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The simple reason the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is so wide open

Half the country doesn’t know who Cory Booker or Kamala Harris is. The 2020 campaign is just starting.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.

Even if political junkies are already sick of hearing about the presumed top contenders in the 2020 Democratic presidential field, most of America isn’t yet familiar with them.

Cory Booker? Never heard of him. Kamala Harris? Doesn’t ring a bell. Elizabeth Warren? Yeah, I guess, maybe on the news.

A few potential candidates enjoy household name recognition, of course. Former Vice President Joe Biden. Presidential nominee runner-up Bernie Sanders.

But they are, fair or not, also the oldest people, and two white men besides, looking at running to represent a party that turned to younger, more diverse candidates this year to win. Biden and Sanders might not run at all. Even commentators who like Sanders are asking him not to run.

The others have a lot of getting-to-know-you to do. Here are some of the favorable/unfavorable numbers from a CNN poll taken this fall that should humble any aspiring political prognosticator feeling confident they know how the primary will ultimately shake out. Roughly half of Americans have never heard of Harris or Booker; Warren fares a little better, but one-third say they haven’t heard of her either.


If this is where Booker and Harris, two younger buoyant senators from big states (New Jersey and California, respectively), sit with the larger public, it seems safe to assume that senators from the heartland — Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, say — aren’t familiar faces yet either. The same goes for any House members, governors, and former cabinet secretaries looking at a run.

The 2020ers enjoying the most familiarity with the public are Biden and Sanders; only 7 percent say they hadn’t heard of those two, according to the September 6-9 poll from CNN and the SSRS firm.

You see the same trend in the horse-race primary polling: In an October poll from CNN, Biden got one-third of Democratic primary voters, Bernie Sanders got 9 percent and no other candidates hit double digits.

I couldn’t find a poll that measured Beto O’Rourke’s national reputation. He gets treated like a star. He got a lot of media attention. He gets compared to Barack Obama and people who used to work for Barack Obama are making a documentary about him. He came in third in a 2020 poll after Election Day. He recently won a straw poll by the grassroots group MoveOn. But throughout much of 2018 he was relatively unknown even in his home state of Texas.

Then again, O’Rourke still wasn’t even cracking 10 percent in a new CNN survey of the primary. Biden and Sanders, the candidates with strong name negotiation, were the only candidates who did.

Star power does mean a lot. After all, Donald Trump is the president. But the Democratic field is, for the moment, quite lacking it except for a few old white guys and (maybe) Beto.

Political campaigns do have a way of making stars — and of snuffing them out. For the time being, a lot of these Democrats are more potential than anything else.

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