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 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.
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.