While primary elections will not be held until the year is actually 2020, the campaign process has already begun for prospective candidates running for the Democratic nomination. Whoever gets nominated in June, 2020, will face off against President Donald Trump later that year in November. While only a few candidates have declared that they intend to run for President, there are many people that are likely to run. With that being said, here are the top three contenders as of the end of January, 2019 (Note: The rankings have been updated as of February 5, 2019 regarding the information on Kamala Harris):
#1: Bernie Sanders
Although Senator Sanders fell short of obtaining the nomination in 2016, the factors that severely inhibited the most during his last campaign are significantly reduced. In 2016, Sanders began his campaign down 60% in national polls, with little to no name recognition outside of his home state of Vermont. However, a large majority of voters currently know his name. And, the attention is mostly positive as he maintains the highest favorable rating in the United States Senate. As a result, Sanders maintains a strong base of supporters. He is in the top 3 in largely every national poll regarding 2020 Democratic contenders, although, he rarely is number one (with that prestige being awarded to former Vice President Joe Biden). However, polling before most candidates have announced, any debates have occurred, grassroots campaigning has begun, and the primary elections have started is largely ambiguous. Keep in mind: in June of 2015 (farther into the primary of 2016 than the upcoming 2020 primary) Jeb Bush led the large pack of Republican candidates with 22% of the vote in a MSNBC/WSJ poll. Future President Trump only had 1% of the vote and future runner up Ted Cruz had 4% of the vote. What the national polling shows is that Biden and Sanders enjoy an advantage in name recognition over the other candidates. To be more precise however, the polling shows recognition and early support for candidates amongst “likely” voters, and those reached by various methods such as calling landlines - to be fair, landline polling is the most misrepresentative method used, some were online. And, one of Senator Sanders strongest traits during his 2016 campaign was his ability to bring new voters into the political process and those previously “unlikely” to vote. Additionally, polling is likely to shift dramatically once candidates announce. For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren was polling extremely low, around 2-7%, and her numbers jumped sharply in a Daily Kos straw poll after announcing to winning a Daily Kos straw poll at 22%. After Kamala Harris announced, she led the next Daily Kos straw poll with 27%; beforehand, she often did not reach 5% in national polls. Therefore, while polling should be monitored for potential shifts in support, at this moment in time, it is a minor factor in judging future events.
A extremely large factor in the success of any campaign is organizational support which helps with fundraising, grassroots campaigning, and name recognition. Fortunately for Senator Sanders, he boasts the largest organizational support on the grassroots level. Furthermore, a plethora of groups that arose out of his 2016 campaign such as Our Revolution, Organizing for Bernie, People for Bernie, Draft Bernie, and Progressive Democrats of America, are all pushing for him to run in 2020. And, a progressive group which endorsed him in 2016, Democracy for America, held a 94,000 person straw poll which showed Sanders had by far the largest amount of support from within the organization with 36% of the vote, with Joe Biden finishing second with 15%. Sanders, unlike many other potential candidates, enjoys an army of supporters from established groups that will work at the grassroots level across the country. The group, Organizing for Bernie, recently put together a livestream event, with 400 house parties across the country watching, which hosted notable progressive such as President of Our Revolution Nina Turner and former executive director of National Nurses United RoseAnn Demoro. It would be hard for candidates, especially those with less name recognition, to even match the grassroots support that exists for Bernie Sanders. With lots of groups campaigning and hosting events for Sanders, he would be able to fundraise large sums of money, albeit from small dollar donations as he refuses corporate PAC money or support for “Superpacs.” While Sanders would not be raking in large amounts of money from singular individuals, he has the ability to raise millions, as he did in 2016. due to the excitement his potential candidacy draws amongst progressives. Also, his dependence on small donations, and opposition to the financial influence of corporations and rich individuals, would appeal to the populations hatred for corruption in current US politics that exists across the political spectrum.
Another huge piece of a candidate’s ability to win is their policy record. Senator Sanders maintains a lengthy, consistent, and progressive record that agrees with the opinion of the Democratic base. In 2016, Sanders already drew massive support for his support for gay rights on the record since 1983, single-payer healthcare, renewable energy, reinstating a modern Glass Steagall to break up the large financial institutions, and much more. Also, he had a pretty clean foreign policy record as he was against the war in Iraq and interventions thereafter such as in Libya. More importantly for 2020 however, is one’s record during the Trump presidency. Senator Sanders has drew large Congressional support for Medicare-For-All, pushed an end to cash bail, passed a resolution in the Senate to end US support for the war in Yemen, and pushed to lower prescription drug prices by importing them from Canada, amongst other things. And, the popularity of Sanders’ proposals has pushed other Democratic contenders to adopt his policies. Comparatively, the consistency of Sanders’ support will likely appear more genuine than support from candidates who have contrary records and are only recently supporting these ideas. Outside of the Senate chambers, he has rallied across the country with workers from companies such as Disney and Verizon. He managed to publicly shame Amazon into raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Moreover, Sanders progressive activity and consistency both during his entire political career and the Trump presidency will likely appeal highly to Democratic voters, as it did in his 2016 surge, that overwhelmingly support his positions. The only major piece of his record that hurt in 2016 was certain votes regarding gun control such as his opposition to the Brady Bill which, amongst other things, would have instituted a national waiting period to buy a gun. Gun control votes from over a decade ago may still haunt a potential candidacy; however, his recent support for national student protests and policy proposals such as a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks, and an end to the “gun-show loophole” may temper criticisms while most likely not stopping them altogether.
Media coverage can be vital to campaigns as it was to the success of Donald Trump when he received around $2 billion of free media in the 2016 campaign. While Senator Sanders has been constantly attacked by mainstream press sources such as the New York Times, he will not face the enormous problem that hurt in 2016, at least to the same degree: being ignored. In his previous bid for the Presidency, news outlets such as CNN would cover Trump’s empty podium rather than show a Sander’s event hosting thousands of attendees. Ed Schultz was fired from MSNBC for covering Sanders when company President Phil Griffin ordered him not to. However, the multitude of negative stories that will be run against him (they already are) will certainly not help him with many older voters that already have not supported him in 2016, and heavily rely on mainstream news media. Although, at a time where public trust in the mainstream media is extremely low, Sanders may rather accept having some his policy covered in the first place, albeit under negative pretenses. But, Sanders has recently come under fire from major media sources due to sexual harassment allegations from his 2016 campaign. In an era of the MeToo Movement, it remains to be seen whether it will hamper his chances. Even with Sanders not being aware of the situation in 2016, apologizing, creating a robust structure in 2018 Senate bid to protect staffers, and promising to do the same in 2020, the consistent coverage, if maintained, could be a roadblock in the future. While Sanders would not enjoy the benefits of positive coverage from mainstream sources, he has extremely strong support from progressive, alternative media which have significantly grown over the last decade and have a large outreach. For example. Sanders would receive (and already does) high praises from the progressive network The Young Turks which claims to receive 80 million unique views a month and has over 4.2 million subscribers on Youtube, 2.4 million followers on facebook, and 350k followers on Twitter. Other alternative media sources with large followings that support Sanders’s policies include, but are not limited to, Secular Talk, The Humanist Report, The Jimmy Dore Show, Current Affairs, Truthout, and Jacobin. Overall, Sanders’ would likely have the largest independent and alternative media support compared to all the other potential Democratic candidates.
Due to his policy record, name recognition, organizational support, fundraising ability, and advantage with independent, alternative news media, Bernie Sanders holds the first place position.
#2: Kamala Harris
So far, Harris has not performed in the polls on par with her ranking. Furthermore, for most of the polls of Democrats nationally, she remains in the single-digits and has only reached as high as 11%. Although, in two recent Daily Kos straw polls she leads the field with 27% support (the poll is based on website traffic). Although, the support from the Daily Kos poll seems to fluctuate with when major candidates simply announce. Again, when Warren announced she jumped from the low single-digits to 22%. After Harris’ announcement, her support in the poll significantly increased as well. Since many candidates have yet to announce, the poll is based off website traffic, and it is a year before any primary election is actually held, the poll does not mean much at all. However, the same logic applies to Harris’ poor performance in most national polls. Furthermore, Harris has yet to reach higher levels of name recognition amongst Democratic (and Independent) voters. The front runner in the vast majority of polls, former Vice President Joe Biden, largely is ahead due to name recognition and Obama-nostalgia in the age of Trump. His support will likely decline sharply due to his individual record and stances (explained later in article).
Due to Harris’ lack of name recognition and the early stages of the primary process, she has not garnered many formal endorsements. However, outside of Sanders and Biden - the two candidates with a lot of name recognition - no one has many, if any, endorsements. Moreover, the key is to look at potential for endorsements and who seems to be able to garner institutional support from groups. Although, Harris has received early endorsements from Democratic politicians from including Congressman Ted Lieu, Congressman Nanette Barragán, and freshman Congresswoman Kate Hill - all of whom are representing California along with Harris). While each endorsement has come from a fellow Californian, her support from within the political brass of the Democratic Party may likely be a sign of what is to come. Furthermore, Harris is extremely popular within the ranks of political operatives and those deep in the establishment. A She The People poll of women of color embedded in the political establishment (48.5% campaign donors, 23.1% women who run or 23.5% that work at political organizations, 10.6% current and former elected officials, 8.7% electoral campaign strategists, and 5.7% campaign managers) found that Harris “was the only candidate listed by a majority of respondents when asked to give their top three choices for 2020”. Furthermore, in the first state to vote in the primaries, Iowa, 43 out of 76 county chairpeople want a younger candidate that has yet to run for President (a criteria that excludes Sanders and Biden).
Among her early endorsements, Harris received one from prominent Hillary Clinton loyalist and wealthy fundraiser Susie Tompkins Buell. Buell fundraised for both Clintons over the last several decades. In 2016, she raised $6,000,000 for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Even though many candidates have not announced, Buell’s endorsement is unwavering as she said, “Nobody can change my mind. Because I’m somebody that, once they make up their mind, I’m just so behind it”. Harris will attend a Sunday fundraiser with Buell in San Francisco where the tickets to attend are $250 per person. Her endorsement of Harris is both substantial in terms of the amount of money she can contribute as well as demonstrating Harris’ potentially large vault of campaign money from wealthy campaign contributors. Harris has already appeared at other events. One fundraiser was hosted by NBC’s Jeff Shell that included wealthy donors such as Jeffrey Katzenberg (former Chairman of Walt Disney Studios), Dana Walden (CEO of Fox Television Group), Chris Silbermann (Managing Director of ICM Partners), Jim Gianopulos (CEO of Paramount Pictures), Jennifer Salke (head of Amazon Studios), and Jon Feltheimer (CEO of Lions Gate Entertainment). Throughout her career, Harris has managed to take money from Corporate PACs (general PAC contributions only accounted for ~4% of her funds from 2013-2018). However, she announced that she would not take any corporate PAC money for her Presidential run. Although, her main source of contributions comes from large individual donations (~58%), significantly coming from the movie industry (represented at Shell’s event) which raised a substantial amount of her more than $15 million for her 2016 Senate campaign. Furthermore, her history of having access to large individual contributions, coupled with recent developments that show that her success will continue, demonstrates that she will have massive fundraising power. And, she may gather a decent amount of cash from small-donors (~35% of her funds from 2013-2018). In the first 24 hours of Harris’ formal announcement, she raised over $1.5 million from online donors where the average contribution averaged $37. While her small-donor base is currently no where close to Sanders, she has the ability to raise money from both large and small financiers.
Kamala Harris’ record and policies offer mixed results regarding helping her candidacy. Currently, she supports a multitude of policies matching progressive politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. Some of the policies include a basic income for poor Americans, Medicare-For-All, and a Green New Deal. And, these positions are highly popular as a majority of Americans support universal healthcare (polls as high as 70%) and 80% support a Green New Deal (92% of Democrats). However, Harris is not unique in her stances as other potential contenders support the same policies. In fact, a candidate like Senator Sanders has demonstrated a consistent support for progressive policies while several candidates such as Harris are only recent supporters as polls show growing public support. At a time when most Americans are skeptical of the political system, Harris’ recent advocacy may be seen as political pandering rather than genuine support. For example, during a CNN Town Hall, Harris expressed support for Medicare-For-All which would eliminate private health insurance. After receiving backlash from establishment and conservative groups and public figures, such as potential candidate Howard Schultz, Harris’ immediately went back on her position as her spokesperson said she was open to other options. Furthermore, it will be difficult for Harris to stand out with her current positions as she has both supported the positions for a shorter amount of time and has shown signs of not fully backing what she publicly proposes.
While Harris was only elected to the Senate for the first time in 2016, she was Attorney General of California from 2011-2017. In a primary where 87% of Democratic voters want to reduce the prison population, 91% of Americans seek criminal justice reform, and the vast majority of people of color vote Democratic, Harris’ record may provide several issues if publicly brought to light. She laughed at the idea of legalizing marijuana in 2014 (66% of Americans support legalization), appealed the removal of the death penalty in California in 2014, opposed having her office investigate shooting involving police in 2015, opposed police body cameras in 2015, among other more-conservative positions. Additionally, Harris has on multiple occasions fought to keep people in prison for many years (even decades) on when they had been convicted on faulty or flimsy evidence based on the fact that they had raised their legal arguments in a timely manner. However, Harris has some more liberal and progressive stances in her record. For example, she began a program that allowed nonviolent offenders to have their charges dismissed if they completed thorough training. Also, Harris mandated implicit bias training when she was Attorney General in order to ensure that law enforcement could be as objective as possible.
Harris may enjoy the largest amount of support from the mainstream press. Moreover, Kamala Harris has consistently been ranked as the number one contender for the Presidency on the ranking for most major outlets such as CNN. These rankings are based on “expert” opinion, but largely reflect the personal views of those creating the list as Harris polls much lower than former Vice President Biden and Bernie Sanders. CNN’s recent rankings admitted in their reason for having Harris in their number one slot, “Her week-long announcement milked every possible shred of positive press for her -- and even impressed Trump!” However, the rankings failed to provide any substantive reasoning for their analysis, showing a clear implicit liking for the California Senator. And, through searching their previous rankings and plethora of articles praising Harris (which they have not done for other candidates), the closest substantive reasoning for having Harris be the frontrunner is “Progressive? Check. Woman? Check. Black? Check. Can take it to Trump? She's the former attorney general of California.” Although, Nate Silver goes into further detail regarding the strengths of Harris’ in “Why Harris And O’Rourke May Have More Upside Than Sanders And Biden” on FiveThirtyEight. Silver explains that Harris’ identity may provide her with a lot of support from African American voters who are essential to winning the South. Also, she has significant support from “Party loyalists” according to Silver.
Harris seems to be shielded from the same criticism facing other candidates by the press. More specifically, when Stacy Abrams gave the official Democratic response to the State of the Union, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris gave their own supplemental videos at different times. Sanders’ response (on social media after Abrams’ speech) was widely condemned by journalists and Democratic Party figures for being inconsiderate to Abrams. However, Harris’ preemptive rebuttal to Trump (actually before the SOTU) received no criticism at all. Additionally, following the release of an opinion piece critical of Harris’ prosecutorial record in the New York Times, an article was immediately released the next day defending her record. No such virulent defense has been made for other major candidates by mainstream press sources.
While Harris lags behind in third place in most polls, her campaign has a great amount of upside in terms of becoming a top-tier contender. Moreover, Harris enjoys significant support from the Democratic Party establishment, wealthy donors, and the mainstream press which would help propel her especially if Joe Biden does not run. Even if Biden does run, the potential issues with her record pale in comparison to the skeletons in Biden’s closet. Kamala Harris also has recently endorsed many popular, progressive policies such as “Medicare For All” which would lend her some support from liberal voters.
#3: Joe Biden
In the early stages of the primary process, Joe Biden is the leading candidate amongst the more conservative, establishment wing of the Democratic Party. While he has not had much success at all in his previous runs for the Presidency, such as in 2008, his position as Vice President during the presidency of Barack Obama, who remains very popular amongst Democrats, will potentially help him in many areas during the primaries. Biden leads the the majority of national polls amongst 2020 Democratic contenders. Additionally, Joe Biden has consistently lead the polling for the last several months, demonstrating consistency and not just a quick surge. While polling does not hold extreme significance as explained before, Biden’s strength in the polls shows his massive name recognition. Furthermore, in a field of many candidates, Biden will enjoy an advantage over other hopefuls that part insiders like - such as Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke - due to the simple fact that more people know him. Not only is he well-known, Biden holds high favorables amongst potential 2020 Democratic voters in the same national polls. The reliance on “likely” and older voters by these polls prove what his exact and strongest demographic would be. And, older voters have proven to be the most reliable to turn up on election day.
Biden currently enjoys the largest amount of support from Democratic Party politicians and insiders which would provide him with very strong connections in a 2020 bid. Specifically, Senator Dianne Feinstein from California is one of the most notable names to endorse Biden 2020 before he has even announced. Biden had endorsed Feinstein in her 2018 re election campaign against Kevin de León. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also threw his support behind a potential Biden 2020 bid saying, “I think of all the names that are out there, I think Joe Biden has the best case”. Similarly, Biden endorsed Cuomo in his 2018 re-election campaign against primary opponent Cynthia Nixon during a speech at New York’s Democratic Convention in May of 2018. Both de León and Nixon represented the more liberal and progressive wing of the Democratic Party compared to Feinstein and Cuomo being established, more conservative politicians. Biden is revered by former officials from the Obama administration. David Axelrod, the Chief Strategist for Obama’s presidential campaigns and Senior Advisor during his first term, said of Biden:
Joe Biden was an enormous asset to Barack Obama in a way that maybe no other vice president has been—as a counselor, and as a guy who took on some really tough and gritty assignments. He administered the Recovery Act on behalf of the president, giving out $887 billion in a short period of time. The opportunity for rampant mismanagement and waste was enormous. But there was really very little of that, and that was a tribute to him. When it looked problematical as to whether a government could be formed in Iraq, Biden was the guy who got assigned the task of working with the Iraqi factions, and he made it happen.
In addition, several potential candidates said that they would not run for office if Biden runs because he is the best candidate in their minds. Specifically, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu would not run if Biden does and former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe will heavily consider a Biden bid for the Presidency. Biden’s strong institutional support from within the Democratic Party will aid him in showing himself as a pragmatic choice to older voters that pay attention to their representatives endorsements.
Biden, while not having the small-donor base of Senator Sanders, has access to a lot of money. In 2017, Biden launched the “American Possibilities” PAC - run by his former White House Aide Greg Schultz - which would allow him to raise money for campaign spending. In the fall of 2018, a fundraiser was held for Biden in Beverly Hills that cost $5,000 per plate, and raised over $100,000 in total for Biden’s American Possibilities PAC. In the past, Biden has attended successful fundraisers for other candidates such as Feinstein. In 2018, American Possibilities raised over $2,000,000 and directly donated over $600,000 to the campaigns of Democratic candidates across the country. Biden has spent the last few years courting potential donors. Major contributors to his PAC include, amongst others, “Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg; director Steven Spielberg; hedge-fund manager Jim Simons; entrepreneur Tim Gill; investor Jim Chanos; venture capitalist Chris Sacca; entrepreneur Sean Parker; investor Ron Conway; Philip Munger, the son of Warren Buffett’s business partner Charles Munger; real-estate investor Mel Heifetz; and former HP executive and 2010 California GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.” Furthermore, as the former Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden will have many connections to donors that are able to contribute large sums of money. However, among the progressive base of the Democratic Party, Biden’s potential reliance of large donors will be seen as corrupt and unattractive. Although, deep pockets will be very helpful in terms of staff, field operations, ads, and many other aspects of a campaign that will likely outweigh a progressive base which is already not likely to vote for him against more liberal candidates.
Biden has been positioning himself as a strong opponent of Trump along with being different from more progressive candidates such as Bernie Sanders. In a New York Times op-ed, Biden wrote, regarding Trump, “Not since the Jim Crow era has an American president so misunderstood and misrepresented our values.” He denounced Trump’s acceptance of Neo-Nazis and white nationalists. On the economic front, during a speech at the Brookings Institute, Biden said,“I love Bernie, but I'm not Bernie Sanders… I don't think 500 billionaires are the reason we're in trouble. The folks at the top aren't bad guys.” Biden’s close relationship with wealthier individuals runs contrary to the general distaste for elites by Democratic voters. Biden’s more “moderate” policy record is not very popular among Democratic voters. In 1994, Biden was the main author of the Violent Crime Control Act which led to larger levels of incarceration. More specifically, the bill implemented new regulations such as the “Three Strikes Rule” - “which mandated life in prison for people who had committed three violent felonies” - and federal assistance to states for new prisons if they mandated that offenders serve 85% of their prison sentence rather than be able to go on parole earlier. In a 2017 ACLU poll, 87% of Democrats believe that it is important to reduce the country’s prison population. Biden openly admits his former stances on criminal justice were flawed. More recently, Biden said he agreed with Paul Ryan regarding “means tests as a prelude to Medicare and Social Security cuts.” In 2018, Public Policy Polling found that 79% of Democratic voters would be more likely to support a candidate that sought to expand Social Security. Additionally, Biden supports traditional Democratic positions such as “providing more federal funding for infrastructure projects and making the tax code less friendly to investors while expanding tax credits for low-income families.” And, Biden has called in the past for a very liberal education proposal of free public college for 4 years for all Americans. In 2018, 79% of Democrats supported a bill from Bernie Sanders that would cover the costs of public college tuition and required fees. While Biden has hints of progressive policies, he largely is against many liberal proposals such as a Universal Basic Income.
Much of Biden’s base would likely come from not his policies but rather his connection to the Obama Presidency and his charisma. In a 2018 poll by Pew Research, 71% of Democrats and those leaning towards the Democratic party said that President Obama was either the one of the top two presidents of their lifetime (51% said he was the best). Correspondingly, Biden has an 84% approval rating amongst Democrats. Additionally, he is an extremely charismatic and authentic speaker. A large aspect of Presidential campaigns is the candidate’s ability to connect with and inspire voters. Biden has a large reputation for being able to do do just that.
While there have been several opinion pieces published by sources such as The New York Times denouncing the idea of a Biden-bid for the presidency, he is generally well-received by the mainstream press. While he is not the main candidate being cheered by various outlets, Biden maintains a strong level of support. Although, in the time of the MeToo movement, Biden’s history of aggressively going after sexual assault accusers may a large detriment to his campaign. In 1991, Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee during the hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. He has faced major criticisms for his handling of the situation where Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual misconduct which did not fully investigate the issue and was heavily biased in favor of Thomas. Only recently was the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court under very similar circumstances. A majority of all Americans disproved of Kavanaugh’s nomination. Moreover, many of the major outlets and the Democratic political establishment run in the same circles and tend to share opinions. And, the established Democrats are very supportive of Biden, even with the political skeletons in his closet. Also, the media tends to fluctuate with who they want to focus on. After the midterms, there was a plethora of articles and coverage devoted to promoting Beto O’Rourke. Since then, support for the Texas Congressman has died down as the media spotlight currently shines on Kamala Harris.
If Biden runs for President, he has the largest potential to fall down the rankings. He currently enjoys large favorability ratings as he represents the highly popular Obama administration during the time of the very unpopular Trump administration. However, during the grueling campaign season, voters will be better introduced to his policies and his record which do not align very well with the current views of Democratic voters. And, as other contenders such as Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke are pushed by the mainstream media and gain more name recognition, Biden may likely lose his lead in the national polls.
(Note: This ranking along with any others are the opinions of the authors. Also, rankings are pure speculation and are fitted towards the time they are published. There are bound to be changes as the campaign gets going and continues.)