Photos via Flickr (Disney | ABC Television / Gage Skidmore)

2020 Preview: Who Are the Favorites to Take on Trump?


The 2020 Democrat presidential primaries are taking shape as the first real round of polls comes out.

In five national polls released since the midterm elections on November 6th, former Vice President Joe Biden is the clear front runner, leading in four polls and trailing Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) by just two points in the fifth. Most of the other candidates are polling in the single digits. The first poll taken in Iowa, the state where the first vote will be held in February 2020, was also just released, and it showed Biden holding a clear lead there as well.

So who are the candidates, and what is the very early outlook? In this series, we’re examining the dizzying number of candidates who could be in the running to take on President Trump in 2020. This is part one: the top tier.

Joe Biden

The former vice president and longtime senator from Delaware leads all but one national poll so far and holds the lead in the first Iowa poll by a wide margin of 13 points over Bernie Sanders. He recently declared himself to be “the most qualified person in the country to be president,” and he may be right. As a two-term vice president and a 36-year senator, his resume and name recognition are difficult for anyone to match. He has run for president twice before — in 1988, when he dropped out of the race before voting began, and in 2008, when he dropped out after placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses.

As a candidate, Biden has a similar blue-collar appeal to President Trump, at least in some ways. But he’s not without his baggage. He’s been known to say and do things that get him in trouble, and has a history of plagiarism. His hard-left positions on abortion and social issues as a Catholic have gotten him into trouble with the Catholic Church. And whether it’s fair to raise or not, there’s also the age question: Biden would be 78 years old on inauguration day in 2021, making him by far the oldest person to assume office as president, and he would be 82 at the end of his first term.

Early prognosis: Biden’s early lead may be simply because he has the highest name recognition of any of the candidates. Remember that Jeb Bush led many of the early polls taken this far ahead of the 2016 Republican primary process, only to flame out fast once other candidates jumped in and voting began. And while it’s clear Biden wants to be president, it’s not clear he wants to put himself through another campaign.

Bernie Sanders

The socialist senator from Vermont was neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries, and some of his supporters would argue he could have beaten her if the Democratic National Committee wasn’t playing favorites. The abrasive, balding 77-year-old from the second-smallest state in the Union somehow captured the attention of young Democrats, who apparently liked his socialist proposals and vaguely-spiritual-but-not-religious background. He remains a favorite of many of the grassroots in the Democrat Party but is having trouble retaining his staff from 2016, some of whom are moving to other candidates. And he is even older than Biden — he would be 79 on inauguration day in 2021 and 83 at the end of his first term.

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Early prognosis: Sanders has sent mixed messages about whether he even wants to run, saying in August 2018 that he would not run again and saying three months later that he was “looking at it.” He’s already in second place in most national polls and leading one of them, so if he jumped in he’d shoot right to the top. But Sanders’ time may have come and gone in 2016, when there was only one other serious candidate running. With up to three dozen fresh faces potentially vying for the nomination in 2020, it would be a very long slog.

Elizabeth Warren

The senator from Massachusetts has been touted as an eventual presidential candidate since her election to the Senate in 2012. Many Democrats wanted her to run in 2016, but she repeatedly declined and urged Clinton to run instead. She was also reportedly on Clinton’s shortlist for vice president in 2016.

As a wealthy New England college professor with tough rhetoric and hard-left positions, Warren is in many ways the blueprint for the ideal modern Democrat. But her stock has fallen dramatically ever since her infamous DNA test. She had declared herself American Indian while a law professor at Harvard, and touted her claimed Cherokee heritage in her political career. After being challenged by Donald Trump (who mocked her as “Pocahontas”) to take a DNA test to prove it, she did, releasing a video in just weeks before the 2018 midterms touting that there was one American Indian among her ancestors 6 to 10 generations ago, making her 1/1024th American Indian. Warren thought the left-wing base would eat up this swipe at Trump, but it instead backfired big time, even among Democrats, illustrating the problems with identity politics run amok.

Early prognosis: Warren remains a front runner at this point, despite the DNA test fiasco, simply because of her fairly high name recognition and popularity on the left. But her poll numbers have gone down and she may have lost critical support from leftist donors and power players over the incident. Warren’s American Indian claim may prove a fatal blow to any chance of winning the nomination.

Cory Booker

The fiery senator from New Jersey is popular among the hard-left base of the party. He made a name for himself as mayor of Newark, becoming something of a celebrity for his media savviness. But his record as mayor of Newark is a troubling one. Newark was one of the most violent and drug-ridden cities in America during his seven years in office, with terrible public schools and high unemployment. Booker did little to fix any of it and some argue he made things worse.

Nevertheless, Booker has continued to be a media darling in the Senate, positioning himself as a vocal critic of President Trump. But he embarrassed himself earlier this year in the “Spartacus” incident, where he tried to claim he was engaging in civil disobedience by releasing documents that had already been cleared for release. And during the course of the Kavanaugh hearings, an old article of Booker’s surfaced in which he admitted to groping a woman at a party while in college.

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Early prognosis: Booker is a firebrand who would certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the primaries. But if he wants to be taken seriously he will have to answer for his record in Newark and the groping incident, and it’s not clear he will be able to. His mainstream appeal is also questionable as a 50-year-old bachelor with a hard-left record. But expect him to be a formidable player in the primaries, and he is young as far as presidential candidates go, so 2020 may be the first of multiple runs.

Kamala Harris

As a daughter of immigrants with a long record in public office who represents the largest state in the Senate, Harris’ appeal is immediately clear. She was a district attorney in San Francisco before being elected to two terms as California Attorney General and handily winning a Senate seat in 2016, succeeding Barbara Boxer. She has made early moves to position herself to run in 2020, visiting battleground states and spending heavily on online advertising. She said this month that she would decide about running “over the holiday.”

Early prognosis: Harris may be positioned to pick up some of the support Warren lost with her DNA test stunt. She has only been in the Senate for less than two years, though her resume as district attorney and attorney general is longer than Barack Obama’s was in 2008, so experience will be less of an issue than it was for Obama. She is a hard left-winger, and there is fierce competition in that space, along with questions about mainstream appeal. But with statewide name recognition in California and familiarity with wealthy donors there, she would certainly be a serious contender.

Hillary Clinton

I hesitated about including her here, because she is likely done with running for office. She said as much in early 2017, but those “I’m not running” comments are rarely final with politicians. She just isn’t willing to retire from public life. She has spent the last two years since losing the election milking the public speaking circuit. In October, she said she did not want to run again but would still “like to be president,” and implied she would think about it after the midterms.

Early prognosis: It’s tough to see Clinton making another run for it, but then again, it’s tough to see her sitting on the sidelines when a rematch with Trump is up for grabs. While she is a few years younger than Biden and Sanders, she would be 73 on inauguration day 2021, which would also make her the oldest person to assume the office. And her husband has fallen out of favor with some on the left as they reconsider his history of serious sexual misconduct. Does she really want to run for a third time? Who knows with Hillary Clinton, but if she decided to jump in, she would instantly be at the top of the polls with Biden and Sanders.

Part II

Next time, we’ll examine the middle tier candidates: Beto O’Rourke, Michael Bloomberg, Kirsten Gillibrand, and more.

Photos via Flickr (Disney | ABC Television / Gage Skidmore)

Thomas Valentine

Thomas Valentine is a columnist for

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