Democrats might not get the competitive primary that many had hoped for, as Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who announced he would seek the Democratic nomination Thursday, is unlikely to beat Hillary Rodham Clinton at the polls.
That said, Sanders is a serious candidate, with decades of political experience and a devoted, if small, following, who holds substantively different views from Clinton on several important issues. If former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley also runs, as many expect he will, Democratic voters will have the chance to consider a few options.
This post is a closer look at the choices Democrats will be making next year about the future of their party after President Obama leaves office.
The minimum wage
The candidates agree on many important points, one of which is that the federal minimum wage should go up.
But how much is a matter of distinction. O'Malley said he would support an increase from the current level of $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour earlier this month. On his campaign's Web site, Sanders also calls for raising the level to $15 an hour.
Clinton has also advocated for an increase in the minimum in the past, although it's not clear yet what level she'd support as president. The Center for American Progress, which is close to her, has suggested raising it to $10.10. And she may well support a Capitol Hill initiative to push it to $12 by 2020.
Campaign finance reform
Clinton and Sanders have both put reforming campaign finance at the top of their agendas.
Clinton said she would be open to a constitutional amendment invalidating the Supreme Court's decisions on campaign finance in Citizens United and other recent cases. Sanders recently proposed such an amendment himself.
"Billionaires own the political process. That’s a huge issue," Sanders said in announcing his candidacy.
O'Malley hasn't made campaign finance reform a main plank of his platform in the same way, but it is clear he has strong opinions about the issue.
"Congresspeople spend so much of their week on the phone raising money, it's hard to imagine how good people even bring themselves to run for the office," O'Malley was filmed saying at a meeting with voters in New Hampshire in March.
O'Malley also said he wanted to overturn Citizens United and that he supported public financing of campaigns.
Clinton has said she believes the country needs stricter controls on firearms.
"We have to rein in what has become [an] almost article of faith, that anybody can own a gun anywhere, anytime. And I don’t believe that," she said last year. Advocates for gun control are excited about the prospect of her winning the nomination.
As Maryland's governor, O'Malley signed one of the country's most restrictive gun laws.
Sanders, by contrast, has opposed gun-control measures. He voted in favor of a law passed in 2005 barring victims of gun violence from suing manufacturers of weapons. Victims and their lawyers say that the courts would be an effective way for them to seek restitution and to force manufacturers to design safer firearms.
"He doesn't have a gun," a close friend of Sanders's told National Journal last year. "He doesn't really care about guns. But he cares that other people care about guns. He thinks there's an elitism in the antigun movement."
Social scientists and public-health experts generally agree that gun control reduces rates of homicide.
Sanders and O'Malley have been adamant in their opposition to the trade deal Obama is negotiating with several other Pacific countries.
Trade deals have been "abysmal failures," Sanders wrote this week in the Guardian. "They allowed corporations to shut down operations in the US and move work to low-wage countries where people are forced to work for pennies an hour; and they are one of the reasons that we have lost almost 60,000 factories in our country and millions of good-paying jobs since 2001."
"I'm for trade, and I'm for good trade deals, but I'm against bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership," O'Malley said in a recent video, referring to the deal under discussion.
Clinton has previously expressed support for the agreement, which she helped to negotiate as Obama's secretary of state. She called it "the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade" in 2009.
"This agreement will cover 40 percent of the world's total trade and build in strong protections for workers and the environment," she said.
Her most recent statement on the subject suggests her views have not changed.
"Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security," she said last week.
Clinton's views on the issue generally are not entirely clear, though. When her husband, President Bill Clinton, was in office, the North American Free Trade Agreement was one of his major economic achievements. She has said the agreement was a mistake.
She does oppose at least one of the more controversial provisions reportedly in drafts of the deal, which would make U.S. laws that interfere with corporate profits in any way subject to arbitration in international courts.
O'Malley and Sanders have both called for the nation's biggest banks to be broken up.
Like Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, they argue that banks that are large enough to depend on a rescue from the federal government in the event of an economic collapse are more prone to risky behavior. The best way to ensure financial stability, the argument goes, is to ensure that bank officials know they'll pay the consequences for any reckless decisions.
"If they're too big to fail, they're too big to exist," Sanders said Thursday.
The Clinton campaign recently declined to take a stance on this and other questions about financial regulation when asked by a reporter for Mother Jones. Yet it seems unlikely that she would support a limit on the size of banks.
Doing so would be a major departure from Obama's policies. His economic advisers believe that breaking up the banks wouldn't guarantee prudence in the financial sector.
Stanley Fischer, whom Obama selected as the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, explained why in a speech last year. In the past, he noted, the federal government has felt compelled to bail out small banks, too, when their officials have made bad bets.
Expanding Social Security
Another major economic issue that could separate the presumptive nominee from her two likely challengers is the question of whether to expand or cut Social Security.
"I think we do need to expand Social Security, and I think we need to be unabashed about it," O'Malley said recently.
This question presents treacherous politics for Clinton. Liberal Democrats warn that a number of older American workers are approaching retirement without enough money saved, meaning they'll be forced either to w
ork despite their failing health or to live out their years in poverty. And Social Security is a broadly popular program.
On the other hand, Clinton previously suggested she could support improving the program's finances with a combination of increased taxes and reduced benefits, and some experts describe proposals to expand the program as wasteful. They argue increases in monthly benefits should only go to those retirees who need them most.
Correction: An earlier version of this post inaccurately described an initiative on Capitol Hill to raise the minimum wage. Democratic lawmakers hope to raise the minimum to $12 an hour by 2020, not by 2012, a year that has already past.