Finding the Needle in the Haystack: The Democratic Field for 2020 - by John Hodges

The 2016 election riveted the nation and the world, and its outcome stands as one of the biggest upsets in the history of American politics. The election of Donald Trump, accompanied by strong Republican victories in congressional races, has left the Democratic Party in one of its weakest governing positions in its history. But while Democrats around the country have been demoralized by Trump’s victory, the defeat has also mobilized a large swath of voters who strongly oppose both the President and his policies. Though almost four years away, the next presidential election, which will bring an opportunity to defeat President Trump, remains at the top of Democrat’s minds.

The Democrats face an array of challenges looking ahead to 2020. Trump’s ability to flip the so-called ‘Blue Wall’ states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, while also winning bellwether battlegrounds like Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio will force his opponents to compete much harder in traditionally blue territory. Furthermore, across the country, but especially in the all-important Rust Belt, Trump’s wide margins with white working class voters will likely force Democrats to offer a more cohesive and populist economic message. Lastly, after eight years of President Obama’s leadership, Democrats lack a clear leader, with significant ideological differences making consolidation behind a single figure all the more difficult. Though Democrats should benefit from an engaged and polarized electorate, they face significant impediments in the 2020 election. However, the field of potential Democratic candidates for the 2020 election is large and diverse in both demographics and ideology, and a competitive primary process, with the lessons of 2016 in mind, will allow the Democrats to unify behind a candidate to take on President Trump.

Emboldened by Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in the 2016 primaries, and the continued shift to the left by the Democratic electorate, the progressive wing of the Democratic party is poised to leave its mark in 2020. Sanders, who just two years ago was a relatively unknown independent Senator from Vermont, channeled progressives’ frustration with the so-called ‘establishment’ wing of the Democratic Party.  Assuming Senator Sanders, who would be 79 on inauguration day in 2021, does not run again, the most obvious progressive candidate is Pennsylvania Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren, who made her name during the Great Recession in a fight to more heavily regulate investment banks, is a darling of the Left . She is arguably the most well-known of any potential candidate through her regular television appearances, speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and the campaign rallies she held with Hillary Clinton. She has been an outspoken critic of President Trump and his policies, most notably when she was silenced on the Senate floor while reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King rebuking Attorney General Jeff Sessions. However, Senator Warren is also a polarizing figure, with a recent Politico/Morning Consult plll showing her losing a hypothetical race to President Trump 36% to 42%, while the generic Democrat beats the President 43% to 35%. While this poll, four years from the election is by no means an accurate predictor of the 2020 race, it does show that Senator Warren would face an uphill climb in a race against Mr. Trump.

Several other progressive politicians stand out as potential challengers. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has a long history of championing progressive causes, especially organized labor and workers’ rights, and hails from a Midwestern state both geographically and historically valuable because of its closeness to important battlegrounds such as Wisconsin and Michigan. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio has kept a relatively quiet public profile in his over two decades in Congress, but his service on the Banking Committee and his success as a consistent progressive in the purple state of Ohio have led many to focus on him as a potential candidate. The progressive wing of the party hopes that its focus on a message of economic justice and its advocacy for the working class will mobilize its voters to victory in the 2020 primary, as well as building a coalition of working class voters across the country who voted for Trump in 2016, but who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, many Democrats are still not comfortable with a shift to the left and worry that nominating a more liberal nominee will imperil Democrats’ chances with more moderate voters.

The more moderate, or what some would call the ‘establishment’ wing, of the Democratic Party is still recovering from both the surprising success of Senator Sanders in the primaries, as well as Clinton’s defeat in the general election, but remains a potent force in the party with an array of potential presidential candidates. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has stood out in 2017 for her steadfast opposition to President Trump’s cabinet nominations and legislative proposals, voting with his position just 6.5% of the time, the lowest of any member of Congress. This public and consistent opposition has won her consistent praise, even from those who do not align exactly with her ideologically. The governor of her state, Andrew Cuomo, has also received attention as a potential candidate. Coming from a family with a long history in politics, Cuomo’s executive experience and leadership of a large state have led many to encourage his candidacy. From the neighboring state of New Jersey, Senator Cory Booker is a young and energetic figure who has been outspoken in his opposition to President Trump, often using social media to get his message across. However, still in his first term as Senator, Booker is inexperienced compared to other potential candidates. All of the moderate candidates are better equipped to appeal to centrist voters, but their ties to the financial industry and the ‘establishment’ could hinder their chances, especially after the anti-establishment wave of 2016.

The election of 2020 promises to be another long, contentious, and polarizing duel between, presumably, President Trump and a to-be-determined Democratic opponent. Trump’s inflammatory campaign and turbulent presidency has, to this point, made him historically unpopular, with his 35% approval rating in the Gallup poll on March 29 the lowest ever for a president this early in his term. However, many Democrats seemingly believe that this unpopularity is permanent, already expressing confidence that he will not be re-elected. An unforeseen event in the next four years, such as better-than-expected economic growth, a significant legislative triumph, or a unifying attack or conflict of some sort, could cause Trump’s approval rating to climb. Regardless of the President’s popularity, Democrats need an open and competitive primary process to whittle down their large field of candidates to one leader that the party and opponents of the President can unify behind. Though serious divisions within the party remain, a thorough nomination process and the unifying effect of Mr. Trump promise to make 2020 another election to remember.

John Hodges