Is it too early to handicap the 2020 Democrats? Hell, not really

Is Bernie too old and Biden too tarnished? How far can Kirsten Gillibrand ride #MeToo, and who is Kamala Harris?

By Matthew Sheffield
Published January 19, 2018 5:00AM (EST)
Cory Booker; Elizabeth Warren; Joe Biden; Kirsten Gillibrand; Bernie Sanders (AP/Getty/Salon)
Cory Booker; Elizabeth Warren; Joe Biden; Kirsten Gillibrand; Bernie Sanders (AP/Getty/Salon)

All the recent talk about former daytime talk show host Oprah Winfrey running for president as a Democrat was more than an exercise in political fantasy, it highlighted just how wide open the race for the party’s 2020 nomination is likely to be.

It’s obviously incredibly early to start talking about who President Donald Trump's Democratic opponent might be, in an election that is still 33 months away. But the president himself seems nearly as interested in discussing it as he is in recounting his unexpected (including by him) 2016 victory. Trump made history on his first day in office by formally telling the Federal Election Commission that he intended to seek re-election. Before that, the earliest a president had ever filed for re-election was Barack Obama in April of 2011, about a year and a half before the 2012 election.

Beyond continuing to release campaign commercials and fan videos for Facebook followers in the form of "Real News Updates,” Trump reportedly enjoys descanting on the potential field of Democratic candidates, while expressing endless confidence that he will win re-election. The fact that his poll ratings are the lowest-ever for a new president and that he has essentially abandoned the populist economic policies that were so important to him winning just enough blue-collar white voters in just the right states seem not to factor into Trump’s future calculations.

In a reported piece relaying the scuttlebutt from inside the White House, Politico’s Annie Karni relays that the Democrat Trump fears most is former vice president Joe Biden, on the theory that he can credibly offer voters the same sort of populist message as Trump.

“Trump’s policies will continue to be popular all the way through his reelection campaign," an anonymous Trump official tells Karni, “but his approval rating will never crack 45 percent — creating an opening for Biden, or someone like him, to recapture the loyalty of white Rust Belt Democrats who helped elect Trump in 2016.”

In reality, none of the major policies Trump has promoted heavily during his term have been particularly popular. The Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the party's recent tax overhaul bill have been historically disliked, in fact. Nonetheless, Trump’s ability to connect with older white voters from working-class or middle-class backgrounds is unparalleled in Republican history.

Biden himself has repeatedly raised the idea that Democrats have trouble connecting with voters outside urban enclaves over his decades-long career in politics. In a November interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Biden argued that while his age in 2020 (he will turn 78 that year) and his two previous runs for the presidency might concern Democrats, his understanding of the hardships faced by middle-class workers and retirees could well be his saving grace.

“They love me more,” Biden said, referring to residents of the Rust Belt. “But [my critics] are right about all the first parts, correct. I am not sure I can overcome the front end, but I understand the Rust Belt. Donald Trump has no notion of what those people are going through.”

On the other hand, in the era of the #MeToo social awareness campaign about sexual harassment, Biden’s opponents will almost certainly trot out the dozens of doctored photos of him that are circulating on the internet in which he appears to be groping various women. While those photos are fake, they have remained popular in large measure because Biden has a record of being “handsy” with women and even girls, often to their shock.

Perhaps more seriously, Anita Hill, who was in some ways the originator of #MeToo, has said she blames Biden, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, for failing to call other witnesses who would have testified that they had also been harassed by Thomas. Biden has recently said he believed Hill's story and owes her an apology, but the entire episode is a massive black mark on his record.

Still, Biden played a loyal supporting role in the Obama administration, which is fondly remembered by most Democrats. It's tough to rule Biden out, particularly since he has defeated Trump in every hypothetical match-up in 12 separate polls conducted in 2017.

One potential candidate Trump supposedly does not fear as much is Bernie Sanders. Allegedly that’s because Sanders will turn 79 in 2020 — he is only a year older than Biden but five years older than Trump, who is already the oldest person ever elected as a first-term president. Despite his obsession with polling, the president seems to have missed the surveys that have shown that Sanders is America’s most popular active politician and also that the independent Vermont senator has also beaten him in every hypothetical 2020 match-up.

As popular as Sanders is, however, his tough campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016 earned him a lot of enmity from mainstream and moderate Democrats, who will want to make sure that he is denied the party's nomination again. The fact that Sanders is running for re-election in Vermont as an independent (after suggesting he might join the Democratic Party at last), and still hasn’t shared his 2016 campaign mailing list also rankles party loyalists.

Sanders does have the political gamblers over at the betting site PredictIt in his corner, however. As of this writing, his “stock” is commanding the highest price. (Occasionally, political insiders use betting markets as an informal tool to gauge a candidate’s potential strength.)

In second place at PredictIt is California Sen. Kamala Harris. Although she is a first-term senator with little national name recognition, Harris is well-positioned since California has moved its delegate-rich primary to early March of 2020, creating a high-powered Super Tuesday that may giver a considerable home-field advantage. As a senator representing Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Harris should have little trouble raising large amounts of money if she decides to run.

Those elite connections may end up being Harris’ weakness, however, since the Sanders 2016 campaign revitalized the Democratic left in ways not seen since the 1960s. A former California attorney general and before that the district attorney in San Francisco, Harris now sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee which offers her a platform to become more visible as the nation has focused on the committee’s public hearings about Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to Politico, Trump does not seem to know who Harris is. Presumably he will get a crash course should she declare.

The president does seem to be aware of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, even though he appears to think she would be an easy opponent to beat. Trump reportedly believes that Gillibrand’s leadership in the #MeToo movement (she was the first to call for fellow Sen. Al Franken to resign after he was accused of groping several different women) and her championing of the issue of sexual harassment may be a general-election liability, but it would almost certainly be a major plus in the Democratic primaries. The fact that Gillibrand won her 2012 re-election bid by the largest margin ever for a New York Senate candidate is a indicates that she might have the ability to bring together Democratic moderates and liberals in a larger setting. Although she's from the Northeast, she is not from a major city; she grew up in Albany, and formerly represented a rural congressional district typically held by Republicans. That too could be an encouraging sign. Before Barack Obama’s historic candidacy, most winning Democratic presidential candidates in recent memory have come from smaller metropolitan areas or less populous states.

One potential problem for Gillibrand may arise from her November remarks criticizing former president Bill Clinton for his actual or alleged sexual misconduct. While such comments are not likely to harm her with Democratic voters, both Bill and Hillary Clinton retain significant influence in the party, especially among donors and fund-raisers. They already appear to have Gillibrand in their sights.

Democratic progressives are also likely to take a long, hard look at both Gillibrand’s and Harris’ state-level records, where both pursued more centrist policies than they have since winning their Senate seats. Both women are not yet well-known to the general public and in hypothetical match-ups, neither gets above 48 percent versus Trump.

One female candidate who does much better in such early polls is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the party's leading progressive who is not named "Sanders." In an October survey done by Public Policy Polling, Warren beat Trump by 10 points. (Other hypothetical races have been much closer.) Over the summer, Trump’s campaign included Warren in an internet ad castigating “career politicians” for opposing him. A political action committee funded by Trump’s billionaire ally Robert Mercer also began paying for anti-Warren ads in June.

Trump will no doubt continue his derogatory "Pocahontas" references to Warren, based on allegations that she once claimed Native American ancestry in order to help her career. It’s unlikely such attacks would harm her with Democrats, and voters susceptible to overt bigotry would seem likely to support Trump in any event.

Warren’s long record of antagonism toward Wall Street bankers and the financial industries are clearly a major strength, although the fact that she comes from one of the most liberal states in the nation and formerly taught at Harvard could be perceived as a general-election liability. It seems unlikely that both Warren and Sanders will run, an event that would certainly split the progressive vote. If they both do, whichever one does poorly early on will be under pressure to drop out promptly.

Is it still much too early to handicap the 2020 race with any precision? Of course. But don’t let the seemingly distant date fool you. All those people mentioned above, as well as others (including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former HUD secretary Julián Castro and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti), are thinking a lot about it. They have to, considering that Trump has essentially never stopped campaigning. As the primary calendar has become ever more front-loaded, the kind of primary-season comeback Bill Clinton staged in 1992 has become far less plausible. The money these potential candidates raise and the alliances they build over the next year and a half will likely prove decisive.

Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via or follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Matthew Sheffield