Democratic Primary tightens ahead of first televised debates

The US Democratic Primary for the 2020 Presidential elections is taking shape, what is the state of the race as things stand?

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 20: Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg greets people during a grassroots fundraiser at the Wynwood Walls on May 20, 2019 in Mi
(Image credit: 2019 Getty Images)

The race to be the person to oppose Donald Trump in the 2020 US presidential election is taking shape, and with interviews scheduled for later this month, it is now possible to discern the personalities, themes and tensions that will define the contest.

On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced the 20 candidates who would take part in the initial round of televised debates on 26 and 27 June.

NBC, the network that will host the debates, says “The DNC… set two ways for candidates to qualify — fundraising and polling. To make the stage, candidates needed to have either at least 1 percent support in three qualifying polls, or provide evidence of at least 65,000 unique donors, with a minimum of 200 different donors in at least 20 states.”

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At the same time as the TV debate lineup was being announced, two polls illuminated the race further.

“A Quinnipiac University poll showed the top Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, leading Trump by a double-digit margin in a potential 2020 matchup”, John Harwood wrote in CNBC. “But it also found that five other Democratic contenders – every one the poll pitted against Trump – leading the president as well.”

At this stage, taking into account of course that the polls predicted against Trump in 2016, it seems the president, who entered office on the back of an historically narrow win, has become less popular in office, not more.

"There is a big wake-up call here for President Trump in these numbers. Anybody on the Trump campaign would be wrong not to take notice," said Fox News host Martha MacCallum.

The frontrunners

The second poll to be released was from UC Berkeley-Los Angeles Times. It asked likely Democratic primary voters in California - a key state in the race - who they would vote for, and found Joe Biden leading with 22%, followed by Elizabeth Warren (18%), Bernie Sanders (17%), Kamala Harris (13%), and Pete Buttigieg (10%). No other candidate scored above 3%.

“California’s role in deciding the Democratic nominee will be huge,” said Mark DiCamillo, a veteran pollster who directed the survey. “Our poll indicates that the contest is a wide-open affair, with five candidates in double digits and none dominating,”

To give a sense of the shift in fortunes, Politico outlines how “an April Quinnipiac University poll of the California primary had Biden at 26% among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, followed by Sanders at 18% and Harris at 17%. Warren and Buttigieg were at 7%.”

Who has momentum?

As these numbers would suggest, two candidates seem to be shining brighter than the rest, not just in California, but nationwide. The New York Times agrees: “Over the first six months of the presidential campaign, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren have out-maneuvered the other 21 Democratic candidates, demonstrating an innate understanding of the value of viral moments and nonstop exposure that drives politics in the Trump era.”

The Los Angeles Times is sceptical about Kamala Harris’s chances. “Harris needs strong support in her home state’s primary if she is to have a shot at the party’s presidential nomination. The poll finds her in fourth place.”

At 76 and 77 years-of-age respectively, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have been generally accepted as the two most likely to win the primary in the end. But both “sleepy Joe” and “crazy Bernie” - to use Trump’s epithets - will have to overcome voter concerns over their age.

Profiles of the contenders

Biden, Barack Obama’s vice president, is popular, “but officials and voters also indicate his early lead is driven in part by name ID, nostalgia for the Obama years and strategic calculations about how to defeat President Trump,” says the New York Times, “rather than primarily by enthusiasm for his campaign vision, which some struggled to define beyond calling it a return to pre-Trump normalcy and ‘dignity’.”

Sanders ran Hillary Clinton close in the 2016 primary, and his supporters still see him as the candidate who would have beaten Trump. He has been attacked from the right for his support for some authoritarian far-left causes, but remains consistent in his self-identification as a democratic socialist.

Elizabeth Warren positions herself just to the centre of Sanders, and her campaign has been groundbreaking for its use of detailed policy announcements to drive the news cycle, according to CNN. “She has rolled out around 20 proposals since New Year's Eve when Warren launched her exploratory committee, and out on the trail, 'I have a plan' has become Warren's de facto campaign slogan.”

Pete Buttigieg “rode a wave of positive press about his personal story: a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar who, during his two terms as mayor, has served in Afghanistan as a Naval intelligence officer, come out as gay and gotten married”, the New York Times says. “The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has cracked the code of the early months of the presidential campaign, embracing TV appearances while mastering the art of creating moments for social media and cable news.”

The election remains 17 months away, so much can change. “Democrats have a field full of amazing talent, visionary ideas and refreshing new characters,” writes Charles M. Blow, who nevertheless counsels against drawing too many conclusions at this early stage. “The problem is that voters figure out the true contours of a race only once voting and caucusing begin. The race at the beginning — the leading candidates and the most resonant issue — is often unrecognisably different from the race at the end.”

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