While you could potentially split the Democratic Party into an infinite number of different sectors, for simplicity’s sake, it can accurately be split into four. From left to right, the four main wings of Democratic party are the progressives, “plain” and “modern” Democrats, centrist Democrats, and conservative Democrats. The 2016 primary was a very simple affair with Hillary Clinton, a modern Democrat, facing off against Bernie Sanders, a progressive. With the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Democrats face a rude awakening and it appears that many more candidates will throw their hats in the ring for 2020. Here are the likely candidates who have a solid chance of clinching the nomination.
Progressive members of the Democratic Party continually feel cheated by the DNC, an organization many believe is working against them. If these Democrats are willing to stay in the party until 2020, though, they will have some strong potential candidates to back in the primary.
Barring any health problems or other unforeseen events, it is basically a foregone conclusion that Bernie Sanders will run for the Democratic primary in 2020. While he may not have won the Democratic primary in 2016, he came fairly close. This is an impressive feat against Clinton, a candidate with close ties to big donors and the DNC. Sanders has motivated an impressive base of young people—perfect for primary caucuses, which tend to be longer ordeals, and which as a result go best for candidates who have young, motivated supporters. While polls on potential candidates for 2020 don’t indicate a clear front-runner, Sanders still leads the pack at around 14 percent.
Sanders may therefore be the progressives’ best choice. He is incredibly popular, although so are most candidates before they are subjected to the microscopic lense of the public. Sanders was never really a threat to the Republicans in 2016, so if it looks like he may win the nomination, the Republicans will likely be able to find something to bring his popularity rating down. Most importantly, though, Sanders has been able to portray himself as something other than a career politician (despite being in government for practically his whole life), which may be an important asset in the age of Trump.
Sander’s two greatest weaknesses would be his age and his inability to court moderates. That being said, Trump is not a strong candidate himself, so Sanders may be able to win over moderates who would rather see a President Sanders than a President Trump.
Sanders’s biggest competitor among progressives will likely be Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts. Warren has not verbally confirmed her intent to run, but her coy dismissal of the question makes it clear she has not ruled it out. She has raised her national profile and flashes interviewers a nice silent smile when asked about her 2020 presidential ambitions. Warren does have some skeletons in her closet, scandals that might mitigate any 2020 ambitions. For that reason it looks like progressives’ best bet would be to try again with Sanders.
Standing to the right of progressives, modern Democrats are best defined as your run-of-the-mill Democrats. Although they are solidly to the left, they still have close ties to the Democratic Party and are not as inclined to push for a complete shakeup of the Democratic ideology as progressives are. Modern Democrats will likely be very successful in the general election because of their ability to excite their base and appear more palatable to independents than their progressive counterparts.
The strongest modern Democrats for 2020 are Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Tim Kaine (VA), Kamala Harris (CA), and Chris Murphy (CT).
Among these four modern Democrats, it may be the newest member, Harris, who would be their best option. She has influential friends from all across the Democratic Party, including Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jerry Brown, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama.
Before her election to the Senate, Harris was a popular attorney general of California who advocated for criminal justice reform, the abolition of the death penalty, and marriage equality. She has been engaged in California politics a long time, and has managed to keep her hands fairly clean with little scandal to speak of. Furthermore, Harris is the first Indian American and second African American women to be elected to the Senate. If Harris can successfully build a coalition of women and African Americans in the Democratic primary, she will have great odds of clinching the nomination.
Her obvious weakness, though, is that she comes from the liberal safe haven of California and does not have experience winning over Republican votes. Because of the jungle primary system in California, she won election in 2016 against another Democrat, Loretta Sanchez. Furthermore, her status as a minority and a women may still, unfortunately, turn some voters away. Harris’s best option to combat this would to be adding a more moderate counter to her ticket. It could also be argued that her inexperience in federal government could be a weakness, but the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016 seem to indicate that experience is less of a concern to voters than it used to be.
Her potential opponents Kaine, Gillibrand, and Murphy, while strong, are still likely to trail her in certain respects. Kaine was a fairly lackluster VP candidate to Clinton in 2016, indicating that he may not be as successful in an international spotlight. Gillibrand is also very much a Hillary Clinton 2.0, having been mentored by Clinton and later succeeding Clinton as New York senator. Murphy has a much lower national profile than the other three, making it harder for him to win the primary. He is a fairly scandal-free senator though, and his impassioned advocacy for gun control may win over primary voters.
Centrist Democrats are the kind of Democrats that are more willing to negotiate with Republicans. They are moderate, but are still left-leaning enough that on the national scale they are clearly Democrats in more than just name. It is always hard for a centrist to win a primary because of the purity of the primary voter. Opponents easily outflank them to the left, and unless they are great politicians, they often have issues drumming up passionate supporters. That being said, if they can make it past the primaries their appeal to independents makes them effective in general elections. The two most likely centrist Democrats for 2020 are Governors Steve Bullock (MT) and Terry McAuliffe (VA), but Bullock would be more favorable.
As a two-term governor from the red state of Montana, Steve Bullock successfully reached out to Republican voters, a key advantage centrist Democrats have in their ability to win elections. Bullock’s greatest feat is being able to win in Montana while sticking to key Democratic issues. While a moderate, Bullock is still clearly a Democrat. He has officiated at same-sex weddings, protected the environment, and expanded Obamacare, and he believes women have an unrestricted right to abortion.
Most candidates, though, get their initial financial backing from their home state when running in presidential primaries. Here, Bullock is at a disadvantage, as Montana is a small state with relatively few rich donors. Still, if there is any Democrat that wants to see Trump defeated in 2020, their best answer may be Bullock. Bullock can reach out to voters in the middle of the country and help them understand the Democratic message. While he may not be able to swing the entire interior of the country blue, he may be able to tip some states like Iowa or Ohio.
Conservative Democrats are unique in the fact that they often may be more right-leaning than some moderate Republicans. They tend to arise in states that are far enough to the right that Democrats can only win by embracing quite a bit of the Republican platform. Conservative Democrats tend to do best in localized elections. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice pass muster as Democrats locally but would likely be viewed with disdain by Democrats nationally.
Sanders and Harris are appealing because of their ideological purity and name recognition, but the party might be best served by nominating Bullock. His ability to win voters who do not traditionally vote Democratic will be crucial in the 2020 election. Moreover, his gains among rural voters would not be explicitly confined to midwestern states with relatively few Electoral College votes. Every state has a sizable rural population, and when the election gets close this small American minority can really make a huge difference. Bullock’s strength in the general election may make it harder for him to win in the primary because he will be mostly campaigning to Democrats, not Republicans and independents. Furthermore, his disadvantage in fundraising may make it hard for him to break free from the pack in the early stages of the Democratic primary.
Simply put, conservative Democrats are arguably just too conservative to win the Democratic primary. For that reason, there are not any conservative Democrats who have a real chance at clinching the 2020 Democratic nomination.
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