The cycles of the 2020 presidential campaign are churning quickly and will continue to do so. For the past two months, the Democratic nomination contest has been about newcomers, women and the image of diversity in a new party. Suddenly, it’s about two older white men.
The spotlight has fallen on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former vice president Joe Biden. Sanders, because his entry into the race has come with more force and energy than some people had expected — and more money than anyone else. Biden, because he appears to be on the cusp of announcing his candidacy, with allies out this week removing what little suspense remains about his plans.
But there’s a bigger reason the focus has fallen on the two politicians with the longest records and years of experience. Every early poll — national and state — puts Biden and Sanders ahead of others who are in the race or are seriously thinking about running.
Among the latest is a Des Moines Register-CNN-Mediacom Iowa poll that showed Biden and Sanders with more than half the vote combined, and no one else in double digits. The poll should be read in two ways — as a sign of initial strength for each of them, and as an indication of the vulnerabilities the two best-known figures in the race could face.
These early polls suggest that as the contest takes shape, the structure is Biden and Sanders vs. the field. That’s not to say the Democratic race is either Biden’s or Sanders’s to lose. With a big field assembling, those numbers — Biden at 27 percent and Sanders at 25 percent — are helpful but not overwhelmingly impressive.
At every candidate event this year, there are more shoppers than buyers, and any number of candidates are drawing crowds and good reviews. Other candidates are and will have their moments. Still, it is notable that Biden and Sanders are where they are, given who they are.
Either would be the oldest newly elected president in history. Sanders is 77 years old, Biden 76. Together, they have about 80 years of public service. The similarities would seem to end there. Biden and Sanders occupy competing poles in the Democratic Party, ideologically, and in style and temperament. Few Democrats are more representative of the party establishment than Biden. Few politicians are more indifferent to party politics than Sanders. Biden is an insider, Sanders, despite long service, an outsider.
Biden is a moderate progressive who will try to pull the party away from the far left. He has already signaled concerns that the Democrats cannot risk allowing President Trump to cast the party as too far left. Those criticisms have begun and will intensify, assuming he enters the race.
Biden has yet to lay out an agenda, although as he campaigned for candidates in 2018, much of what he talked about was a combination of middle-class economics, restoring America’s image abroad, dealing with the emerging world here and abroad, and bringing the country together in contrast with Trump’s presidency.
On Tuesday, Biden is scheduled to address the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). In the 2008 cycle, the firefighters endorsed then-Sen. Chris Dodd over Biden, but narrowly and based on specific work Dodd had done in carrying legislation important to the organization. His appearance probably will be a political love-in and offer more hints about the themes and priorities that he would carry into a 2020 presidential campaign.
Sanders is as progressive as anyone in the race, an unapologetic democratic socialist. The length and breadth of his ambitions is beyond what others in the race are offering. Campaigning Sunday in Concord, N.H., he went through his agenda step by step, to enthusiastic applause from the audience that turned out on a snowy day. The list is familiar but worth recounting.
It includes: reducing wage and income inequality; Medicare-for-all; free public college tuition; a national $15 an hour minimum wage; a trillion-dollar infrastructure program; overturning Citizens United and moving to public financing of campaigns; an aggressive climate change action program that includes going after the fossil fuels industry; comprehensive immigration reform; criminal justice reform; an end to private prisons; breaking up the big banks; taking on the pharmaceutical industry; universal affordable child care; expanded Social Security benefits; a federal jobs guarantee; rebuilding rural America; new gun control legislation.
Among those who turned out Sunday in Concord were Shaun and Mary Ellen Sutliff, and Joan Wotkowicz. Shaun Sutliff has been a Sanders fan and supporter for decades, ever since Sanders was mayor of Burlington. He has no faith in the institutional Democratic Party and won’t give them money “until they embrace Medicare-for-all, and all the superdelegates are dead.”
The two women are, as Wotkowicz put it, still “on the fence,” wondering who the strongest candidate against Trump would be. “There are a lot of good candidates,” she said. “I need to know more still. The big thing for me is I’ve got to put my support behind whoever can take Trump out, and I don’t know who that is.” She thinks that could be Sanders. “But that’s my No. 1 priority, to not lose to him [Trump] again,” she said.
The contrasts between Biden and Sanders are significant, but here’s the oddity. According to the Des Moines Register, nearly a third of those who say they favor Biden would switch to Sanders if Biden is not in the race. Meanwhile, 4 in 10 supporters of Sanders say Biden is their second choice.
But with many other choices, voters will be looking closely at both Biden and Sanders, weighing whether either is best suited to take on Trump in the general election. In the Iowa poll, 70 percent of Democrats said Biden’s positions on issues were “about right.” Only 48 percent said the same for Sanders, while 44 percent said his views were “too liberal.”
Biden and Sanders occupy considerable space, but not all of it. Other candidates are looking for openings. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) has impressed many activists with her early campaigning style and biography. Positive comments about South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg exploded Sunday night on Twitter after his skillful performance during a CNN town hall in Austin. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) keeps rolling out provocative policy proposals.
Someone (or more than one) in single digits will move up, but perhaps not for many months. Biden and Sanders start in enviable positions. Voters in the Democratic Party will be assessing whether either has the stuff to take down Trump.