Joe Biden is hanging on as the Democrats’ 2020 frontrunner — but his path to the nomination is hardly assured.
Despite the former vice president’s universal name recognition, at least two-thirds of Democrats are shopping around for a different option. Yet the broad field of candidates, dividing voter loyalties, is working to Biden’s advantage. The change agents in the race — Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — largely share an agenda, but split progressives. Meanwhile, Kamala Harris, Mayor Pete, Cory Booker and resurgent El Paso native Beto O’Rourke are each offering a different flavor of liberal pragmatism and generational change.
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While a few candidates are on the rise — notably Andrew Yang, who has outlasted two governors and a sitting senator — a great winnowing has thinned the field. Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand and Seth Moulton have abandoned the quest for the Democratic nomination. Octogenarian gadfly Mike Gravel dropped out, endorsing Sanders. John Hickenlooper pivoted to a Senate bid in Colorado. And Jay Inslee, having put climate on the 2020 agenda, has retreated to the other Washington to pursue a third term as governor.
For the moment, the race is Biden’s to lose. But we don’t put it past him.
1) Joe Biden
The former vice president continues to offer America a seductive promise — a reboot from the Trump catastrophe and a return to the Obama era. And rather than risk falling in love with a progressive New Hope, many rank-and-file Democrats, particularly older voters, seem happy to fall in line behind Biden, 76, who is raising plenty of cash: $21.5 million in the second quarter alone. At his Philadelphia kickoff rally in May, Biden touted his record as a Mr. Fixit: “I know how to make government work.”
Signature Policy: Biden has peerless foreign policy credentials and isn’t afraid to tout them: “I’m the most qualified person in the country to be president,” he’s said. “I know as much about American foreign policy [as] anyone around, including even maybe Kissinger.” (Read more about Biden’s platform.)
Signature Apology: “I’m sorry I didn’t understand more,” Biden told reporters after being rebuked by multiple women for his space-invader style of politics. “I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done. I have never been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman. So that’s not the reputation I’ve had since I was in high school, for God’s sakes.”
RS Coverage: Joe Biden Is Not Helping
2) Elizabeth Warren
The Massachusetts senator continues to outpace her competitors on policy, including calling to wipe out student debt for tens of millions of Americans. Warren is targeting Democrats who seek progressive purity from their 2020 champion, including in fundraising. Eschewing fundraisers with big contributors seeking political favors, Warren raised more than $19 million from grassroots donors in the second quarter, joining Sanders as the only candidates with more than 1 million total donations. But unlike Sanders, who embraces the mantle of democratic socialism, the 70-year-old Warren is a capitalist at heart, having spent a career trying to make the system work for working people.
Signature Policy: Warren wants to address American inequality with a wealth tax, imposed annually on “ultra-millionaires,” to pay for benefits, including universal free or low-cost childcare, for “yacht-less Americans.” Fortunes greater than $50 million would be taxed at 2 percent. Billionaires would pay 3 percent. The proposal has greater than 60 percent support and would raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years. (Read more about Warren’s platform.)
Signature Apology: Warren has apologized for conflating “family stories” about Cherokee heritage with native identity. At the Native American Presidential Forum in August, Warren underscored her regret. “Like anyone who’s being honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes,” she said. I am sorry for the harm I have caused.”
RS Coverage: Elizabeth Warren Wants to Wipe Out Student Debt for 42 Million Americans
3) Bernie Sanders
The 77-year-old Sanders remains a force thanks to a potent combination of people-power and cash. His campaign announced in July it raised $18 million in the second quarter, with an average donation of $18. And the campaign’s focus on grassroots organizing is peerless in the 2020 field. Sanders does not have the left lane to himself as he did in 2016 — many candidates have embraced his once-distinctive proposals. But he is seen as an uncompromising champion of Medicare for All, and he has one-upped Warren’s income-based college debt relief by calling for a complete wipeout of the nation’s $1.6 trillion in student debt.
Signature Policy: Sanders’ 2016 campaign set the table for 2020. He gets full credit for mainstreaming a $15 minimum wage and tuition-free college. Sanders recently introduced the “For the 99.8% Act” that would sharply increase the estate tax, including imposing a 77 percent tax on estates in excess of $1 billion, raising an estimated $315 billion over a decade. (Read more about Sanders’ platform.)
Signature Apology: Sanders apologized to former female staffers for a 2016 campaign marred by pay disparities and allegations of sexual harassment by male staffers, promising to “do better” moving forward.
RS Coverage: On the Trail With Bernie Sanders 2.0
4) Kamala Harris
Harris showed fearlessness and precision in attacking Biden in the June Miami debates. But her showing in the second DNC debate in Detroit was less transcendent — and put Harris on the defensive about her law enforcement record and her universal health care plan. She has been sliding in recent polls and risks losing contact with the top tier. The Californian stands astride the tectonic plates of the Democratic Party — an establishment politician who has adopted a platform responsive to the passion of the grassroots, including a Green New Deal and marijuana legalization. Her fundraising in the second quarter reflects success in sustaining this tricky balance: Harris raised $12 million, including $2 million in a post-Miami surge. Black women are the heart of the Democratic Party, and seeing themselves reflected in the Howard University-educated Harris (born to Jamaican and Tamil Indian parents) could boost her prospects in an early-vote state like South Carolina.
Signature Policy: Harris has promised executive action to punish pay disparities. She would require companies to receive an “Equal Pay Certification” and fine one percent of corporate profits for every percent of wage gap that persists between male and female employees. (Read more about Harris’ platform.)
Signature Apology: Harris has accepted accountability for missteps as California’s attorney general: “The bottom line is the buck stops with me, and I take full responsibility for what my office did.”
RS Coverage: Kamala Harris’ Moment
5) Pete Buttigieg
The 37-year-old mayor vaulted from dark-horse to phenom in a matter of months, but he has lately plateaued. Plainspoken and steeped in the values of the Christian left, Buttigieg has wowed pundits and prospective voters alike. He was featured in a photo-shoot in Vogue, and (with his husband Chasten) scored the cover of Time. Is “Mayor Pete” a true contender? His fundraising is prodigious: Buttigieg raised nearly $25 million in the second quarter alone. But his lack of resonance with black voters is holding him back. In recent polls he’s registered at zero percent support among African Americans in South Carolina, Florida,and Mississippi, despite scoring in or near double digits with whites.
Signature Policy: “The electoral college needs to go.” (Read more about Buttigieg’s platform.)
Signature Apology: After news reports revealed that Buttigieg declared “all lives matter” in 2015, Mayor Pete distanced himself from the comment, insisting he “did not understand” at the time that the slogan was “being used to devalue what the Black Lives Matter movement was telling us.”
S Coverage: Is America Ready for Mayor Pete?; Pete Buttigieg’s Antiracist Education
6) Cory Booker
The former mayor of Newark, Booker is running on a values-heavy message of love, unity and “a revival of civic grace.” The 50-year-old had an excellent debate in Detroit, besting Biden in an exchange over mass incarceration and the 1994 crime bill Biden championed. Booker has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate, and he’s changed the conversation around federal cannabis legalization with his proposed Marijuana Justice Act. “I get angry when I see people taking just one step — legalizing marijuana — without doing anything to address past harms,” he told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. But his outward liberalism has been undercut at times by connections to Wall Street and Big Pharma.
Signature Policy: Baby bonds. Booker would target the wealth gap in America by seeding “American Opportunity Accounts” for children that would allow kids from the poorest families to enter adulthood with a nest egg of up to $46,000 to invest in education, home ownership or retirement. (Read more about Booker’s platform.)
Signature Apology: Booker has disavowed the tough-on-crime approach he championed in his early days as Newark mayor. In his book United, Booker credits his then-chief of staff for delivering a wake-up call on racial disparities in policing: “He told me that if I had so quickly forgotten my own life experiences, I had my head up my large black posterior region.”
RS Coverage: Why Cory Booker Cares So Much About Legal Weed
7) Andrew Yang
The most unlikely grassroots sensation of 2020, Yang is a businessman who founded Venture for America, working to revitalize struggling urban centers by training and fostering entrepreneurs in cities like Detroit and New Orleans. Sure, he’s campaigning by gimmick — most recently creating a sweepstakes for backers to receive $1,000 a month, in a test run of his signature policy — but Yang has cultivated following and is polling above many “serious” contenders.
Signature Policy: The 44-year-old is running on a platform of a universal basic income, to counteract the worst effects of automation in the workforce. Yang spoke at length to Rolling Stone about his “Freedom Dividend,” insisting: “You want to universalize it so it’s seen as a true right of citizenship.” (Read more about Yang’s platform.)
RS Coverage: ‘I Came From the Internet’: Inside Andrew Yang’s Wild Ride
8) Beto O’Rourke
The mass shooting in his home town of El Paso brought out the best in Beto. The former congressman has struggled to find his ideological “lane” in a crowded field. But in the aftermath of white-supremacist violence, Beto displayed emotional resonance, filling the void as the country’s griever-in-chief, while boldly implicating Trump’s racist rhetoric as a root cause of the violence. Flashing the political gifts that turned him into a national phenom in his 2018 bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke is now treading far off the beaten primary path, visiting sites affected by Trump’s racist policies, including the Mississippi town where hundreds of chicken factory workers were rounded up an ICE raid. “Wherever Donald Trump is terrorizing and terrifying communities,” he said, “I’m gonna be there.”
Signature Policy: O’Rourke has struggled to find his policy niche. He first prioritized immigration reform, before turning to climate policy, most recently pivoting to veterans, proposing to boost services with an annual “war tax” on non-military families. (Read more about O’Rourke’s platform.)
Signature Apology: Beto was arrested for drunk-driving at 26, which he’s called a “terrible mistake.”
RS Coverage: Beto O’Rourke Shares the Story of His Old Band, Foss — and a Single
9) Julián Castro
Castro’s stage presence and command of the issues across three debates have underscored why Hillary nearly picked him as her 2016 running mate. The only Latino contender in the field, Castro, 44, is also one of the youngest. His “People First” policy agenda earned high marks for offering a sweeping immigration plan that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; an education overhaul that would reinvest in public education from pre-K through college; and a $5-billion plan to “eliminate lead poisoning as a major public health threat.”
Signature Policy: Pre-K for USA, nationwide universal pre-kindergarten programs, are the centerpiece of his People First education plan. “Investing in early childhood education isn’t just the right thing to do on behalf of our children,” Castro says. “It’s an investment that we can’t afford not to make.” (Read more about Castro’s platform.)
Signature Apology: In 2016, Castro apologized for dissing Trump and talking up Clinton while on the job as HUD secretary, a violation of the Hatch Act. “When an error is made — even an inadvertent one — the error should be acknowledged,” Castro said. “I made one here.”
RS Coverage: Julian Castro Officially Enters the 2020 Presidential Race
10) Amy Klobuchar
The Minnesota senator’s understated persona stands in contrast to Trump’s bluster and bravado, winning her plaudits from conservatives including Washington Post columnist George Will and Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins. In theory, Klobuchar should benefit from a near-home-field advantage in neighboring Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucus. But the latest poll has her bumping along at 4 percent support.
Signature Policy: Known for a focus on reform of revolution, Klobuchar has emphasized her record of enacting practical laws that have reduced the backlog of rape kits and banned lead in toys. If Biden continues to decline, Klobuchar seems likely to corral some of his moderate-minded voters. (Read more about Klobuchar’s platform.)
Signature Apology: Klobuchar has been dogged by reports she abused and demeaned staff, including by throwing a binder that “accidentally” hit a staffer. The senator has admitted she has pushed employees “too hard” at times and can be a “tough boss,” but added she just wants to hold her employees — and the country — to high standards.
RS Coverage: Amy Klobuchar on Al Franken, Brett Kavanaugh and the Road Ahead
11) Tulsi Gabbard
Gabbard, 38, is the first Hindu to serve in the House of Representatives. She’s pitching herself to progressives (including with a bill to legalize marijuana) and to pacifists: The Iraq veteran is running against endless wars. Gabbard has shown poise on the debate stage and gained an enthusiastic grassroots following. But there’s something off. Her campaign continues to get a odd signal boost from Russian propaganda networks and the Putin government itself.
Signature Policy: Gabbard has staked her campaign in opposition to wars of regime change. But her foreign policy credentials are unsettling: She visited Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2017 on a secret “fact-finding” mission and dismissed his opposition — across the board — as terrorists. (Read more about Gabbard’s platform.)
Signature Apology: Into adulthood, Gabbard espoused virulently anti-LGBTQ views. She released an apology video saying, “In my past, I said and believed things that were wrong.”
RS Coverage: Who’s Afraid of Tulsi Gabbard?
12) Tom Steyer
The progressive billionaire best known for leading an impeachment crusade against president Trump threw his hat into the crowded 2020 ring on July 9th, promising to betray his class and wrest political power from America’s moneyed interests. Steyer had no shortage of cash to help overcome his late start, reportedly spending $12 million on his national introduction. He failed to qualify for the Houston debate, but has now qualified for the October debate in Ohio.
Signature Policy: Steyer’s Need to Impeach campaign has signed up more than 8 million Americans seeking Trump’s constitutional removal. (This list could provide Steyer with a formidable grassroots base.) “It’s important to stand up for the American democracy,” Steyer has told Rolling Stone about the fight for impeachment. “We believe fighting against a reckless and lawless president is not something that will turn off voters.”
RS Coverage: A Conversation With Tom Steyer, the Liberal Billionaire Bankrolling Trump’s Impeachment
13) Steve Bullock
The Montana governor with a Deadwood-worthy name is a 2020 dark horse. He entered the race in May and made a folksy introduction from the Detroit debates. Even in a crowded field, Bullock’s experience stands out. He won statewide office in a state Trump carried by 20 points — and then got a GOP-majority legislature to agree to expand Medicaid. He raised $2 million in his debut fundraising quarter.
Signature Policy: The 53-year-old has focused on ending the influence of unlimited political contributions and dark money. “If we can kick the Koch brothers out of Montana,” he said in Detroit, “we can do it everywhere.” (Read more about Bullock’s platform.)
Signature Apology: A former Bullock aide, fired for sexual harassment, went on to harass again in the office of the mayor of New York City. “I should have done more to ensure future employers would learn of his behavior,” Bullock wrote in February. “These realizations come too late for the two women in New York City. For that, I’m deeply sorry.”
RS Coverage: The Democrats’ Battle for Montana
14) Marianne Williamson
Williamson is campaigning to give the United States a “moral and spiritual awakening,” and two at-times soaring debate performances have piqued national curiosity about the self-help guru. But Williamson, the love warrior, is also dogged by a record of battling science, most recently calling on group prayer to block hurricane Dorian’s destruction.
Signature Policy: Called for as much as $500 billion in reparations for black people. Scholars have estimated a fair value for reparations at between $6 and $14 trillion. (Read more about Williamson’s platform.)
Signature Apology: In her Prayer of Apology to African Americans, the bestselling author apologizes for slavery, lynchings, white supremacist laws, the denial of voting rights, the denial of civil rights, unequal treatment of Black Americans in the criminal justice system, police brutality, economic injustice and more, asking God for forgiveness. “May the screams that were not allowed, be allowed now / May the cries that were never heard be heard now / May the tears that were never heard be heard now./And may the healing begin / In this sacred container, may the healing begin / May the Light of love now heal us all / Amen.”
RS Coverage: Marianne Williamson Is the Cosmic Sorceress We Need Now
15) Michael Bennet
The 54-year-old senator is campaigning for a return to integrity in government and a revival of American economic mobility. Bennet positions himself as “pragmatic idealist” and has been calling for Democrats to temper ideas like packing the Supreme Court. He has been lauded by “Morning” Joe Scarborough for combining “an Ivy League pedigree” with “a common touch” and for his “commitment to key centrist fiscal policies.” Bennett raised a respectable $2.8 million in the second quarter.
Signature Policy: Medicare X. With Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Bennet is proposing legislation to create, and slowly roll out, a public option for the Obamacare state marketplaces, with the same doctor and hospital networks as Medicare, and similar reimbursement rates. Bennet has called Medicare-for-All, which would disrupt existing health care plans for millions, “a bad opening offer.” (Read more about Bennet’s platform.)
RS Coverage: The 21st Democratic Presidential Candidate Has Entered the 2020 Race — Make It Stop
16) Tim Ryan
A nine-term congressman, Ryan represents post-industrial Youngstown, Ohio, and wants Democrats to compete for the disaffected voters who turned to Trump in 2016. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Ryan, 45, insisted: “I think we need an absolute, aggressive campaign in rural America, because I think we can win those voters back.” In the wake of the mass shooting in Dayton, Ryan has shown gumption and moral clarity in demanding gun control: “We can’t back down.”
Signature Policy: The centerpiece of Ryan’s candidacy is a long-term industrial strategy to make the U.S. competitive with China in industries like automotive, solar, wind and clean manufacturing. (Read more about Ryan’s platform.)
RS Coverage: Tim Ryan: ‘We Need an Absolute, Aggressive Campaign in Rural America’
17) John Delaney
The former Maryland Congressman, 56, has been running for president since July 2017, preaching a relentlessly bipartisan message of national unity. An entrepreneur in high finance, Delaney launched two companies that trade on the New York Stock Exchange. At the debate in Detroit, Delaney got a long-sought-after moment in the spotlight — but Democrats disliked his message. One poll found that 32 percent came away with a less favorable opinion, compared to just 2 percent who were impressed. One thing that won’t hold Delaney down is funding: He is worth close to $100 million and is largely self-financing his campaign. (He raised only $284,000 in the second quarter.)
Signature Policy: Delaney is promoting a national youth service program to bring the country together. (Read more about Delaney’s platform.)
RS Coverage: John Delaney Says He’s ‘Skating to Where the Puck Is Going’
18) Joe Sestak
The former three-star Navy admiral and two-term congressman threw his hat into the 2020 ring in mid-June, and has been spotted stumping before sparse crowds in Iowa. Sestak is a name political junkies will remember from his failed bids for a senate seat from Pennsylvania. In 2010 he unseated the party-switching Democratic incumbent Arlen Specter in the primary, before losing to Republican Pat Toomey in the general. (Sestak lost an expensive Democratic primary race in 2016.)
Signature Policy: Sestak is campaigning on his military and foreign policy credentials insisting he “has the depth of global experience to restore America’s leadership in the world.”
19) Wayne Messam
The mayor of fast-growing Miramar, Florida, Messam has a low national profile. But the 45-year-old was recently elected to a third term in the Miami suburb (with more residents than South Bend, Indiana) and the former football standout has set his sights on Washington. His campaign isn’t making the case for his executive talents, however. Messam 2020 has been rocked by internal conflict and alarming reports of financial mismanagement.
Signature Policy: Messam has called for statehood for Puerto Rico, and was the first Democrat to call for cancelling all student debt. “It’s interesting to see other candidates now beginning to start to put out a proposal,” Messam said in West Des Moines, referencing Warren’s debt-relief plan. (Read more about Messam’s platform.)
2020 Campaign Graveyard
Here lie the presidential ambitions of fallen Democratic contenders
Bill de Blasio
Dropped Out: 9/20/19, after 128 days
Parting Words: Parting words: “I feel like I’ve contributed all I can to this primary election. It’s clearly not my time.”
Last Wish: “Democrats must return to our roots as a party focused on bold solutions that speak to the concerns of working people.”
Dropped Out: 8/28/19, after 225 days
Parting Words: “We led the fights we can’t afford to lose for women and families — and moved the entire field along with us.”
Last Wish: “We have to defeat President Trump, flip the Senate and elect women up and down the ballot.”
Dropped Out: 8/23/19, after 124 days
Parting Words: “I will be campaigning my ass off for whoever wins our nomination in 2020.”
Last Wish: That Americans embrace hope: “Hope is what gets us, as individuals, through the darkest of times. And it is what will lead our country through the darkest of times as well.”
Dropped Out: 8/21/19, after 174 days
Parting Words: “It’s become clear that I’m not going to be carrying the ball. I’m not going to be the president, so I’m withdrawing tonight from the race.”
Last Wish: That the climate crisis “must be the top priority for our next president.” And a third term as governor in the other Washington: “I want to continue to stand with you in opposing Donald Trump and rejecting his hurtful and divisive agenda, while strengthening and enhancing Washington state’s role as a progressive beacon for the nation.”
Dropped Out: 8/15/19, after 164 days
Parting Words: “I ran for president because this country is being ripped apart, by politics and partisan games while our biggest problems go unsolved.”
Last Wish: A different national office. “I’ve heard from so many Coloradans who want me to run for the United States Senate. I intend to give that some serious thought.” (Hickenlooper announced his Senate bid less than a week later.)
Dropped Out: 8/6/19, after 126 days
Parting Words: “I am proud and honored to endorse Senator Bernie Sanders for the presidency of the United States.”
Last Wish: That Americans vote for democratic socialism over “Republican socialism, which benefits the one percent and leads us to a constant state of war.”
Dropped Out: 7/8/19, after 91 days
Parting Words: “Weaknesses will be flushed out and a leader will emerge.”
Last Wish: That the eventual nominee supports an assault weapons ban and buyback
Dropped Out: 1/25/19, after 79 days
Parting Words: “When I was a kid in grade school, my teachers always said that anyone could grow up and become president. Unfortunately, what I’m starting to realize is that unless you have wealth, influence and power, it’s not gonna happen.”
Last Wish: “Whoever does win the presidency needs to be somebody who is willing to check Big Pharma.”
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