, Bernie, Warren and Harris. 

Potential bumps in the road In one word, experience. While he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, as the Mayor of a relatively small town, Buttigieg may not be able to convince voters that he has the experience to take on the most powerful job in the world.

You might not know that… In 2000, Pete Buttigieg won an essay competition run by the JFK Library in Boston. The subject? Bernie Sanders.

What are they polling (median of last five polls as of 10 September) 5 percent

‘Pete Buttigieg’ by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

Fourth Tier – polling below 5 percent

Former House Member Beto O’Rourke

Who are they? At 46, Beto O’Rourke is also relatively young compared to some of the top tier candidates. From 2013 to 2016 he was a US House Member for the El Paso area in Texas, and before that he was an El Paso City Council Member for 6 years. He gained national attention in 2016 for very nearly beating the incumbent Republican US Senator for Texas, Ted Cruz.

What policies are they pushing? His Texas roots mean that he is big on immigration reform, and also a supporter of NAFTA. He too, has a climate change plan, which includes $5 trillion for investment and would work within existing laws to limit emissions.

Why might they break out? O’Rourke had a real moment in the weeks following his very close loss to Ted Cruz in 2018. While his campaign has slumped since it launched back in March, his recent public use of explicit language following mass shootings in his home state of Texas has put him back in the spotlight to some extent. 

Potential bumps in the road He may have already had his moment. While Beto O’Rourke broke fundraising records at his campaign launch, his subsequent Vanity Fair cover and statement that he was “born to be in it” (i.e. the presidential race) reinforced existing perceptions of his privilege as a well-off white male.

You might not know that… During the 1980s, Beto O’Rourke was a member of the ‘Cult of the Dead Cow’ group of computer hackers.

What are they polling (median of last five polls as of 10 September) 3 percent

2016 President’s Leadership Council” by Inter-American Dialogue is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Andrew Yang

Who are they? If there’s one candidate you’re the least likely to know, it’s Andrew Yang. Until 2017, he was the CEO of non-profit Venture for America, which trains college graduates for start-ups.

What policies are they pushing? Yang’s main idea is to introduce a $1,000 a month Universal Basic Income. He also supports Medicare for All and has a more progressive take on capitalism.

Why might they break out? Despite the popularity of the ‘Yang Gang’ which has a large presence on social media sites like Reddit, Yang’s biggest likely impact on the Democratic race is to force other candidates to talk about or consider a Universal Basic Income as a policy. 

Potential bumps in the road With a relatively low poll rating, low name recognition and such a specific policy focus, it’s hard to see how Yang’s campaign could do a great deal better than it already has. Yang simply making it into the Democratic debates should be seen as an achievement.

You might not know that… Yang raised eyebrows in the last two Democratic debates by not wearing a necktie.

What are they polling (median of last five polls as of 10 September) 3 percent

Andrew Yang‘ by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

Senator Cory Booker

Who are they? From 2006 to 2013 Cory Booker was Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, before taking the state’s US Senate seat in a special election. In 2016, Booker staged a sit-in in the US House in protest over Congressional inaction on gun violence. Like Harris and Klobuchar, Booker also took a strong line when questioning Brett Kavanaugh during the latter’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in September 2018.

What policies are they pushing? Booker has been described as a progressive champion, advocating for issues like criminal justice reform, Medicare for All, background checks for gun purchases, and making marijuana legal. One of his big initiatives would be to introduce ‘Baby Bonds’: creating a savings account for every child at birth which would then grow to as much as $46,000 to be used for education or home ownership by the time they turn 18.

Why might they break out? Booker has been an effective Senator, and has long been seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. If he can have a ‘moment’ in the upcoming debate, then that might bump him into the second tier. 

Potential bumps in the road His campaign has generally failed to lift off so far. Without a breakout moment soon, it may never do so.

You might not know that… In 2010, as Mayor of Newark, he shovelled the streets of snow-bound residents himself.

What are they polling (median of last five polls as of 10 September) 2 percent

Cory Booker‘ by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro

Who are they? The former Mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama from 2014 to 2017. Another rising-star in his mid-40s, Castro is a third-generation Mexican-American.

What policies are they pushing? Castro’s signature policy –along with his housing plan – so far has been immigration reform. Castro wants to make what is now an ‘illegal entry’ into the US, a civil offense, meaning that those immigrants wouldn’t be charged or detained. He also wants to invest $5 billion over 10 years to clean up lead from buildings and polluted soil.

Why might they break out? In the first Democratic debate back in June, Castro impressed many with his performance on immigration, accusing fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke of not understanding an important immigration regulation. 

Potential bumps in the road Like fellow rising-star Cory Booker, Castro’s campaign has just not broken into the higher polling tiers and without a new standout policy or another good debate performance, it’s hard to see that changing in the coming months.

You might not know that… Julian Castro’s identical twin brother, Joaquin, has been a US House Member since 2013.

What are they polling 2 percent

Julian Castro‘ by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

Senator Amy Klobuchar

Who are they? First elected as a County Attorney in 1998, Amy Klobuchar has since 2007 been a US Senator for Minnesota. She’s of the most electable US Senators, winning her 2018 contest by 26 percentage points – including in 43 Trump-friendly counties.

What policies are they pushing? Klobuchar is generally moderate, supporting policies to address the opioid crisis, better gas mileage standards, returning to clean power rules, and reforming gun laws. Klobuchar is keener on compromise compared to some of the other candidates, promoting bipartisan tax and immigration reform with her Republican Senate colleagues.

Why might they break out? Many have blamed the Democrats’ 2016 loss on the party’s lack of attention to the Midwest (Hillary Clinton famously skipped Wisconsin during her campaign). As a moderate Midwestern Senator, Klobuchar may have an appeal to voters outside the east and west coasts. Were some of the other moderates to drop out of the race, she could see her star begin to rise. 

Potential bumps in the road Aside from the issue of being a moderate candidate in a crowded field which already has a number of moderates, Klobuchar has also faced criticisms over how she treats her staff.

You might not know that… During her 2006 US Senate race, Amy Klobuchar managed to raise $17,000 from her ex-boyfriends.

What are they polling 2 percent

Senator Amy Klobuchar by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0|

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Chris GilsonLSE US Centre
Chris Gilson is the Managing Editor of USAPP, the US Centre’s daily blog on US politics and policy. In 2012, Chris was the recipient of a UK Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Award for Knowledge Exchange/Transfer Initiative of the Year for the LSE’s blog initiatives. In April 2019, his project, The State of the States, was recognised with a Guardian University Award for digital innovation. He is the co-author, with Amy Mollett, Cheryl Brumley, and Sierra Williams, of Communicating Your Research with Social Media: A Practical Guide to Using Blogs, Podcasts, Data Visualisations and Video (Sage, 2017).

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