The Democrats’ Dilemma: Examining the 2020 Presidential Primary Candidates

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“The views represented in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”

I moved, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, from Tennessee to Germany nine months into the reign of President Trump. When he was inaugurated, it felt like some sort of Vonnegut-esque satire on the decay of civic society into a circus act. Two and a half years later, the time has come to consider how to proceed in removing him from the office he is so clearly unfit for. Setting impeachment aside (although, should we really?), those of us who oppose Trump and his policies must now choose a candidate to stand against the presumptive Republican nominee.

As its title suggests, this article involves a dilemma. I confess that, since my arrival to Erfurt, I have not kept as keen of an eye on US politics as I did when I lived there. Blame it on a packed schedule, weariness over the state of my country, or simple laziness, but the truth is this election has somewhat snuck up on me. As Democratic primary season steadily approaches, I find myself in a fairly unfamiliar situation of being genuinely unsure to whom I will lend my support. That is not to say the race has not already started.

In a recent CNN poll, 44% of Democrats or Democrat-leaning registered voters said they have definitely identified their first choice for the nomination, an 8% increase since April.[1] According to the same poll, 32% of respondents supported Joe Biden, with Bernie Sanders taking second place at 18%. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Cory Booker follow these two front-runners with 8, 7, 5, and 3% of the vote respectively. However, with several months until the first caucuses in Iowa, these numbers are likely to change considerably as the race develops.

The first debate of the Democratic primary takes place on June 26th and 27th in Miami, Florida. This will provide candidates with the first major chance to make their case to the national electorate, and will be a sort of introduction to the national political stage for some of the lesser-known candidates. The Democratic field now includes over 20 candidates, more than at any other point in the history of a major US political party. The pure number of candidates and their array of profiles and policies make this year’s pool of potential presidents the most diverse ever.

For now, former Vice President Joe Biden is unquestionably the top dog in the race. A household name in US politics for decades, Biden also benefits greatly from his eternal association with extremely popular former President Obama. He has a reputation as an effective politician and can appeal to blue-collar, moderate, and older voters, which could be pivotal in swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. However, his notoriety also has its downsides. This is not his first stab at the presidency, with his previous campaigns eventually faltering, and he has a propensity for gaffes. Furthermore, a history of voting against abortion rights and recent allegations of inappropriate touching could hurt his support among Democratic women. Finally, if elected, a 78-year old Biden would be by far the oldest person ever inaugurated as president. Voters looking to shake up the Washington establishment will likely look elsewhere for a candidate.

Biden’s biggest threat at the moment is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who ran a surprisingly tight campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. The flag-bearer of the progressive movement and a self-described democratic socialist (in US politics, often still considered the scary “S-word”), Sanders is the only other candidate to enjoy name recognition on Biden’s level. Despite having served in Congress since the 1990s, Sanders is considered an anti-establishment candidate. He supports universal public health care, tuition-free higher education, and a litany of other progressive policies. However, Sanders also faces questions about his age, being even older than Biden. Additionally, he has struggled to connect with African-American voters, which could be a critical shortcoming, particularly in southern states, such as South Carolina. Finally, if the time has come to pass the torch of progressive leadership to a new generation, as some suggest, Sanders could find himself left behind.

Behind these two, a host of other candidates are currently jockeying to position themselves for a serious run at the nomination. The candidate who has seen the biggest rise in profile recently is Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who would simultaneously become the first openly gay and youngest ever president if elected. California Senator Kamala Harris is also seeking to make history, as the first African-American woman to be president, and could be a strong candidate with her experience in law enforcement. Additionally, a recent Morning Consult poll suggests Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren could be making a surge from the party’s progressive left[2], likely cutting into Sander’s support.  On the other hand, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand could distinguish themselves during the debates as moderate options with broad appeal. Finally, entrepreneur Andrew Yang has gained some notoriety for his support of universal basic income, and two Texans, former Representative Beto O’Rourke and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, should not be discounted. Indeed, the stage on the night of the first debate will be crowded, as the list of names mentioned in this article is not even an exhaustive one.

What are the issues that will define this contest? According to an April CNN poll, 82% of Democratic or Democratic-leaning registered voters believe it is very important that their presidential candidate supports taking aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change, a higher percentage than the same belief regarding any other issue.[3] Furthermore, in the same poll, 92% believed it was extremely or very important that the Democratic nominee has a good chance of beating Donald Trump, which meant respondents placed higher value on this factor than a candidate’s experience (77%), ability to bring an outside perspective (39%), or willingness to work with Republicans (76%).

Whoever wins the nomination will not be a perfect candidate. Some degree of compromise is inevitable. However, it appears my priorities are comparable to that of similarly minded voters – I will ultimately support a nominee I feel can actually defeat Trump and whose policies approach climate change as an imminent existential crisis. However, policies to address other critical national issues, such as student debt, gun violence, the influence of monied interests in politics, among many others, cannot be ignored. Personally, I would also like to see a candidate who pushes forward the conversation on reforming the frankly antiquated Electoral College. A lifelong liberal from one of the most conservative states in the country, my vote for president, in the end, has essentially the same value as a degree from Trump University – zilch. Nevertheless, the futility of my vote under the current system does not deter my interest in the debates, which I await with the hope that a candidate will avail him or herself and make my decision an easier one.

In 2008, it was widely assumed that Hillary Clinton would easily seize the Democratic nomination, before a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama emerged. It is impossible to know exactly how this campaign will unfold, but it is likely that, as the debates begin and the race narrows, a few of these lesser-known candidates will break from the pack as major contenders. A discussion on the merits of the two-party system aside, the reality is that either Donald Trump or the winner of this contest will be the next president of the United States. Thus, voters in the Democratic primary have an important choice to make. Let’s just hope it’s the right one.




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Graham Gibson is a second-year MPP student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy from the United States. He specializes in International Political Economy and Public & Non-Profit Management and has a Bachelor's in History from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He served as a staff writer for his college newspaper and worked at two non-profit research institutes during his time as an undergraduate. He currently serves as a student assistant and editor for the WBS blog. His areas of interest include governance, sustainability, economic and financial policy, history, and urban development.