CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The 2020 Democratic campaign to defeat President Trump launched in earnest on New Year’s Eve when Sen. Elizabeth Warren finally made her ambitions clear: She is running for president.
The Massachusetts Democrat’s long-expected announcement that she had filed legal paperwork to open a campaign did not reshape the race so much as mark an official start to a presidential nominating contest expected to feature one of the largest and most diverse fields of candidates in the history of either major party.
There will be older women, younger women, women of color. There will be men of multiple shapes and ethnicities. The field will probably include billionaires, millionaires and candidates who still have college debt.
All will compete for attention not only with one another but also with the ongoing hourly drama from the White House, from which Trump already chews through news cycles at an astounding pace. The Democrats also will be in races for money, for staff, for viral moments that garner widespread publicity, and ultimately for votes in a radically altered political and media environment.
“This is a multilevel chess game with more candidates than anyone has seen,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist. “I’m not sure anyone knows what the rules are, much less how to get through the marathon that started today.”
This collection of candidates will be emerging as the Democratic Party tries to determine how to define itself in the era of Donald Trump. Questions abound: Should the party fight for the white working-class voters who flocked to Trump? Or should it look to younger, nonwhite voters whose numbers are growing faster than their voting habits? Should they tangle with Trump? Should they rise above him? Is a fresh face needed, or an experienced hand?
“This is an important time for Democrats to discuss what we’re all about. Where do we stand as a party?” said Andrea Steele, the founder of Emerge America, an organization that encourages women to run for office. “We’re in this defining moment. We have this president in there. And everything is at stake. Everything.”
Political observers are used to thinking about presidential candidates as occupying defined lanes. But the 2020 race will include multiple candidates for some lanes, creating mini-primaries among the more crowded sections of the party. The challenge for candidates will be to win in their lanes, while also expanding beyond that niche to forge alliances with other groups.
A slew of additional candidates are expected to make their intentions known in the next few weeks, turning the opening days of 2019 into a drumbeat of potential challengers to President Trump.
Warren’s opening salvo, broadcast via an emailed announcement video, defined her as an economic populist ready to stand up to Trump. Her slogan made her attitude clear: “Join the Fight.”
“She is a very strong advocate — an edgy advocate — and is that what people are going to be looking for in the era of Trump? Do you fight edgy with edgy?” asked David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
“She has a very distinctive point of view that is very much born out of her life’s work,” he added. “And she was well known before she was in politics.”
Warren also has a structural advantage over other candidates, Axelrod said. “She was the most rigorous about being in touch with and supporting primary candidates around the country [during the midterm campaigns]. She’s clearly been very methodical.”
And though she tripped up with a poorly received release of a DNA test intended to prove that her family stories about Native American ancestry were accurate, Axelrod said the controversy has been overstated.
“Presidential campaigns are filled with high moments and low moments, and moments where people are second-guessing you,” he said.
Trump revived his criticism of Warren’s claimed ancestry in a New Year’s Eve interview with Fox News, adding that “I hope she does well; I’d love to run against her.”
Asked if she could win, he replied: “Well, that I don’t know, you’d have to ask her psychiatrist.”
Warren’s announcement was expected, but the continuing tension over the lineup centers on three men whose decisions whether to run could influence other challengers — former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic congressman from El Paso who retired to unsuccessfully challenge Republican incumbent Ted Cruz for a Senate seat.
Biden would have a historic advantage: In modern history, every former Democratic vice president who has sought his party’s nomination has clinched it. The best-known candidate in the race, Biden has run and lost two previous campaigns for the Democrats’ presidential nomination.
He said in November that he would not announce whether he would run until the new year. Asked if that meant a January announcement, he said: “I wouldn’t announce if I were going to run that early. It would be too early to start it.”
Sanders, though unsuccessful in 2016, caught fire with his bold message and grumpy authenticity. He arguably has the most to lose from Warren’s entry into the race, as they offer similar economic populist messages and reside in the same region.
Sanders tweeted several hours after Warren’s announcement, in what appeared to be a bid to stay in the conversation.
“We must have the courage to take on the greed and ideology of the billionaire class and to fight for a world of economic, social, racial and environmental justice,” said Sanders. “Will this be an easy struggle? Certainly not.”
O’Rourke gained national attention by raising more than $70 million, the largest Senate haul in history, in his bid to topple Cruz. A video O’Rourke tweeted Friday questioning the wisdom of building a border wall was viewed more than 5 million times in four days.
Other candidates occupy loose niches, often overlapping ones. The 2020 contest may also set a record for women and nonwhite candidates, their energy fueled by the party’s successes in the midterm elections.
“The goal of 2020 will be about inspiring and turning out voters who have never participated,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a racial justice organization. “This will not be about watering down a message. This cannot just be about defeating Trump.”
Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), both black, have proved themselves popular in early-voting states, some of which are dominated by nonwhite voters.
Harris took to Twitter on Monday after Warren’s announcement to offer a recap of her 2018 accomplishments.
She also reprised a tweet that she’d sent earlier in the year: “My advice to Black girls everywhere: whenever you find yourself in a room where there aren’t a lot of people who look like you . . . remember that you have an entire community in that room with you, all of us cheering you on.”
One of the two Democrats who have officially announced their candidacy, former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, also is expected to seek out the party’s young and minority voters. (The other official entrant is John Delaney, a Maryland congressman who is retiring from the House to pursue his bid.)
No candidate will get far without building an organization. That’s where another division lies, between the Democrats who have already put together their teams and Democrats still mulling over whether to run. Booker, Harris, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper are in the first camp.
All of them have signaled who would lead their campaigns, and in some cases, where their headquarters will be located; all have made overtures to potential staffers in early-primary states and begun making arguments about how they could win.
Other Democratic contenders are not so far along, thinking in public and in private about whether they can find a path. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sherrod Brown of Ohio acknowledge that they’re looking at 2020, often by saying that the idea has been put to them by supporters who want a candidate who can win.
The complicated aspect of the upcoming season is that many of these potential candidates have overlapping strengths.
Biden, Brown and Klobuchar are thought to have appeal in the Upper Midwest, the home of the many voters who abandoned the Democratic Party for Trump in 2016. Warren, Harris, Klobuchar and Gillibrand are all women.
The electorate might also have contradictory desires.
“Everyone likes a fresh face, but experience matters,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers.
All of the candidates will soon be making visits to early states, if they haven’t already.
Warren plans to visit Iowa this weekend, pending votes in the Senate. She hasn’t been there since 2014, when she campaigned for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Braley, who lost to Republican Joni Ernst.
On Monday, she called supporters and Democratic VIPs, including Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama.
He called Warren a “welcome addition” to the field.
But he also had a warning to all: “You really have to be one thousand percent committed to this. It’s an incredible grind. And incredible set of pressure-packed days. You have to understand it’s going to be the most difficult thing you do in your life.”
● Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that every former vice president who has sought his party’s presidential nomination has won it. While this is true for Democrats, it is not the case for Republicans: Former vice president Dan Quayle terminated his brief 2000 presidential bid after an eighth-place finish in the Iowa straw poll in 1999.
David Weigel contributed to this report.