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Sizing up the 2020 Democratic field

March 7, 2019 GMT

In 2020, Democrats will be able to enjoy an unruly presidential primary, much as Republicans did four years earlier.

At least 14 candidates have announced they will seek the Democratic nomination for president, with at least three other serious candidates waiting in the wings.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden has said his family is on board. Having run twice before, he clearly wants to be president. He appears to be determining whether he thinks he can win the nomination and whether the financial resources will be there for him. Mr. Biden would be a formidable candidate. He could test President Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes through states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. As a former vice president, he starts with strong name identification and an early lead in polling. However, he will be made to answer for his past support of a Clinton-era crime bill and his handling of the Anita Hill hearings. He is known to be gaffe-prone, and his age, gender and race all will be real disadvantages in a party focused on diversity.


Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas appears poised to enter the race, after formally announcing he would not run for U.S. Senate again. Losing your most recent race is never a launching pad for higher office, but Mr. O’Rourke raised nearly $80 million, a record for any Senate candidate, and he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz by only about 2.5 percent. He would appear to offer the kind of fresh face that Democrats are seeking. He has real charisma and is willing to hold events around the clock to build enthusiasm. But he has almost no real legislative accomplishments and will be forced to make policy choices in the Democratic primary that he was not forced to make when he ran for the Senate. He may be secretly pursuing the vice presidency, especially if Democrats select a female nominee.

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has said he will decide in April whether he will run for president. His electoral success in Ohio and focus on blue-collar workers could be a real strength in the Midwest. He is a progressive and could make a similar case to blue-collar workers that Mr. Trump made, especially on issues such as trade. He appears to be entering the race late, though, and fundraising would be a huge question.

Apart from those three potential entrants, the field of 14 candidates includes senators and governors, each making his or her own case.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California has had the best start of any of the Democratic candidates. She has earned significant media attention, raised good money, and appears to be running a credible campaign. Her kickoff event in Oakland had a very large crowd. With California moving up to Super Tuesday, she is unquestionably a first-tier candidate at this stage. She has been light on specifics to this point, and she will be forced to explain how she will pay for her programs soon enough. Her record as California attorney general also will be ripe for inspection.


Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont may be an afterthought to Democratic insiders, but he already has demonstrated wide appeal and massive fundraising, building off his success in 2016. He has already raised more than $8 million, lapping the rest of the field, while holding large events during his announcement tour. His avowed socialist approach would be a significant weakness in the general election, and his age he’s 77 is a major factor. But he has real enthusiasm and a clear message, both of which set him apart and make him a real threat for the nomination.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts appears to be having trouble gaining traction early in the race, perhaps because of geographical and biographical overlap with Mr. Sanders. Questions about her claims of Native American ancestry continue to dog her campaign and she has not released any fundraising totals.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is a younger candidate who has proven more adept with his use of social media. He’s also running as a progressive. He will face questions about his management of Newark while he was mayor.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has been fighting headlines of staff mistreatment since before she announced her candidacy in heavy snow in her home state. She could bring the Midwest into play, but she must show she can break out from the pack.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was a moderate Democrat when serving an upstate district in Congress. She has flipped on most issues now that she’s in the Senate.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper both joined the field this week. Mr. Inslee has been a national leader on climate action. Mr. Hickenlooper has been a moderate western governor. It remains to be seen if either can get real traction.

Former Obama Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro is the only Latino in the field, a meaningful advantage. He will face a credibility test on foreign policy and national security. He has not received much attention so far.

The entire Democratic field is racing to the left, on issues such as reparations, drug legalization, Medicare for all and the Green New Deal. Only Mr. Biden would have the standing to resist the liberal base if he chooses to run.

Democrats clearly believe the nomination is worth having. At this point, only four or five candidates appear to be credible, but there’s a long way to go. The first televised debate is in June.

Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.