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


The first two contests narrowed the field — kind of. Three candidates dropped out in the day after polls closed in New Hampshire Feb. 11, but the field didn’t get a lot of clarity.

The national polling picture has gotten more complex since the late entry of former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. He has spent more than $300 million on advertising and is not campaigning in the first four states, so voters have not yet weighed in on his candidacy. A Washington Post polling average shows him about even with former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg nationwide — with both of them trailing former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist and an independent from Vermont, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Biden, who is atop national polling but finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, is running on a promise of a return to normalcy, making a more moderate appeal and talking about working across the aisle with Republicans once the Trump era recedes. Buttigieg, 38, is also running as a moderate, with a promise of generational change. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) joins them in that wing of the party; she came in third in Iowa after placing fifth in Iowa, and she talks on the trail about her ability to work across the aisle to pass legislation.

Sanders and Warren represent the more liberal wing of the party. Warren has based her campaign on fighting corruption and inequality and differentiates herself from Sanders as a capitalist.

Also in the race are investor Tom Steyer and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii).

[Take our quiz to see which of the 2020 Democrats agrees with you most]

After Iowa and New Hampshire come Nevada’s caucuses on Feb. 22 and South Carolina’s primary on Feb. 29. South Carolina will be the first real test of Biden’s strength with black voters, a core part of the Democratic Party but one that’s underrepresented in the first states to vote. (Go here to see when each state will vote.)

Dropped out: Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Maryland congressman John Delaney, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), author Marianne Williamson, former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, 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.).

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 debate over health-care coverage has entangled more than one candidate, first Harris and then Warren, who didn’t release a detailed plan until November.

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


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 that 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.” Her rise stalled, and her poll numbers fell from October to November, though she has built what all parties acknowledge is the best campaign organization in Iowa.

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.


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

June 27

Harris confronts Biden on busing

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. She would drop out in December, citing financial struggles.

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.

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, 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.

Oct. 19

A Gabbard-Clinton fight

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. She has repeatedly dismissed the idea of running a third-party campaign.

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. 1-3

Former congressman Joe Sestak, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and then Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California drop out of the race. Harris entered with one of the biggest rallies in the primary campaign and left with low polling numbers and internal campaign turmoil.

Jan. 2-13

The field shrinks, with three major candidates dropping out: first Julián Castro, former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary under President Barack Obama; then self-help author Marianne Williamson and then Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.).

Jan. 31

John Delaney drops out just a few days before the Iowa caucuses.

Feb. 3

Iowa holds it caucuses, which were marred by technical and logistical problems. There’s still no clear winner, with both Buttigieg and Sanders claiming victory. They do appear knotted at the top in both measures of state delegate equivalents and popular vote.

Credits: Washington Post Staff

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