Senator Kamala Harris
California Senator Kamala Harris passes the microphone at the "Linking Together: March to Save Our Care" Rally at the U.S. Capitol on June 28, 2017. (Photo: Mobilus In Mobili, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

Ever since Hillary Clin­ton head­ed for the woods in the after­math of the 2016 elec­tion, the 2020 con­ver­sa­tion on cable tele­vi­sion and else­where has been dom­i­nat­ed by Joe Biden, and to a less­er extent Bernie Sanders.

These two can­di­dates rep­re­sent rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent visions of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s future, but they share one thing in com­mon; they are both aging white guys from the North­east. In oth­er words, they look almost noth­ing like the party’s most­ly young, female, high­ly racial­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly diverse base.

Being ahead in the polls has obvi­ous advan­tages, but his­to­ry shows that the ear­ly fron­trun­ners have no guar­an­tee of mak­ing it to the 2020 gen­er­al elec­tion (this isn’t a pure­ly Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non; just look at Boris Johnson’s attempts to take con­trol of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty in the Unit­ed Kingdom.)

It helps to have name recog­ni­tion when start­ing out.

But name recog­ni­tion alone doesn’t decide a pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. There are oth­er cred­i­ble can­di­dates seek­ing the nomination.

Per­haps in recog­ni­tion of this fact, ear­ly on in the cam­paign, a great deal of media atten­tion was paid to oth­er fig­ures in the pri­ma­ry. From Jan­u­ary to March, the two indi­vid­u­als sit­ting at third and fourth place in the polling were Kamala Har­ris and Beto O’Rourke, both high-pro­file ris­ing stars with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

Kamala Harris speaking
Kamala Har­ris cam­paigns in Neva­da (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Kamala Har­ris is the junior sen­a­tor from Cal­i­for­nia. A child of immi­grant par­ents, she is the only female black and the only Indi­an-Amer­i­can senator.

A vet­er­an of Cal­i­forn­ian pol­i­tics, Har­ris served as a Dis­trict Attor­ney in San Fran­cis­co, the state Attor­ney Gen­er­al, and was elect­ed to the US Sen­ate in 2016. Har­ris is the epit­o­me of a vot­er from the sol­id core of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base: female, non-white, from a coastal state, high­ly edu­cat­ed, and sup­port­ive of lib­er­al poli­cies such as Medicare for All and mar­i­jua­na legal­iza­tion.

At a glance, Beto O’Rourke is almost incom­pa­ra­ble with Har­ris: a white, male Tex­an whose rise in the Par­ty was extreme­ly rapid in com­par­i­son to Har­ris’ decades-long ascen­sion to becom­ing a house­hold name.

Beto O'Rourke speaking
Beto O’Rourke speaks at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic State Con­ven­tion in Cal­i­for­nia (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

O’Rourke’s “ris­ing star” sta­tus comes from his 2018 cam­paign to unseat the wide­ly dis­liked Ted Cruz. He ran an ener­getic cam­paign, ulti­mate­ly miss­ing his goal by a slim mar­gin. Beto’s appeal with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is root­ed in part on the strate­gies he employed in 2018: woo­ing the Lati­no vote, uti­liz­ing social media effec­tive­ly and, most of all, mobi­liz­ing armies of grass­roots volunteers.

Democ­rats see these strate­gies as the key to beat­ing the cor­po­rate machine pol­i­tics of the Repub­li­cans in future elections.

How­ev­er, both of these chal­lenger cam­paigns have slumped in ear­ly polls that have come back from the field since the end of March, while sup­port for Biden and Sanders has remained remark­ably con­sis­tent in that period.

Their inabil­i­ty to gain trac­tion ahead of the first Demo­c­ra­t­ic debates in Mia­mi could offer insights about how the 2020 pri­maries will play out.

Both can­di­dates have been accused of lack­ing a cen­tral theme or empha­sis to their cam­paign. Har­ris has cam­paigned on issues with­out real­ly mak­ing them her own, while O’Rourke seems to be work­ing under the premise that he “was born to be in it,” while fre­quent­ly com­ing up short on actu­al pol­i­cy issues.

The can­di­date who has over­tak­en them in the polls, Eliz­a­beth War­ren, is the oppo­site of this. She has very effec­tive­ly pitched her­self as the vision­ary leader Amer­i­ca needs, impress­ing lib­er­al vot­ers even more than Bernie Sanders.

Focus­ing on the issues is prov­ing an effec­tive way to gain atten­tion. Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee only polls around 1%, but his laser-focus on address­ing cli­mate dam­age fre­quent­ly gets him admir­ing men­tions from commentators.

Har­ris has unfor­tu­nate­ly – like every black woman in Amer­i­can his­to­ry – had to con­tend with stereo­types. Recent­ly, sup­port­ers of Joe Biden sug­gest­ed that she would make an excel­lent vice-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date (a play Biden had already tried and failed to win over Stacey Abrams with).

As a white man, O’Rourke does not suf­fer from the stereo­types that Har­ris has to deal with; instead, he has his own prob­lems. O’Rourke’s crit­ics on the left see a cam­paign sat­u­rat­ed with priv­i­lege, espe­cial­ly after com­ments like “I was born to do this,” and fre­quent com­par­isons in the media to the Kennedy dynasty.

O’Rourke found plen­ty of sup­port from pro­gres­sive activists for his Sen­ate run. But there are those among his sup­port­ers who would pre­fer to avoid ele­vat­ing yet anoth­er rich white man to the pres­i­den­cy next year.

The 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry will like­ly be as dif­fi­cult to pre­dict as the Repub­li­can pri­ma­ry was in 2016 – indeed, with over a year until the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion in Wis­con­sin, the race remains wide open. There are clear lead­ers with respect to name recog­ni­tion, but no true fron­trun­ners. Either Har­ris or O’Rourke could con­ceiv­ably hop into the top tier by the time the vot­ing begins.

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