Your guide to the 2020 Democrats: Who's in, who's out and WTF is going on anyway?

Kamala Harris is out. Mike Bloomberg and Deval Patrick, for some reason, are in. Here's the field, at least today

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 9, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Yang, and Amy Klobuchar (Getty Images/Salon)
Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Yang, and Amy Klobuchar (Getty Images/Salon)

With the Iowa caucuses less than two months away, the 2020 Democratic presidential field is finally starting to achieve ... no, forget it. It's definitely not coherent and it's probably not permanent either; we may well see more dropouts and late entries. But with the departure of Sen. Kamala Harris (and the earlier departures of a bunch of guys whose names you don't remember), the field now has a recognizable shape.

There's a frontrunner, who has led almost every national poll since last winter, allowing for a few outlier polls and a brief period around the end of the summer. There are three other leading contenders, two of whom have been near the top of the polls for months, while the third only recently emerged from the pack. There is a pack of dark-horse candidates, whose odds of being elected president now approach zero but who remain in the race for various reasons.  There are some with no shot at all. There are two fringe candidates, likely using this campaign to explore career options. And there's a pair of billionaires who hope to buy their way to the presidency by spending alarming amounts of money on campaign ads. That probably won't work — but you might have heard the same thing about another billionaire in that other party, a few years back.

Let's start with the four at the top. Odds are really high one of them will be the Democratic nominee. Can we be absolutely certain? Not in this reality, friends. frontrunners.

Joe Biden
You've heard of him. He spent 36 years in the Senate and has run for president twice before (winning exactly no delegates on either occasion). He was Barack Obama's vice president for eight years, and has pretty much been the presumptive leader in the 2020 Democratic race since Hillary Clinton conceded to Donald Trump.. He definitely has the résumé for the job, and head-to-head poll numbers consistently show him beating Trump by sizable margins, both in the popular vote and Electoral College.

On the level of messaging, Biden has an accessible, blue-collar image that is supposed to make him sellable to white folks in Middle America (or, at the very least, non-threatening). As mentioned above, he has led national polls of potential Democratic voters pretty much since the race started, outside a brief period in late summer when he was apparently overtaken by Elizabeth Warren.

At the same time, Biden is surrounded by questions, including his troubling habit of being touchy-feely with women (although he has never been accused of sexual misconduct) and a voting record in the Senate that seems strikingly at odds with the more progressive-inflected Democratic Party of 2020. His opposition to Medicare for All and his remarks about compromise with Republicans may play well with moderate voters, but have been widely derided on the left. His demeanor on the stump at times — how do we put this? — has not seemed sharp.

As far as Biden's involvement with the Ukraine scandal goes, there's no evidence he did anything wrong. (Whether his son Hunter's business career was strictly on the up-and-up is quite another matter.) Trump and the Republicans will of course do their utmost, however, to make Biden look hopelessly corrupt if he's the nominee. You can read more on that here.

Pete Buttigieg
We've all gotten used to the fact that the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, appears to be a plausible presidential candidate, but it's still kind of weird, right? Even if Buttigieg doesn't win the Democratic nomination, the fact that he has made it this far is extremely impressive. His résumé, though arguably more substantive than that of the current president (the only person ever elected with no political or military experience), is mighty slim.

Since 2012, Buttigieg been mayor of South Bend, which is the 306th largest city in the United States, with a population of just over 100,000. His vote total in his last mayoral race there was 8,515. Let us repeat: That's not the margin he won by, it's how many votes he got. around During his seven years as mayor, Buttigieg has gotten credit for a civic revitalization fueled by the data-driven techniques that he learned when working as a consultant for the management consulting firm McKinsey.

Buttigieg has had a rocky relationship with the African American community in South Bend, perhaps presaging his current difficulty in attracting any significant level of black support. His work at McKinsey has also come under criticism, given the firm's tendency to recommend that companies pay top executives generously while offshoring working-class jobs. (We don't know much about what Buttigieg actually did for McKinsey because the firm, at least so far, has refused to release him from an NDA.)

Buttigieg served as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve from 2009 to 2017 and was to Afghanistan in 2014. In 2015 he came out as gay, which makes his campaign something of a historic breakthrough, win or lose. If elected, he would be the youngest president in history as well as the first openly gay president in American history. (Conversely, either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders would be the oldest president in history on the day they were sworn in.)

Buttigieg appears to have bet his entire candidacy on Iowa and New Hampshire, where polls show him at or near the top. His overall position in national polls is nowhere near as strong. After some uncertain positioning in the early days, Buttigieg is now clearly running in the "moderate lane," as a younger, more vigorous alternative to Biden.

Bernie Sanders
Sanders already made history with his 2016 campaign, when he became the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary (or any delegates at all) and the first self-described socialist candidate of any significance in nearly a century. Sanders didn't defeat Hillary Clinton four years ago, of course, but his effect on the Democratic Party was enormous and he putting ideas like Medicare for All, canceling student debt, and a $15 minimum wage on the political map, along with a focus on the widening economic inequality of American society.

Despite all that, Sanders doesn't get taken seriously by many pundits in the 2020 race. He's the oldest candidate in the field, at 78, and recently suffered a heart attack. His staunch left-wing views and promise of a "political revolution" have attracted a loyal base, but there's a prevailing sense that he probably can't expand much beyond that. Indeed, his support has remained within a narrow statistical range over the past year, even as other contenders have vacillated up and down.

But that core of support is unlike any other candidate's. If they turn out for him in early primaries — and in what looks right now like a tightly contested four-way race — Sanders could shock the political world yet again and head into Super Tuesday in early March as the leader. With the Democratic establishment in a state of panic — its leaders really, truly do not want a presidential nominee who is not actually a Democrat — that could get interesting.

Elizabeth Warren
Many observers assumed after the 2018 midterm elections that the 2020 Democratic race would be dominated by women. But with Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris out of the race, Amy Klobuchar polling in single digits and Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson reduced to peculiar footnotes, the senator from Massachusetts appears to be the last female contender with any realistic chance of winning

A former law professor at Harvard, Penn and the University of Texas, Warren helped design and launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Obama before winning a Senate seat in 2012. She has emerged as one of the most progressive senators, especially on financial regulation, the social safety net and expanding economic opportunity. Warren has differentiated herself from Sanders in several important ways, and is probably best described as a liberal reformer rather than a socialist. Either of them would almost certainly be to the left of any U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt (and perhaps to the left of him too).

Warren has her issues too. Her past record of claiming Cherokee ancestry, in the absence of any evidence, is embarrassing at the very least. Warren didn't improve matters by releasing a DNA test that indicated she might have some distant Native American ancestry (as do many other white people). Donald Trump already employs the slur "Pocahontas" to describe Warren at every opportunity, and his campaign would surely exploit this issue to the maximum in the general election. On a more prosaic level, Warren rose in the polls thanks largely to her slogan "I have a plan for that" — but the plan she actually released to pay for Medicare for All struck many observers as flawed, and her poll numbers have receded once again.

The Billionaires: Steyer and Bloomberg
Even as the center of gravity in the Democratic Party has turned against the wealth and power of billionaires, two of the richest men in the country are seeking its presidential nomination. Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Tom Steyer, who has spoken to Salon on a couple of occasions, has tried to identify himself as a Warren-style progressive reformer, focused mainly on the climate crisis and curbing corporate power.

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and founder of the media empire that bears his name, is a former Republican (and former independent) who has long been identified as a social liberal and fiscal conservative. In New York, he was best known for his focus on LGBT rights, gun violence, public health and environmental issues — and also for his support for private-sector real estate development and relentless gentrification. It's legitimate to note that many billionaires use their wealth to advance right-wing causes and entrench plutocratic privilege, while Steyer and Bloomberg seem devoted to defeating Donald Trump and benefiting others. Nevertheless, it is striking and unsettling that both have basically bought their way into the race while other, clearly more qualified candidates have been pushed out. In the last week of November, Bloomberg alone reportedly spent $23.7 million on TV advertising — while the rest of the field put together spent $7.6 million.

The Dark Horses: Don't count them out yet (but almost)
These are the candidates who might have seemed plausible on paper, but have been stuck in the single digits throughout the 2020 cycle. Several such candidates have come and gone already, including former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and no doubt others we have forgotten.

It isn't entirely inconceivable that one of those who remain could pull off an upset and get the nomination, but it's getting harder to imagine that with every passing day. The candidates who retain some glimmers of plausibility are Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Pundits have loved Klobuchar from the beginning — it's only voters who don't seem to care. Booker has been a relentlessly sunny presence with absolutely no traction. Castro has emerged as a forceful progressive voice, but never as a contender. Klobuchar will appear in the December debate in Los Angeles; the other two probably won't, which likely means the end of the line.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick just got into the race for some reason, possibly because Barack Obama told him to. (It wasn't good advice.) The only thing we can say about Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland is that they must believe they're getting something out of this, and haven't dropped out yet.

The Fringe
These are the candidates who appeal to voting blocs so marginal within the current Democratic Party that it's impossible to imagine them winning the nomination. Wed; their odds are even lower than the Dark Horses. First among oddballs here is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, followed by self-help author and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson, who vowed in one early debate to "harness love" to defeat Trump. We know the Yang Gang will be displeased to see entrepreneur Andrew Yang in this part of the list, but Yang's candidacy is a distinctive mixture of genuinely innovative ideas (such as a universal basic income), utter lunacy and deep appeal to Reddit and 4chan-style fandom. Consider the words of Edward Burmila in The Nation:

[L]ots of candidates have an infrastructure plan; Yang has a uniformed "Legion of Builders and Destroyers" who he claims will have sovereign authority to overrule state and local governments. All candidates talk about education; Yang proposes a nationwide program of moving high-school students around to expose them to different parts of the country. And no one, save Yang, proposes a Department of Attention Economy to monitor youth use of electronic devices. He also feels strongly about circumcision, a topic rarely part of presidential campaigns.

Williamson is presumably still running to burnish her brand. Gabbard is running because she successfully executed a takedown on Kamala Harris and may have someone else in view. Yang genuinely believes this stuff and up till now apparently thought he had a chance. He may yet qualify for the December debate, as may Gabbard, but the math is not in his favor.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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