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Just tuning in now? Here’s what to know about the 2020 Democratic race

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Overshadowed by President Trump and the impeachment inquiry riveting Washington, Democrats are proceeding with their own drama — a generational and ideological battle over the future of their party. A field that continues to grow, and includes authors, billionaires, entrepreneurs and a big chunk of the Democratic Senate caucus, seeks to define how intensely the party will seek to expand government and its role in meeting basic needs, such as health care and housing.

Four candidates have separated themselves from the pack. Former vice president Joe Biden is pledging a return to normalcy, making a more moderate appeal and talking about working across the aisle with Republicans once the Trump era recedes. He’s joined by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37, who is differentiating himself with the promise of generational change and Midwestern pragmatism. The liberal wing of the party is represented by two senators: Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist and an independent from Vermont who ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Elizabeth Warren, who has based her campaign on making bold moves against corruption and inequality, but from a distinctly capitalist perspective.

Those four were on the stage for the fifth debate, co-hosted by The Washington Post and MSNBC, on Nov. 20 in Atlanta. Rounding out the debate stage were Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and businessman Tom Steyer.


Illustration by Ben Kirchner

Still in the race but didn’t make the cut for the November debate stage: Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, former Maryland congressman John Delaney, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, former Pennsylvania congressman Joe Sestak and author Marianne Williamson.

Dropped out: Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.).

Polling shows that most Democrats say they have not firmly made up their minds about which candidate to support. An average of national surveys shows Biden, Warren and Sanders clustered at the top. Buttigieg has risen in Iowa, the first voting state, joining the other three at the top of the polls. Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg have attracted different elements of the party’s white voters but have had trouble expanding to a broader coalition. Biden’s lead is most robust in South Carolina, reflecting his strength with African American voters. (Go here to see when each state will vote.)

National poll average

Data since late October. Average of various

polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling

at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20

25

30%

0

Biden

27%

Warren

22

Sanders

17

Buttigieg

7

Harris

4

Klobuchar

3

Booker

2

Yang

2

Castro

1

Gabbard

1

Steyer

1

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely

primary voters, Democrats and Democratic-

leaning independent adults, and registered voters.

Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post

polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

National poll average

Data since late October. Average of various polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20

25

30%

0

Biden

27%

22

Warren

Sanders

17

Buttigieg

7

Harris

4

Klobuchar

3

2

Booker

2

Yang

Castro

1

1

Gabbard

1

Steyer

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters,

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent adults,

and registered voters. Updated November 18, 2019.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: Washington Post polling average

National poll average

Data since late October. Average of various polls among Democrats.*

Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20

25

30%

0

Biden

27%

22

Warren

17

Sanders

7

Buttigieg

4

Harris

3

Klobuchar

2

Booker

2

Yang

1

Castro

1

Gabbard

1

Steyer

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters, Democrats and Democratic-

leaning independent adults, and registered voters. Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

Data since late-October. Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

Iowa poll average

Data since early October. Average of various polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20%

0

19%

Buttigieg

Warren

19

Biden

18

Sanders

16

Harris

4

Klobuchar

4

Steyer

3

Booker

2

Gabbard

2

Yang

2

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely

primary voters, Democrats and Democratic-

leaning independent adults, and registered voters.

Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post

polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

Iowa poll average

Data since early October. Average of various polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20%

0

19%

Buttigieg

19

Warren

18

Biden

16

Sanders

Harris

4

4

Klobuchar

3

Steyer

2

Booker

Gabbard

2

2

Yang

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters,

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent adults,

and registered voters. Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

Iowa poll average

Data since early October. Average of various polls among Democrats.*

Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20%

0

19%

Buttigieg

19

Warren

18

Biden

16

Sanders

4

Harris

4

Klobuchar

3

Steyer

2

Booker

2

Gabbard

2

Yang

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters, Democrats and

Democratic-leaning independent adults, and registered voters.

Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

New Hampshire poll average

Data since early October. Average of various polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20

25%

0

Warren

23%

Biden

21

Sanders

19

Buttigieg

11

Gabbard

3

Harris

3

Klobuchar

3

Yang

3

Booker

2

Steyer

2

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely

primary voters, Democrats and Democratic-

leaning independent adults, and registered voters.

Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post

polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

New Hampshire poll average

Data since early October. Average of various polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20

25%

0

23%

Warren

21

Biden

19

Sanders

11

Buttigieg

3

Gabbard

3

Harris

3

Klobuchar

3

Yang

2

Booker

2

Steyer

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters,

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent adults,

and registered voters. Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

New Hampshire poll average

Data since early October. Average of various polls among Democrats.*

Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20

25%

0

23%

Warren

21

Biden

19

Sanders

11

Buttigieg

3

Gabbard

3

Harris

3

Klobuchar

3

Yang

2

Booker

2

Steyer

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters, Democrats and Democratic-

leaning independent adults, and registered voters. Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

South Carolina poll average

Data since early October. Average of various

polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling

at 1% or higher.

10

20

30

40%

0

Biden

40%

Warren

15

Sanders

13

Harris

5

Buttigieg

4

Steyer

4

Booker

2

1

Bennet

Bloomberg

1

1

Delaney

Gabbard

1

Klobuchar

1

Williamson

1

Yang

1

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely

primary voters, Democrats and Democratic-

leaning independent adults, and registered voters.

Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post

polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

South Carolina poll average

Data since early October. Average of various polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

10

20

30

40%

0

40%

Biden

15

Warren

13

Sanders

5

Harris

4

Buttigieg

4

Steyer

2

Booker

1

Bennet

1

Bloomberg

1

Delaney

1

Gabbard

1

Klobuchar

1

Williamson

1

Yang

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters,

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent adults,

and registered voters. Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post polling average

 

THE WASHINGTON POST

South Carolina poll average

Data since early October. Average of various polls among Democrats.*

Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

10

20

30

40%

0

40%

Biden

15

Warren

13

Sanders

5

Harris

4

Buttigieg

4

Steyer

2

Booker

1

Bennet

1

Bloomberg

1

Delaney

1

Gabbard

1

Klobuchar

1

Williamson

1

Yang

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters, Democrats and

Democratic-leaning independent adults, and registered voters. Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

Nevada poll average

Data since late October. Average of various

polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling

at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20

25

30%

0

Biden

29%

Sanders

20

Warren

19

Buttigieg

8

Harris

4

Steyer

4

Klobuchar

2

Yang

2

Booker

1

Castro

1

Gabbard

1

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely

primary voters, Democrats and Democratic-leaning

independent adults, and registered voters.

Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post

polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

Nevada poll average

Data since late October. Average of various polls among Democrats.* Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20

25

30%

0

29%

Biden

20

Sanders

19

Warren

8

Buttigieg

4

Harris

4

Steyer

2

Klobuchar

2

Yang

1

Booker

1

Castro

1

Gabbard

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters,

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent adults,

and registered voters. Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

Nevada poll average

Data since late October. Average of various polls among Democrats.*

Candidates polling at 1% or higher.

5

10

15

20

25

30%

0

29%

Biden

20

Sanders

19

Warren

8

Buttigieg

4

Harris

4

Steyer

2

Klobuchar

2

Yang

1

Booker

1

Castro

1

Gabbard

*Average includes polls of Democratic likely primary voters, Democrats and Democratic-

leaning independent adults, and registered voters. Updated November 18, 2019.

Source: Washington Post polling average

THE WASHINGTON POST

Democratic candidates and voters are embracing more liberal positions than in past presidential campaigns, favoring plans to combat climate change, increase the number of Americans who are covered by government-sponsored health care and lessen penalties on those who enter the United States illegally. But some Democrats are concerned that those leftward moves threaten the party in the general election, leading to a fierce debate over how far Democrats should go. Should criminal penalties be repealed for those apprehended while crossing the border? Should the country embrace single-payer health coverage, in which all Americans are automatically enrolled in Medicare or a similar plan, or simply offer an increasing number of Americans the option to enroll in it?

The party’s move left has meant some candidates have had to answer sharp questions about their previous stances. Biden has taken heat for his past advocacy of working with segregationist senators and opposition to federally mandated busing. Harris’s work as a prosecutor, including efforts to criminalize truancy, has been questioned.

Much of the Democratic race pivots around the key question for voters: Who can beat Trump? What combination of voters — liberal, moderate, white working class, African American, Latino, college-educated or not — in which key states can each candidate put together to defeat the president in the electoral college as well as the popular vote?

How we got here

2017

Delaney became the first candidate in the race, in July 2017. Yang entered the race in November.

Dec. 31, 2018

The candidate of radical structural change enters

Warren pitches herself as a candidate with many, many plans. A lot of them, she says, will be funded with a wealth tax that has her crowds cheering “2 cents," after the cut her plan would take of every dollar of wealth over $50 million. Several months before her entrance, she stumbled over a DNA test that she said helped prove her past claims of Native American heritage but was criticized as insensitive to members of Native American tribes. But she bounced back in voters’ estimation as she campaigned in early states, promising, “I’ve got a plan for that.” And she has built what all parties acknowledge is the best campaign organization in Iowa.

What national political reporter Annie Linskey is watching:

I’m looking at how various groups — voters, centrist Democratic leaders, liberal leaders, unions and donors —are reacting to Warren’s new approach to the politically tricky issue of Medicare-for-all and whether she’s able to move on an focus on the economic and systemic issues that really motivate her candidacy.

Jan. 1 to Feb. 9

Gabbard, Harris, Buttigieg and Booker entered the race.

Feb. 10

A Midwesterner who wants to talk about getting things done

It was February, in Minnesota, outdoors. And it was snowing, relentlessly. Klobuchar announced a campaign based on Midwestern hardiness, pragmatism and the ability to get bipartisan support for infrastructure and other matters. She’s working to win over voters in the neighboring state of Iowa.

Feb. 19

Sanders entered the race, holding rallies in New York and Chicago in his first weekend of campaigning,

April 25

A former VP who promises to restore norms

Biden started his third presidential run by confronting Trump over divisiveness and promising a return to pre-Trump civility. He predicts that under a Biden administration Republicans will come to their senses and want to work with Democrats — an idea many of his primary opponents greet with skepticism. He has sought to benefit from the party’s continued high esteem of former president Barack Obama, and his campaign has been strengthened by persistent support among African American voters. But he has been a lackluster campaigner, and despite high-dollar fundraisers, his campaign had less money than his top rivals in the bank at the end of the third quarter.

What national political reporter Matt Viser is watching:

Watching Joe Biden, just about anything can happen. He can be forceful and pointed. He can channel the certainty in his position that comes with his 77 years (and debate day is his birthday), more than half of which has been spent in politics. And yes, he can have a gaffe. Or seven. The question is whether the Biden that the field thought it was getting — a dominant front-runner, with all the strengths of a former vice president — will still emerge and settle this unsettled race.

May

Bennet and Bullock, two moderate candidates, entered the race.

June 27

Harris shows her ability to create a moment

Harris delivered the biggest moment in any debate so far, with a direct, personal rebuke of Biden over his opposition to federally mandated busing during the 1970s. Harris, whose parents are Jamaican and Indian, recalled her experience being bused to school as a child under a voluntary program. After the debate, the former prosecutor’s poll numbers rose, although the boost proved to be temporary. Most recently, she has pulled back in other states to focus on Iowa, where she needs a strong showing to continue in the race.

July 30-31

Toughness from a candidate of unity

In the second debate, like the first held over two nights because 20 candidates qualified, Booker took on Biden over the 1994 crime bill, which has been criticized as imposing harsh sentences on nonwhite Americans in particular. Biden tried to turn the focus around, criticizing Booker’s record as mayor of Newark, a job for which Booker received national attention. The two went back and forth, and then Booker delivered a line: “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community, you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor." While he’s generally campaigned as a candidate of unity, Booker got a buzzy moment that speaks to race and criminal justice. It hasn’t, however, given him a long-term benefit.

Aug. 28

Gillibrand became the fourth candidate in two weeks to drop out, joining Inslee, Hickenlooper and Moulton. Gillibrand had branded herself “the best candidate for women.” Inslee was running a campaign focused on climate change. Hickenlooper announced later that he would run for Senate in Colorado, and Moulton is seeking to return to Congress. None could break through in the crowded race.

What national political reporter Holly Bailey is watching:

One thing I’m watching closely is the size and diversity of the Iowa primary electorate and what impact that might have on the Feb. 3 caucuses. In the past, caucusgoers have tended to be mostly older, mostly white. But this year, campaigns have been trying to expand the Democratic base beyond the usual crowd, appealing to Iowa’s growing Asian and Latino populations, black voters and women who have become politically active in the era of Donald Trump.

Sept. 12

An outsider with an intriguing idea

Yang, who has had the least speaking time of all the candidates in the debates so far, wanted to create a moment at the third debate. He told reporters to watch for news, then promised $1,000 a month to someone who signs up on his website. Yang’s campaign is based on the idea that the government should provide a $1,000-a-month subsidy to every adult American under age 65, to help those whose jobs are affected by automation and give others a firmer financial floor.

Oct. 1

A comeback, with signs of strength and humor

After falling ill at a campaign event, Sanders is hospitalized; a few days later, his campaign confirmed the 78-year-old senator had suffered a heart attack. The illness came at a difficult time for Sanders. While he had been campaigning on many of the same ideas that won him votes and delegates in the 2016 primary, his support had lagged below his earlier levels, when he faced only one competitor. But a few weeks after his heart attack, Sanders won three high-profile votes of confidence with the endorsements of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), three of the four members of the liberal “Squad” of freshman Democratic lawmakers. Since returning to the campaign trail, Sanders has been more relaxed and more willing to joke and share personal stories.

Oct. 15

A young candidate works to distinguish himself

In the fourth debate, Buttigieg went after Warren, trying to paint her as dishonest about the costs of her proposals by attacking her lack of a plan for funding Medicare-for-all, a Sanders proposal she has endorsed. (She has since outlined a plan.) Early in his campaign, the mayor said he was in favor of Medicare-for-all, but he now embraces what he calls “Medicare for all who want it,” which lets anyone buy into the program. Buttigieg’s poll numbers have been rising, particularly in Iowa, where he has appealed to voters as a young, moderate alternative. But his shift on health-care policy and lack of details on other topics have drawn criticism from other candidates.

What reporter Chelsea Janes is watching:

After his recent surge in Iowa, I’ll be watching how the rest of the country responds to Buttigieg, who is casting himself as an Obama-esque upstart but has little time to build trust among the nonwhite voters he’ll probably need to build a winning coalition.

Billionaire spending big and talking about the problems of wealth

As of Sept. 30, Steyer, a billionaire who before getting in the race was a major Democratic donor on issues like climate change and impeachment, had spent about $47 million on running for president. Part of his pitch, ironically, is that money should have less of a role in U.S. politics. In this debate, he embraced a wealth tax and agreed with Sanders on billionaires, saying, “There’s something wrong here, and that is that the corporations have bought our government.”

Oct. 19

A candidate for those suspicious of the mainstream

After 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said on a podcast that Russians had a favorite candidate among the 2020 Democratic field and clearly referenced Gabbard, the Hawaii congresswoman shot back, calling her “the queen of warmongers.” Gabbard, a veteran, has campaigned on ending “regime change wars" and also talked about the spirit of “aloha.” Her fan base tends to be suspicious of mainstream media, and some of her support is from more conservative voters and Republicans. Comments like her response to Clinton have sparked party fears that she’ll mount a third-party bid, an idea she’s repeatedly dismissed.

What reporter Cleve R. Wootson Jr. is watching:

Does Biden’s polling lead in South Carolina signify that he has the best chance to build the diverse coalition needed to win? Can Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg convince African Americans — a pivotal voting group — to pull their support from Biden?

Nov. 1

O’Rourke, the former congressman who fell short of beating Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and whose candidacy focused on climate change, immigration and gun control, drops out. He was heralded as a potential top-tier candidate when he entered the race in March but was unable to replicate either the fundraising prowess or campaign enthusiasm that marked his statewide race. That same day, Buttigieg filled the role of bright young Democratic face by making a splash at a high-profile Democratic event in Iowa.

Nov. 14

Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick joins the race.

Nov. 24

Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg joins the race.

Dec. 1-2

Former congressman Joe Sestak and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock drop out of the race.

Credits: Washington Post Staff

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