clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Javier Zarracina/Vox

Filed under:

The competing paths to the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, explained

How is anybody except Joe Biden planning to actually win the 2020 Democratic nomination?

Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

There are 24 theories for winning the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

It’s about building electoral momentum, and, more than anything else, it’s about winning Democratic National Convention delegates. The primary follows a very deliberate calendar, starting in Iowa and then heading to New Hampshire, building through Nevada and South Carolina all the way to the Super Tuesday bonanza, with California and Texas as the biggest prizes.

There are reams of delegate rules to learn and consider, starting with a mandate that a candidate win 15 percent of the vote in a given state in order to win any delegates at all (unless nobody does — it’s complicated), and states dole out delegates proportionally.

The debates start next week, but the voting will kick off in Iowa on February 3, 2020; after that, there will start to be a winnowing. A lot of candidates could stick it out through California and Texas on March 3, with eight other states also voting that day. With a new election every week, they don’t have to spend that much money to stay in the field. But after Super Tuesday, some and maybe most of the also-rans will have to accept their fate. The field could shrink to a half-dozen or so candidates after just a month of voting.

There are 24 presidential candidates running for the Democratic nomination. Some of their strategies are clearer than others, but every campaign has a theory of the primary — each is, in its own way, special. Here’s what we know about them, with an assist from Decision Desk HQ’s Brandon Finnigan, Frontloading HQ’s Josh Putnam, and Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Joe Biden, holding a solid lead in the polls, is now fully into the race

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s path to the nomination is the most obvious: continue to command 30 to 40 percent of Democratic primary voters’ support, wear down the rest of the field with the aid of a healthy fundraising operation, and consolidate support as candidates drop out and voters fixate on how much they want to get Trump out of Washington. That was, ironically enough, roughly the path Donald Trump took to the Republican nomination in 2016. He’s targeting older Democrats, who are not always an emphasis in news reporting but have a lot of numbers.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during his campaign kickoff rally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 18, 2019.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during his campaign kickoff rally in Philadelphia on May 18, 2019.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

He’s very popular with African American voters, too, currently holding one of his biggest polling leads in South Carolina, nearly 30 points ahead of any other candidate. If Biden wins there, it should bode well for him in the rest of the South and can make up losses if he falls to second or third in Iowa and/or New Hampshire.

“If South Carolina goes for Biden, it’s reasonable to assume he’s going to do very well in the South, and Super Tuesday is a Southern-dominated Super Tuesday this year,” Finnigan said.

Already well ahead in the polls, the former vice president could prove himself inevitable after the first month of elections and caucuses if he has such a strong showing with one of the most important Democratic voting blocs: black voters. Biden is now facing some hard questions, however, on his comments about segregationist former senators James O. Eastland and Herman E. Talmadge. The other candidates are criticizing him more directly in what had been a cordial primary.

“Biden’s biggest thing is: Is he drawing support of African American voters and then winning enough of every other voter bloc because of nostalgia? College students, college-educated voters,” Finnigan said. “If he does, he’s set. He’s gonna cruise through.”

Biden was the last candidate to get into the race and, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias has covered, his comparatively light schedule is the subject of some attention from the curious political press. But it certainly makes sense from a strategic perspective: hold the lead and don’t do anything to give one of your many rivals or possible replacements an opening.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are trying to beat Biden from the left

Kondik gave me a useful framing to understand the Democratic primary: given Biden’s sizable current lead, the rest of the field is either positioning themselves as Biden replacements or Biden rivals. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), well-known national figures for longer than any other Democrats in the race, are polling pretty evenly at the moment, and they are both much more progressive than Biden. Right now, they look like the biggest Biden rivals.

“The Biden rivals are the candidates who hope to emerge as the main alternative to Biden and who can mobilize the support of younger, more liberal voters,” Kondik said. “Warren to me is a Biden rival, in that she hopes to become the main alternative to Biden, or whoever might replace Biden, and she is clearly oriented to his left. From that standpoint, she is in direct competition with Sanders (and others) for that position.”

The Massachusetts senator was the first candidate to announce, trying to get a jump-start on the campaign, and she’s been polling better of late — regularly neck and neck with Sanders. But she’ll have to prove it in Iowa or New Hampshire, where Sanders is still polling meaningfully ahead of her. Warren has visited each of the first four states often because she will need to clearly establish herself early as electorally viable; she has also gone to Alabama and Tennessee (Super Tuesday, March 3, states) as well as Mississippi (March 10). Her home state, where she has not polled particularly strongly in the primary, votes on Super Tuesday too. She has stopped at least once in Colorado, also voting March 3.

“Warren stands the most to gain from a deflated Sanders campaign,” Finnigan said, “in which event she’d likely need a strong showing in New Hampshire, upset in Nevada, and securing Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado outright on Super Tuesday to stay ‘in it.’”

Warren has been campaigning hard in the important and sometimes overlooked Nevada, too, the third state on the schedule. It’s a heavily unionized state where her worker-centric platform could play well. Former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, an influential figure in the state, speaks highly of her. She has about 30 paid staffers on the ground there now.

“She’s going to have to break through somewhere,” Putnam said. “Everyone other than perhaps Biden is going to have to break through somewhere. Her position has improved nationally, so she is among the best positioned to break through and/or deter Biden. We’ll see how long-lasting this Warren moment is, or, for that matter, whether Biden’s moment ebbs.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds his first presidential campaign rally in Brooklyn, New York, on March 02, 2019.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds his first presidential campaign rally in Brooklyn on March 2, 2019.
Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), announces her official bid for President on February9, 2019 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announces her official bid for president on February 9, 2019, in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Sanders, it should be noted, has probably the best grassroots fundraising apparatus of any candidate and will likely be able to tap his many small-dollar donors to stay in the race. Warren, who has taken some of the most stringent campaign fundraising pledges, will need to keep financially afloat too.

Polling for Sanders, the 2016 runner-up, has looked flat recently. He’s relying on a loyal base of voters to maintain his standing in the primary. But he’s still second and could benefit from Biden defections.

“Sanders has trailed off some,” Putnam says. A poor showing in Iowa or New Hampshire, where he is currently still polling a pretty clear second, “would be such a failure to meet expectations set in and by 2016 — fair or not — that it would likely severely endanger his campaign.”

“Given his trajectory of late, his event horizon may be a bit nearer in Iowa and New Hampshire.”

Sanders would also need to perform well again in the Midwest, where he outperformed Clinton with working-class white voters. Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois show up pretty early on the primary calendar, which should give him opportunities. He does seem to enjoy a sizable loyal following, and he would benefit from a fractured field.

“If he can carry most of the Midwest, then it becomes a street fight over delegates and he can still win that fight,” Finnigan said of Sanders. “His strategy is not to knock anyone else out, but double down on his existing coalition, do some outreach to win African American voters and Hispanic voters, and run with that. He can be a benefactor of all the chaos.”

Warren and Sanders had reportedly agreed on a detente, but the Bernie Sanders Twitter account effectively called out Warren in the days leading up the debates. The two senators will not share the debate stage on the first go-around. Warren will be the big name on the first night; Sanders faces Biden on the second.

Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg lead a crowded lane of Biden replacements

Besides the Biden rivals, you also have the potential Biden replacements, Kondik said: “those who seek to supplant Biden as a candidate who can rally the more moderate/older elements of the party.”

These campaigns differ in how they can distinguish themselves from the former veep. But they are similar in that they often offer a history-making opportunity for diversity (against not only Biden but Trump) and, while they bill themselves as progressive, they have some things in their records that make the die-hard progressives (the Warren and Sanders fans) skeptical.

Harris and Buttigieg are the highest-polling candidates who would fit this bill. Harris endorses Medicare-for-all, but her prosecutor past can be baggage in a party that’s moving toward radical criminal justice reform. Buttigieg has positioned himself as more moderate on health care and is skeptical of Sanders’s plan to let incarcerated people vote. He has also attended private events in wealthy donor hubs of San Francisco and New York.

Beto O’Rourke (a pretty conservative House voting record) and Cory Booker (close to tech/finance/pharmaceutical interests) also fall in this camp. They are strongly progressive on some issues — Booker especially on criminal justice, O’Rourke on immigration reform — but they have a more modulated platform than the leading lefties. So does Amy Klobuchar, getting just a few percentage points at the most in the polls but one of the more outspoken moderates in the race alongside Biden.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a rally launching her presidential campaign in Oakland, California, on January 27, 2019.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a rally launching her presidential campaign in Oakland, California, on January 27, 2019.
Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (left), with his husband Chasten, during a rally announcing his candidacy in South Bend, Indiana on April 14, 2019.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (left) with his husband Chasten, during a rally announcing his candidacy in South Bend on April 14, 2019.
Jeremy Hogan/LightRocket via Getty Images

There is the regional element. The two black candidates, Booker and Harris, will likely need to do well in South Carolina and the South. Harris will want to show strongly in Iowa and Nevada, too, before then winning her home state of California on Super Tuesday, Putnam said. But winning California is far from a given for her. Recent polling has shown her coming in fourth, and the delegate allocation rules in California are complicated.

Iowa will be key for Booker — like so many of these candidates — and it’s one of his most visited states along with South Carolina. O’Rourke is a mainstay in Iowa.

Buttigieg, from the industrial Midwest, has focused on Iowa and gone to Illinois (March 17) in addition to New Hampshire; he is currently polling in third in Iowa. Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota, is a neighbor to Iowa and has been putting most of her attention there.

Harris and O’Rourke look like Western candidates, with California, Nevada, and Texas also being critical to their bids and becoming a regular stop in their travels.

Candidates like these will need two things: for Biden to stumble to open up the moderate lane (something he seems perfectly capable of doing) and to have a good showing through South Carolina, heading into a truly momentous Super Tuesday. Because by that point, the race could be nearly decided.

“My expectation is once we get through South Carolina, we’ll be down to two or three legit candidates at that point,” Putnam said. “At that point, when the dust settles and we see where the delegates are, somebody could be in a position to get to a majority or a sizable plurality of delegates. Is anybody going to be able to catch the person who has the delegate advantage coming out of Super Tuesday?”

The other candidates are desperately hoping for a lucky break — or they’re running for something else

None of the other candidates — except occasionally entrepreneur Andrew Yang with his universal basic income platform and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro — are getting more than 1 percent of the vote. Castro is in Nevada a lot. Yang has gone to Iowa and New Hampshire the most, according to Ballotpedia’s 2020 campaign travel tracker.

They have a lot of ground to gain, and some might not last until the calendar turns to January 2020.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii) announcing her candidacy for president in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Feburary 2, 2019.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) announcing her candidacy for president in Honolulu on February 2, 2019.
Marco Garcia/AP

Some of them might have reasons other than winning to get into the race. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is singularly focused on climate change; Sen. Michael Bennet doesn’t want Democrats to move too far to the left on policy. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Sen. Mike Gravel are critics of American imperialism.

For a number of candidates, the campaign could be at least partly a public relations exercise, to build their national brand before heading back to their current elected office or running for another one. Democrats still hope former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock seek a Senate seat instead in 2020.

But for now, a big field and a lack of faith that Biden can run away with the nomination is strong motivation for less high-profile candidates to see if they can make a splash.

“It may be that the sheer number of candidates has the effect of enticing even more candidates to enter. With every additional entry, hypothetically that means that the share of the vote needed to win Iowa or New Hampshire goes down,” Kondik told me earlier this year. “It’s not hard for any of them to imagine winning a quarter of the vote in an early state, which may be all it requires to win.”

Those big dreams can only last for so long. But in the summer of 2019, it’s easy to imagine anything is possible in those first few months of 2020.

World Politics

Can Democrats overcome their deep divisions over Gaza?


Why so many members of Congress are calling it quits


Hunter Biden’s new indictment, explained

View all stories in Politics