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Going low or going high?

7 March 2019

The race to be in the 2020 presidential race is gathering pace

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Crowded field: senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, shown here at the State of the Union address on 5 February. Olivier Douliery/Abacapress

Crowded field: senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, shown here at the State of the Union address on 5 February. Olivier Douliery/Abacapress


Immediately after the Democrats’ midterm victories in November, the focus turned to Donald Trump’s likely opponent in the 2020 presidential election. The Democrats’ control of the House of Representatives will constrain the president to a degree, but most Democrats see a second Trump term as an existential threat to good government, constitutional authority and America’s international standing.

Now a huge and diverse Democratic presidential field for 2020 is assembling, with over a dozen candidates confirmed.

Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts. Warren is running as a progressive and an economic populist. Her pitch centres on the daunting challenges she sees facing working- and middle-class Americans in general and families of colour in particular. She is particularly disliked by Trump, who has ridiculed her for her claims of Native American ancestry.

Senator Kamala Harris from California. With both African-American and Indian heritage, she represents the new face of the Democratic Party. But progressives have taken aim at her record as a state prosecutor, claiming she was reluctant to embrace reforms.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York. Known for her #MeToo advocacy, her main message is that women are the future of the Democratic Party. Her biggest weakness is her status as a leading representative of the entrenched establishment of her own party, although she has moved to the left since 2016.

Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey. An African American who was formerly mayor of Newark, he has championed measures to address criminal justice issues and reduce racial and economic inequality. But many believe he is too close to Wall Street and pharmaceutical companies, both of them big employers in his home state.

Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota. Her reputation is that of a quick-witted, hardworking, pragmatic and successful politician. She has recently come under fire for the way she treats her staff.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii. A veteran and the first Hindu member of Congress, she says war and peace are her central issues. She has controversially staked out foreign policy positions that are more often seen as aligned with those of Republicans rather than Democrats.

Julián Castro from Texas. He is a former mayor of San Antonio and was the housing and urban development secretary in the Obama administration. His successful immigrant story obviously has appeal to Hispanic voters, but he is not seen as comfortable with identity politics, and doesn’t have a high profile in a crowded field.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington. A former member of Congress and a successful governor of a progressive state, he wants to make climate change the key issue for 2020. He can also highlight his executive experience and how his progressive politics can turn a state like his into an economic juggernaut. His biggest downsides are probably low name recognition and less-than-scintillating oratorical skills.

Former governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado. He is looking to position himself as a pragmatic, productive, drama-free moderate who rejects some of the more progressive agendas of his competition. This message will help him in some states, hinder him in others.

That’s not all. Add to the list names that very few people know: Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana; John Delaney, a former member of Congress; Marianne Williamson, a former spiritual adviser to Oprah; and Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur.

And, of course, Bernie Sanders from Vermont. The high-profile senator has very recently signed a pledge of loyalty to the Democratic Party to run as a candidate under its banner (as he did in 2016) yet has also filed to run as an independent for the Senate in 2024. The self-styled socialist has a deep base of fervent supporters, many of whom are not strongly associated with the Democratic Party, and he has hit the ground running, raising US$10 million in his first week as a candidate.

In his second tilt at the presidency Sanders faces a policy dilemma: the progressive positions that distinguished him from Hillary Clinton in 2016 are now claimed by more than a few other candidates. That destroys his uniqueness, but it also confers greater credibility. The real question is: will he bring the Democratic Party to his political revolution, or will he play the role of outsider and spoiler?

Others who might still enter the race include former vice-president Joe Biden, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, former Texas lawmaker Beto O’Rourke and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. But time is running very short for decisions from these potential candidates. In such a wide-open race, those who get in early will have more time to raise money, attract the best staff and build their name recognition.

This last week has seen several others who were considering throwing their hats in the ring announce they will not — including former New York City mayor Michael BloombergOregon senator Jeff Merkley and Hillary Clinton. April 15 looms as the date when declared candidates must file their first financial reports with the Federal Election Commission. These early fundraising totals are one very concrete way the candidates have of demonstrating their relative campaign strength.

The big unknown is whether Biden will run. His political supporters see the former vice-president’s stock as both underestimated and unique. He has near-universal name recognition and the ability to appeal across the breadth of the party, reflected in the polls that consistently show him as the frontrunner. But he is seventy-six years old, and he is not the new face that his party might be looking for.

This historically large and diverse field will eventually be whittled down, of course: some will be caught out by policy blunders, false or inappropriate statements and scrutiny of their past actions; others will fail to raise the funds necessary to mount the sort of campaign that is required. But those who once worried about who would volunteer to run against Trump are now worried about the potential for diverse and divided messaging from the Democrats.

An extended season of town halls and debates will soon get under way, aimed at exploring the candidates’ policies, their visions for the nation and their capabilities to deliver them, and their ability to think on their feet. Most candidates claim to support the best-known policies — Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, universal childcare and early childhood education, fairer immigration policies and increases in the minimum wage — although when details are demanded their proposals may not be quite so similar.

And there is no reason to believe that voters will show consistency or even logic in their choice of candidate. A poll reported by FiveThirtyEight shows that although Sanders and Biden are very different, more than a quarter of professed Biden supporters would make Sanders their second choice and vice versa. This might simply be a reflection of name recognition, or it might show the fluidity in voters’ perceptions at this early stage of the primary campaign.


Essentially, though, the Democratic Party and the voters will need to confront two linked questions: who is the antidote to Trump, and is this the person who can beat Trump? Chances are most voters have had enough of “outsiders” with no governing expertise and experience, and so might look favourably on Inslee or Hickenlooper. Since 1900, four of the eight governors who have won the Democratic nomination have gone on to win the White House (Clinton, Carter, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson). Unlike most senators, they have clear accomplishments they can point to.

Alternatively, the changing demographics of the United States could mean that candidates whose life stories speak to minority voters will stand out. That will favour Harris, Booker and Castro, although Warren and Sanders have already indicated they will reach out to minority voters. Or it might just be that force of personality, charisma and oratory carry the day.

While Democrats are united by one thing — their antipathy to Trump — it is not clear how the candidates should take him on. A recent poll showed that half of Democrat and Democrat-leaning voters want to see the Democrat nominee adopt Michelle Obama’s motto “when they go low we go high” (as exemplified by Booker and Hickenlooper) and only a little over a quarter want to fight fire with fire (as Warren and Sanders will do). The 2020 Democrat candidates will need to develop, update and document a strong case that they will be better for the country than Trump, but they can’t allow this to become the sole issue in their campaigns.

One thing is certain: Trump will fight fire with fire in his campaign for re-election. Due notice has already been given: Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel has said that potential primary challenges to president Donald Trump in 2020 will “lose horribly.” It’s true that his approval rating among Republicans is 80 per cent or more (it rises to 93 per cent for Republicans who voted for him in 2016) and it will require bravery of the sort that has been conspicuously lacking for any Republican to face the wrath of the president, his allies and his large base of voters.

Trump has already amassed a huge campaign fund, and rumours suggest that his push to win in 2020 is driven not just by his endless desire for victory, but also by the fact that remaining president increases his chances of avoiding indictment. He is helped by the fact that the Republican Party, which has fallen in line, is working to stifle any potential rebellion. At the same time, his campaign is deploying an unprecedented effort to influence local party operations and increase the likelihood that only loyal Trump activists get to the Republican nominating convention in August 2020.

Nevertheless, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld (who ran as the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2016) has announced he will run against Trump, and two other centrist Republicans, Maryland governor Larry Hogan and former Ohio governor John Kasich, are reportedly weighing campaigns to take on Trump. These may be kamikaze missions, but they will distract and thus weaken Trump going into the general election.

Democrats have plenty of reasons for optimism. Trump remains one of the most unpopular of all presidents, and his party is unpopular too, as evidenced by the Republicans’ poor performance in the midterm elections. Democratic voter enthusiasm is high, fed by Trump’s daily antics.

But Republicans retain an Electoral College advantage, as political pundit Larry Sabato shows in his initial 2020 presidential battleground map. In this very early assessment, Sabato gives Republicans 248 electoral votes and Democrats 244, with forty-six in the “toss-up” category. To overcome these disadvantages, Democrats must mobilise all their supporters, especially minority voters. And they must calmly and clearly unite behind the candidate who emerges from the nominating process.

There is some reassurance in the results of a recent NBC/WSJ poll, which shows that 87 per cent of all voters are “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with an African-American candidate, ahead of a white man (86 per cent), a woman (84 per cent), and someone who is gay or lesbian (68 per cent). Among Democratic primary voters, 56 per cent say they want a candidate whose positions conform to their views, while 40 per cent say they prefer someone who gives the party the best chance to defeat Trump in 2020.

We have many months of announcements, speeches, policy rollouts, campaign gossip, revelations, debates and unpredictable polling ahead before we know who the general election candidates for the two major parties will be. At the end of this month, the Iowa caucuses will be 309 days away and the 2020 general election 583 days away. It promises to be quite a ride. •

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Where to now? North Korean leader Kim Jong-un leaves Vietnam earlier this week after his second summit with US president Donald Trump. Kyodo via AP Images

Where to now? North Korean leader Kim Jong-un leaves Vietnam earlier this week after his second summit with US president Donald Trump. Kyodo via AP Images