2020 Democrats: The top 5 favourites to challenge Trump

Image Credit: Vox

The 2020 US Presidential election is still quite a way off but the Democratic challenging field is already starting to take shape and campaigning is certainly well underway. With this in mind, this article will give you a brief rundown of the most likely candidates, their platforms and any glaring concerns with their potential nomination.

  • Joe Biden

Vice President to Barack Obama, Joe Biden has not yet officially announced that he will be running for the Democratic nomination, but it is widely thought that he will and opinion polls are already including his name in their questions. In fact, Biden initially wanted to run against Donald Trump back in 2016 and only abandoned the idea as a result of the untimely death of his son, Beau in 2015.

Biden himself is a popular figure and its shown in early polls with him taking the lead in the 2020 field with around 30% support. However, there are currently two big question marks looming over Biden that should concern any potential supporter: His track record in politics and how he would deal with Donald Trump.

To address the first concern, in recent years the Democratic consensus has been shifting to more progressive aims and goals, with incoming Representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – a self-declared “democratic-socialist” – helping drag the party leftward. With this in mind there is a growing concern that Biden could be seen as too old, with a desire for fresh blood and new ideas. This is a concern that he himself seems to be acutely aware of having recently defended himself by saying “I have the most progressive record of anybody running,” a dubious claim at best and a lie at worst.

Furthermore, there are concerns with how Biden would address the interesting challenge of dealing with current President Donald Trump. This largely stems from Biden’s past comments, for example having said in 2018 that he would “take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,” with regard to Trump’s alleged disrespect of women. A George Bernard Shaw quote comes to mind here, “never mud-wrestle with a pig. You’ll both get dirty but the pig will enjoy it.”

If Biden can tackle these two concerns then he may be in with a good shot of winning the nomination, his name is certainly out there already and a good portion of Democratic voters are currently longing for any callback to President Obama’s administration.

  • Bernie Sanders

Of course, a US Presidential candidate breakdown would not be complete without Bernie Sanders. Quite the opposite of ‘moderate’ Biden, Sanders does have a genuine claim to being “the most progressive” candidate in the field and he certainly has a track record in politics that most would envy. For just a few examples: Sanders has been warning of the effects of climate change since 1989; he was ardently opposed to the Iraq war in 2003; he fought both Disney and Amazon and won, earning their employees as $15 hourly wage.

Added to this, Sanders is a dedicated supporter of Medicare for All and he has also co-sponsored Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Of all the things you can criticise Sanders for you can’t accuse him of not following through with what he believes. However, similar to Biden, there are also two main issues that may haunt Sanders: Socialism and Democrats.

Socialism has historically been somewhat of a dirty word in America and this is especially true for Republicans, with only 16% of them having a positive view of socialism in 2018. Democrats meanwhile are starting to move further leftwards, with the same survey showing 57% of them view socialism favourably, up 4% from 2010. However, the concern here is that this divide on an unarguably loaded term will provide Trump with easy ammunition and likely won’t win any converts from the right of the political spectrum. If Sanders is to win therefore, he will need the youth to turn out in droves, something they have historically not been very good at.

Second to this, Sanders is not actually a Democrat, he is an independent. He takes pride in being the longest serving independent in congressional history, but this has its problems. Back in 2016 Sanders refused to cease campaigning and support Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump, even after she had clinched the nomination, and this has lead to perceptions that he refuses to ‘play ball’ with the Democrats, just using the party for a lift in Presidential elections when it suits him.

If Sanders is going to win he will have to prove that he is not going to make the same mistake twice. He will have to prove that he can run a viable campaign himself and he will need to accept that even if he doesn’t win, all Democrats will have to fight together to propel whoever does. In the end infighting only aides Trump.

  • Elizabeth Warren

On the 31st December 2018 Elizabeth Warren became the first major candidate to publicly announce that they would be running for President and she has done well to connect with potential voters since then. Warren herself has a clear vision of why she is running and it stems from her childhood. Warren’s family were placed on the brink of financial ruin and were “about an inch away from losing their home” after her father suffered a heart attack and was put out of work. The family only survived as a result of her mother getting a minimum wage job at Sears answering phones, and it is this sense of injustice that will shape her whole campaign. It is a story of a girl who learnt the words “mortgage” and “foreclosure” far too early in life and is determined to do something about it.

Indeed, her rally speeches often highlight this sense of injustice, and Warren’s own campaign website has listed “End Washington corruption” as their first issue to tackle, with “Rebuild the middle class” a swift second. So, in a similar fashion to Sanders but closer to the centre of the political spectrum, Warren will base her candidacy around tackling ‘big business’ and giant corporations, pitting herself as fighting for ordinary working to middle class families. Added to this, Warren has already specifically called out Google, Amazon and Facebook as prime candidates for breakup and Facebook in particular did not help their case having removed Warren’s adverts calling for the breakup for Facebook.

However – as with almost any candidate – there are concerns about Warren’s campaign and most of them are related around her previous claims to native american ancestry and the fallout it created. For some context, back in October 2016, after being goaded by Trump, Warren released the results from her DNA test, attempting to prove her claims to native american ancestry. Unfortunately for Warren, the test created a good deal of fallout, having proved “the great majority” of her ancestry was in fact European and the only native american strand came between six and ten generations ago. Added to this, the Cherokee Nation publicly rebuked Warren, stating that the using of DNA tests to determine tribal citizenship was “inappropriate and wrong.”

Warren did apologise to the Cherokee Nation soon after but some feel the damage may already be done, it seems at least that Trump’s nickname for her, “Pocahontas,” is not going anywhere anytime soon. The concern, is that this will provide easy ammunition for Trump, similar to how Hillary Clinton never managed to shake off the email scandal in 2016, I’m sure some Democrats would rather have a candidate free of such a target on their back.

So, if Warren is to win the nomination she will have to find a way to put this controversy behind her and convince the Democrats that she can tackle Trump and come out on top. Indeed, aside from that controversy Warren has proved an adept politician, serving as an advisor to Barack Obama and having been a law professor for 30 years at various universities, including Harvard. Warren therefore is certainly capable of handling the mantle of being President, however, it’s more a question of whether she can get to that point for the Democrats.

  • Beto O’Rourke

One of the most prominent ‘rising stars’ in the Democratic party, Beto O’Rourke came relatively late to the party, waiting until the middle of March to announce his candidacy for the Presidential nomination through the rather unconventional medium of a Vanity Fair cover story. However, that’s not to say O’Rourke’s entrance came without a bang, quite the opposite in fact as he managed to raise an impressive $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his Presidential campaign. Indeed, this smashed the second highest 24 hours total of $5.9 million which Senator Sanders managed to raise.

O’Rourke really has come out of nowhere over the last few years, having gone from being a relatively unknowing politician serving three terms as the Representative for Texas’s 16th Congressional district, to a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 election. The decisive turning point came in the form of his 2018 bid to represent Texas in the United States Senate, hoping to unseat incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz. O’Rourke ultimately lost but the campaign itself proved anything but a failure.

For some context as to the magnitude of O’Rourke’s campaign first consider that the last Democratic Senate candidate to face Ted Cruz lost by a 16 point margin in 2012. By comparison, O’Rourke narrowed the gap to 2.6 points. The Texas Tribune commented that the race was the closest in Texas for 40 years and beyond the results themselves, the way O’Rourke ran his campaign was sure to attract attention, as he pledged to visit all 254 Texas counties personally and he made sure that every aspect of his campaign and his daily life was live-streamed on Facebook. In short he exuded energy, hope and positivity in a part of the country where the Democratic party had traditionally been anything but.

Fundamentally this is where O’Rourke’s appeal lies and as part of ‘generation X,’ he still has somewhat of a youthful drive and as a skilled orator O’Rourke can effectively communicate his positive vision for the future. Added to this, O’Rourke has proven adept at utilising technology in a way that most other candidates have failed and floundered. In this vein some will see O’Rourke as Obama 2.0 however, there is one crucial difference: Experience.

Where Obama served as an attorney and senator prior to his Presidential campaign, O’Rourke’s path has been rather more muddied. To be sure, after a few run-ins with the law, O’Rourke dabbled in music and business before stepping into the El Paso City Council. His political career since then has been relatively minor and as such there are undoubtably more experienced candidates in high-stakes politics in the field already.

As a result one can quite justifiably question O’Rourke’s conviction in his policies, lacking the track record of someone like Sanders and not helped by his recent walk back on supporting Medicare for all, one of his key policy issues in his Senate run against Ted Cruz. However, not to leave you with a negative impression of O’Rourke, it is worth considering that he played bass in the 1990s rock band, Foss, and said band released a record called The El Paso Pussycats. O’Rourke also played drums in a band called Swedes, who released the album, Summer, in 1995. Certainly not many Presidential candidates can say that.

  • Kamala Harris

An experienced politician and former Attorney General for California, Kamala Harris is also not to be written off in this race. Though not quite matching the first day totals posted by O’Rourke or Sanders, the California Senator has managed to pull in an impressive $12 million in the first quarter of her Presidential campaign. In polling meanwhile she is sitting at around 10% of the vote, a similar level to O’Rourke, and definitely worthy to be considered one of the favourites.

Harris’s campaign it seems will be shaped largely by her experience as an Attorney General, focussing on fighting “for the people,” as her slogan states. Her campaign website is littered with similar buzzphrases, describing her as “tough,” “principled” and “fearless,” with her being focussed on “speaking truth” and “demanding justice.” Her website goes on to describe how she has always been a “fearless advocate for the voiceless and vulnerable,” and that is very much how she will look to shape her image heading into the primaries, as a no-nonsense former prosecutor, who stood up for the vulnerable when they needed her.

However, there are questions around the authenticity of this image. In fact, a recent New York Times op-ed piece criticised Harris as often being on “the wrong side of history” during her time as Attorney General, far from the progressive prosecutor she claims to be. The article specifically cites her refusal to embrace reforms to the criminal justice system and her track record of attempting to uphold wrongful convictions, amongst other issues.

Another good example of Harris’s questionable credentials as being “for the people” is on the topic of legalisation of marijuana. Back in 2014 Harris laughed at her opponent’s stance to legalise and subsequently tax recreational marijuana use, however, in 2015 she called to “end the federal ban on medical marijuana” and now, in 2019 Harris has admitted that she had smoked marijuana before. This of course does raise the question, was Harris prosecuting people for recreational marijuana use at the same time that she had used it?

The answer to that won’t be found in this article but it is definitely something that Ms Harris will have to find an answer to in the coming months, and these issues will have to be resolved as her past is sure to come under more scrutiny the further she advances. Of course, her campaign could choose to paint this as an educational path of a candidate learning and changing her position over time as she became more aware of certain issues and if true, that would deserve praise. However, if they choose to double down on painting Ms Harris as a pioneer of innovation and reform in the criminal justice system then cracks may start to show. 

Another article will be coming soon outlining five potential outsiders who could yet seal the nomination for the Democrats

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Matthew Hemmins

Second year History/Economics student with a passion for politics and plenty of opinions on a variety of topics!