What you need to know about the 2020 election so far

Ledyard King

WASHINGTON – Progressives vs. moderates. Health care, climate change, abortion. Old white men leading the pack. And, yes, Fox News.

As the first Democratic presidential debate approaches, the contours of the 2020 field are starting to take shape.

Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, back for a second try, is more establishment, less insurgent this time around. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite target of President Donald Trump, has emerged as the candidate with deep ideas on student debt, opioids and climate change. And South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the brainy underdog who's attracted a sizable following. 

All three (and some 20 others) labor – for now – in the shadow of Joe Biden, the former vice president leading the polls with a message plied by his supporters that he's best positioned to win back the Upper Midwest, the once-blue territory that catapulted Trump to victory in 2016 over Hillary Clinton.

The first of 12 debates takes place in Miami in June to help decide which candidate will deliver the nomination speech in Milwaukee next summer. The field is so large it will take two nights to accommodate everyone on the debate stage.

Here are five things to know about the race so far:

The field: Old white men rule (so far)

Women powered the Democratic takeover of the House last fall. Activist millennials are energizing the party on issues such as climate change and gun control. And female, minority, and young voters appear most eager to stop Trump from a second term, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

And yet ... two white male septuagenarians (76-year-old Biden and 77-year-old Sanders) are leading the field. Polls consistently show both are combining to pull in more than half the support of potential Democratic primary voters.

Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at the Community Oven restaurant in Hampton, N.H., May 13, 2019.

It's not hard to understand.

Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, still enjoys an ardent following he built up in the 2016 race with far-left positions in support of Medicare-for-all, expanded government assistance, and increased taxes and restrictions on corporations.

Biden, a moderate who can boast of being Robin to Barack Obama's Batman, is viewed by many party faithful as the best chance to beat Trump in 2020. And electability as emerged as the top priority for many Democrats.

Name identification is primarily driving the numbers for Biden and Sanders. And history suggests being the frontrunner more than a year before the nominating convention is not always a good thing.

The money: It's not so much about big donors 

Past elections centered on candidates getting the largest donors to line up behind them as a way to not only fund campaign activities but also to scare away potential competition.

That's still true to some extent. But with so many candidates, there's been an effort among Democrats to show support is wide, not just deep, as they make their case for the nomination.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a town hall at the Fort Museum on May 4, 2019 in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

To qualify for the first debate, for example, the Democratic National Committee is requiring candidates to register at least 1% support in no fewer than three qualifying polls, or show the campaign has received contributions from at least 65,000 donors, with a minimum of 200 different donors in at least 20 states.

The AOC effect: AOC hasn't endorsed a 2020 candidate but Bernie Sanders could get a boost by partnering with her

Latest poll: New Quinnipiac poll shows Biden leading Dems, Trump not getting credit for the economy

About 20 have met that threshold but none faster than Biden who, within 24 hours of his April 25 entry into the race, collected in $6.3 million from 96,926 individual donations in all 50 states.

The choice: moderates vs. progressives

Democrats generally view the path to the presidency in two ways: nominate a liberal who can excite and turn out the base (notably minorities, young voters and college-educated progressives) or nominate a moderate who can appeal to the combination of Midwestern voters, disaffected Republicans and blue-collar workers who put Trump over the finish line three years ago.

The first strategy would help candidates such as Sanders, Warren and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard among several vying in the far-left lane. The second would favor Biden and other more centrist candidates including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, answers questions during a presidential forum held by She The People on the Texas State University campus Wednesday, April 24, 2019, in Houston.

A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll in March found Democratic voters resoundingly say they are more interested in nominating a candidate who can defeat President Trump than one they agree with most on the issue.

By 55-35 percent, the Democrats surveyed endorse electability over ideological purity even though they also embrace progressive priorities such as the Green New Deal, the ambitious plan to combat climate change.

They are even inclined to be open to a nominee who espouses socialism – if that person is seen as the best chance to defeat Trump, the poll found

The argument: It's more than 'Stop Trump'

The Democratic candidates aren't just united by their desire to make Trump a one-term president, they are generally singing off the same songbook when it comes to the major issues they promote: health care, climate change, higher taxes on the wealthy and, thanks to a recent spate of anti-abortion state laws, protecting a woman's right to choose.

The differences emerge on how far some candidates are willing to go.

Several have signed on to the Green New Deal and its call for job and housing guarantees but some aren't willing to go that far. Then there's Washington Gov. Jay Inslee who has made climate change the primary focus of his campaign.

There's a strong push, led by Sanders, on a "Medicare-for-all" approach. Others including more  Klobuchar and Michael Bennet of Colorado who want more of a middle ground approach to health care coverage.

Even impeachment is a point of division.

Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke are among the 2020 candidates who believe the president's conduct outlined in the Mueller Report merit action by Congress to begin proceedings. But others, including Klobuchar and Sanders, have expressed more caution so far.

The delivery: Some Democrats embrace Fox News

Fox News has emerged as a dividing line among Democrats. As in: 'Why would you even think about appearing on enemy territory?'

But several prominent candidates have done town halls on Fox, a network so largely identified with the GOP and Trump brands that the DNC barred it from holding any of the 12 Democratic debates.

Sanders, Klobuchar and Buttigieg have appeared. And New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is going on next month. Others are reportedly in negotiation with the network – or have expressed an interest to do a Fox town hall.

But some have been adamant about not going on, notably Harris and Warren, the latter who slammed Fox as a "hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists."

Trump doesn't seem to like that Fox is inviting Democrats on air, saying the network "is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What you need to know about the 2020 election so far