Feb 01, 2019
Update from a Political Junkie
A First Look at the Democrats' Leading 2020 Presidential Candidates
Feb 01, 2019
By Greg Brockbank
Disclaimer: The views below of that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of MCBA and its members.
I often feel that it’s unfortunate that so many voters get obsessed with the presidential candidates, often very early (I’m guilty as charged), to the exclusion of all other races at all levels (I’m equally obsessed with them as well). But here we are, one year before the presidential primaries begin, a year which will almost certainly serve to weed out most of the currently speculated-about and actual candidates (a few have already announced, and many more will in February and shortly thereafter) before we even get to the primaries and caucuses early next year. The first televised debate is in June.
The sheer number of candidates may feel overwhelming to many of us, and we wonder how we’ll get to know them all well enough to choose, although we’ll get more than enough media about at least the serious ones this year and next. For many people, the primary criterion is who is most likely to beat Trump, so virtually all candidates will presumably explain why they think they are the one who can. Trump may in fact not even make it through this year, given House Democrats’ and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations, so he may not even be the Republican nominee.
Unlike Republicans, who had more than a dozen serious presidential candidates in both 2012 and 2016, Democrats haven’t had a huge field of presidential candidates in recent decades, perhaps because there was always a strong frontrunner even when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama weren’t running for re-election in ’96 and ’12: Al Gore in ’00, John Kerry in ’04, and Hillary Clinton in ’08 and ’16. Now there are candidates aplenty, but no strong frontrunner.
DC political commentator Bill Press (a part-time Inverness resident and former Chair of the California Democratic Party) writes a weekly column, and on January 4th of this year he listed 32 potential Democratic presidential candidates: 10 U.S. senators (listed below); five House members and two former members (House members and former house members rarely get their party’s nomination—James Garfield was the last—much less win the general election); five governors and two former governors (even though they more often win the nomination and general election, none of the current crop stands out to me as being a first-tier candidate); a former vice president and a former attorney general (both under Obama); three mayors; and four businessmen.
It’s commonly said that every morning, every U.S. senator looks in the mirror and sees a president, but they rarely win (JFK and Obama being two of only three), perhaps because they have an extensive federal voting record which can be attacked by opponents. The five best-known senators—and most likely to win the nomination—are, in alphabetical order: Cory Booker (NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY); Kamala Harris (CA); Bernie Sanders (VT), and Elizabeth Warren (MA). The other five are Richard Blumenthal (CT), Sherrod Brown (OH), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Jeff Merkley (OR), and Chris Murphy (CT).
Not all of the 32 candidates will run (although most show every sign of doing so, including visiting or planning to visit Iowa and other early-voting states), and most will not last long before they run out of money (closely related to gaining insufficient traction in the polls). And even if they make it until the first few primaries and caucuses in February of next year, most of those remaining will drop out shortly thereafter unless they place in the top few in at least two of those early states. How they do in fundraising, polling, and ultimately the early-state primaries and caucuses has a lot to do with whether or not there are already too many (or at least one stronger) candidate or candidates in their “lane” (appealing to similar demographics and ideologies).
With President Trump being elected in what many think of as an unexpected fluke, and starting with a lower approval rating than any other recent president (mid-40s), and falling substantially from there (recently about 37, having fallen a few points because of the government shutdown, widely blamed primarily on Trump), many Democrats are understandably eager to run against such an obviously vulnerable incumbent. Even if their chances of winning the nomination are slim (betting odds of perhaps the leading four candidates winning the nomination are included in their profiles below), they may feel that the national exposure to be gained is worth the grueling schedule for the next year (and into 2020, if they are one of the top half dozen or so) even if only to add “former presidential candidate” to their resume or tag line.
Many commentators have opined that the Democrats can win in either of two ways: 1) win back the disaffected blue-collar Midwest men that may have voted for Obama with “hope,” but then went for Trump and his populist rhetoric, and most have, surprisingly, stuck with him so far, despite his, in many peoples’ opinion (including mine), obnoxious behavior and presentation, his many broken and at least as-yet-unfulfilled promises, and his record-breaking number of blatant lies, among other problems; or 2) reassemble the Obama coalition, featuring a heavier than usual turnout and vote for the Democrat by people of color, which may mean a person of color as the presidential candidate (several of the announced candidates are in that category, and most of them are progressives, and most of them are women).
Polls have been surprisingly few thus far, although some have shown Kamala Harris in the lead, and others have her trailing only Joe Biden and/or Bernie Sanders. A much publicized (at least among us political junkies) straw poll by MoveOn.org in December showed former Congressman Beto O’Rourke with a surprising lead, but many attributed that to his almost beating Texas Senator Ted Cruz in November, exciting people about his possibly running for President, but he may merely be a flash-in-the-pan flavor-of-the-month.
In profiling the candidates in this article, I have to give major credit to the articles and poll aggregations of electoral-vote.com, the daily blog I never miss, for years now, which on top of my (probably excessive) newspaper reading and involvement in numerous political groups and activities, makes me feel like I’m at the very high end of being politically informed. Much of their content has been absorbed into my consciousness in a way that makes me unaware that I’m reciting information I got from them, perhaps months or years ago. But I also want to thank and acknowledge electoral-vote.com for allowing liberal use of their content because at other times I’m taking information—notably the “Three Biggest Pros and Cons”—almost verbatim from their two-page profiles (regularly updated) of a couple dozen of the candidates.
In this column, I’m starting with what I think are the strongest four candidates at present, all senators or in Biden’s case, a long-serving former senator as well as vice-president: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden, listing their odds of winning the nomination (where such betting is legal), and their age on Inauguration Day 2021, even though many people now consider age not to be as important as previously thought, given how much better than expected both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders did in 2016, despite both being septuagenarians. My future articles will have updates, and probably profiles of other candidates, especially if they increase their polling and/or betting numbers.
KAMALA HARRIS (CA) — Odds of winning the nomination (as of 9/18): 18% — Age on Inauguration Day: 56
Although she’s only been in the Senate two years (so had Obama when he announced in ’07), she’s long been considered one of the frontrunners because of her charisma, being from the largest state, and other reasons listed below under “Three Biggest Pros.” Note that those sections refer to the general election, not the primary, and often a pro for one is a con for the other, and vice versa. Many people see her as Obama 2.0, and her fortunate position on the Senate Judiciary Committee, even as a freshman, gave her national exposure during last year’s Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, where her sharp questioning was just her usual prosecutorial style—impressing some and turning off others.
Background: Born to immigrant parent activists (from India and Jamaica) who met at UC Berkeley during the 60s, Harris’ professional career before she came to the Senate was almost exclusively as a prosecutor, including 13 years total as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, so law enforcement is her major issue. Like many presidential candidates before her, especially in recent years, she’s just put out a memoir, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” and her book tour not only introduces her to the country, but also conveniently leads into her campaign.
Three Biggest Pros: 1) Harris is a skilled user of social media and “big data,” which was so useful in Bernie Sanders’ campaign in ’16, and she may well lead all other current candidates in this area; 2) her “law and order” background is likely to appeal to many centrist voters, although it could give pause to progressives who may be distrustful of a career prosecutor, even though Harris walks and talks like a progressive; and 3) she will be able to attract minority voters more than old, white guys like Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.
Three Biggest Cons: 1) If any Democratic candidate will light a fire under Trump’s base, it’s a child of immigrants from California who is also a woman and black; 2) her ambition may be just a little too obvious, which is generally a turnoff to voters; and 3) while she will undoubtedly attract minority voters, the effect may not be as strong as one might think, given her past support for things like “three strikes” laws, and her professional defense of death sentences, so she may well be somewhat out of step with Black Lives Matter and other minority activists.
Bottom Line: Although comparing her to Obama is obvious and probably helpful, Obama had a near-monopoly on the progressive end of the political spectrum in ’08, and Harris will be vigorously challenged in that “lane” by other candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others, and for the black vote by Cory Booker. Surprisingly, we don’t really know how good a public speaker and debater she really is.
ELIZABETH WARREN — Odds of winning the nomination (as of 9/18): 12-18% — Age on Inauguration Day: 71
Many people hoped she’d run four years ago, and tried to draft her as the progressive champion, but she demurred (she’d only been in the Senate two years at that point), and Bernie Sanders jumped into that role after waiting a while to see if Warren would run. She’s best known as a ferocious champion for consumers, and as a bankruptcy expert; in fact, as a Harvard law professor, she chaired a congressionally appointed committee overseeing the TARP bailout, and she conceived and championed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even though she knew even then that she was already too controversial to be named as the first head of it, although that would have been logical. She, too, came out with a memoir a couple years ago. I heard her speak on it at Dominican University, where she told stories of her impoverished childhood and struggles as a single mother.
Background: After Senator Ted Kennedy died in 2010, Republican Scott Brown surprisingly won a special election to fill that seat. Warren took him on when he ran for a full term in 2012, and she won, and she won re-election easily last year. Unfortunately, her casual comment about her family lore indicating she had a tiny percentage of Native American blood (not uncommon in Oklahoma, where she was born and grew up), caused her problems both with people who were turned off by that, as well as people who may have thought she used that inappropriately for political benefit. After hoping the controversy would go away, and it didn't, she eventually got a DNA test confirming her expected tiny percentage of Native American ancestry, which she duly reported, opening her up to further criticism. Trump has condescendingly and repeatedly referred to her with a racial slur–Pocahontas–which is true to form for him.
Three Biggest Pros: 1) Voters often like poorhouse-to-penthouse candidates (in this case, impoverished childhood to Harvard law professor), and being seen as a consumer champion is always a plus; 2) while she is unquestionably progressive, she’s also pragmatic and actually gotten things done (rare for a freshman senator, apparently, especially a woman (which sadly says a lot about the Senate), and most especially one seen as "pushy” by Republicans.) Mitch McConnell justified having her removed from a Senate debate when she refused to stop her questioning, by saying “Still, she persisted,” which became a meme and turned her into a feminist icon of sorts, and she might just be the one who can unify the Hillary and Bernie wings of the party; and 3) the suburban women who went for Trump and then for Democrats last year might find it easier to vote for her than for, say, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.
Three Biggest Cons: 1) If the Democratic nominee is a feminist, pointy-headed academic from liberal Massachusetts, the white, working class men aren’t coming back; 2) Trump may well think she’s going to be the nominee, so he’s already spent a lot of time poisoning the well against her, even above and beyond his regular “Pocahontas” taunts; and 3) when Democratic voters learn she used to be a Republican, that may surprise and upset some of them.
Bottom Line: Electoral-vote.com says Warren may have a better chance than her odds indicate, as her liabilities seem minor compared to those of, say, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, who seem to have greater ones. But I fear she doesn’t fit as the reassemble-the-Obama-coalition or the “win-back-the-Midwest” standard bearer.
BERNIE SANDERS — Odds of winning the nomination (as of 10/18): 11-15% — Age on Inauguration Day: 79
As even casual political observers recall, Sanders was seen as too old, too grumpy, too socialist, and too Jewish (with a Brooklyn accent, even), none of which turned out to be enough to stop him from being a serious candidate against overwhelming frontrunner Hillary Clinton in 2016. He surprised everyone (including probably, himself) by coming very close to beating her and getting the nomination, establishing him as the progressive standard bearer by being a well-spoken, unapologetically liberal gentleman. He made relatively mainstream what progressives had been long hoping to get in the distant future, e.g., $15 per hour minimum wage, free college, and Medicare for All (AKA single-payer health care). It’s even more surprising that he remains among the top contenders now, given his (even older) age, but as mentioned, it didn’t hurt him in ’16, and may not this time, either, given that Trump is also in his 70s; the same is true for Joe Biden.
Background: Sanders was, even as a youth, a liberal rabble-rouser in Vermont, running for office after office unsuccessfully, until he somehow narrowly won a race for Mayor of Burlington, where he immediately became very popular. He then was elected to the House of Representatives and then the Senate, so he has served in Congress for quite a few years now. His approval rating in Vermont is an astounding 77 percent, higher than any other member of the Senate in their home state, and some say he is currently the most popular politician in the country.
Three Biggest Pros: 1) Progressives would be thrilled to have him be the nominee this time, and the rest of the Democrats would fall in line, since he’s a known quantity, was impressive last time, and could well beat Trump handily (which is all most Democrats care about); 2) he may be able to turn out millennial voters who might otherwise stay home; and 3) he could well be stronger in his second consecutive run, building on his existing network and good reputation (notwithstanding the small number of Hillary supporters who blame him for her loss to Trump).
Three Biggest Cons: 1) Despite his past civil rights activism, Sanders sees all problems through the lens of class, not race, so he has some problems connecting with non-white voters; 2) many people consider many of Sanders’ goals to be as unachievable as Trump’s, which may give many of them, especially independents, pause; and 3) we’ve seen in the last two years that anti-Semitism is stronger than many of us may have thought, and they could come out in force to vote against a Jewish candidate in the general election, despite the fact that Sanders no longer practices the religion.
Bottom Line: Perhaps because he is well-known enough, and has a strong fundraising network (especially for small donations—the best kind), he could afford to wait a while before declaring. But rumors are currently indicating that he will declare in early February. Some say he did as well as he did last time because no one expected him to win, or even get close, so the Republican meat-grinder was not focused on him, as it would be if he were the nominee. And most importantly, like Obama eight years earlier, he had the entire progressive lane to himself last time, and that won’t be true this time. Finally, like Warren, he may not fit neatly enough into either the Obama coalition strategy, or the win back the Midwest strategy.
JOE BIDEN — Odds of winning the nomination (as of 10/18): 10-20% — Age on Inauguration Day: 78
Joe Biden was a logical VP pick for Barack Obama in ’08, representing the long-time Senate experience, especially in legal matters and foreign affairs, that Obama lacked, and he has remained extremely popular during and since that service. He especially appeals to white working-class men—his own background in PA and DE—although he can also talk a pretty good progressive game, perhaps even more so than Obama.
Background: Biden had impressive successes in college (sports and class office) and thereafter, fulfilling his boast to be elected to the Senate by age 30, and compiling a record unmatched by all but a handful of people in our nation’s history (as chair of the Judiciary Committee, and then of the Foreign Affairs Committee) in his 36 years there before becoming VP ten years ago and helping get Obamacare passed. He's had more than his share of family tragedies (losing his first wife and infant daughter in a car accident shortly after being elected to the Senate, and then losing his rising star son Beau to brain cancer in 2015, delaying what might otherwise have been an entry into the last presidential race, until it was too late (he had, however, run twice before, and not done all that well).
Three Biggest Pros: 1) As mentioned, if the Democratic voters and pooh-bahs want to go in the direction of trying to win back disaffected white working class men in the Midwest, there’s no one better to do that than Uncle Joe; 2) on the other hand, if the GOP “goes low,” Biden can be quite the political brawler, and can go that route as well; and 3) unless Hillary runs again (which she’s shown no sign of doing, and many Dems feel strongly that she should not), no candidate is more of a well-connected Democratic insider than Biden, and he knows where the levers of power are.
Three Biggest Cons: 1) As mentioned, Biden has run for president twice before, and obviously struggles to get anyone outside his base excited; 2) progressives will not be too happy about a septuagenarian white man who is as “establishment” as it gets; and 3) he’s got some baggage from his decades in the Senate and his two prior runs for president, including political foot-in-mouth disease, and plagiarism scandals both in college and from his Senate career.
Bottom Line: Although Biden is among the best-known and best-liked candidates, he does have some liabilities, and if he runs, and steps in it (again), he could lose support to one or more of the many other candidates, at least one of whom (Sherrod Brown, also liked by progressives) is in his lane. But right now, one poll showed Biden as the Dems’ top choice, with up to 33%, easily outpacing Sanders’ 15%, in large part because his lane has fewer candidates in it than most others.
If Democrats want to choose a winning candidate, they should not worry about the 25 or so states the Republicans will surely win, regardless of who their nominee is, nor the 20 or so the Democrats will surely win, regardless of nominee, and focus on the five states Trump unexpectedly won in ’16: the three Midwestern states—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—despite Democratic presidential candidates having won those states for 2-3 decades, and the two southern states—North Carolina and Florida—which have gone back and forth in recent years. One could argue that since Trump’s approval rating has dropped more than enough that he will lose the Midwestern states, which he won in ’16 by 1% each, maybe they should focus on the two southern states, although winning those states may require a different kind of candidate than one who would appeal to the Midwest voters. Also, how badly do Democrats want a progressive candidate, versus a moderate? As mentioned above, despite their many advantages, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders don’t fit neatly into either strategy, and Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, although they do, have significant liabilities. That’s enough reason for me to look at some of the other candidates in my next column, wondering if one or more of them will catch fire and catch the top four in polling and fundraising.
Greg Brockbank is a 30-plus-year attorney and civic and political activist, having served for 22 years on the College of Marin Board of Trustees and then on the San Rafael City Council. He is the senior member and immediate past chair of the Marin Democratic Party governing board and has attended 30 state Democratic conventions. For over 20 years, he has provided numerous groups with detailed lists of the contact info for all candidates for Marin’s local offices, and appears as a commentator and election-night co-host on public access television.