Closeup of election vote buttons with text that says 2020

While all the focus here in Britain has been on Brexit and the upcoming European elections, the race to take on 2016’s other electoral shock, president Trump, is shaping up. Despite the election still being 18 months away, a record breaking 22 Democrats have announced their candidacy and are set to fight it out in a hotly contested primary campaign. With most major candidates being announced, now is a perfect time to assess who is best placed to take on the president.

Many Democrats had hoped that the Mueller report would confirm the allegations of collusion with Russia that have surrounded the Trump presidency from the start. However, with the report in effect clearing Trump, the president feels bolstered and has the political capital to pursue his agenda in a much more aggressive style. This means that the only way the Democrats can remove the president any time soon is via the 2020 election.

This is a crucial moment. The campaign is beginning to shape into a fight for the very soul of the Democratic Party as the successful candidate will have free reign to shape the party’s election and policy platform. While the Democrats have championed the diversity of their candidates, with representatives from the LGBT, Hispanic and African American communities all running, it is far from certain a candidate with the ability to beat the president will emerge as the nominee. The choice for the party is clear: Do you want a candidate who seeks to take on Trump at his own divisive and often childish game? Or do you want a candidate with a positive vision to unite the country in the way Barack Obama did so successfully in 2008?

Unfortunately for the Democrats, it seems they are falling into the trap of trying to out-trump Trump, a strategy that looks doomed to failure.

Biden and Sanders: two sides of the same coin

Despite the diverse nature of the selection of candidates running for the Democrats, it is former Vice president Joe Biden and 2016 contender Senator Bernie Sanders who are leading the way in the polls. Real Clear Politics puts Biden out in front with 41% of the vote, whilst Sanders sits at a mere 15%. The big lead for Biden should be taken with a pinch of salt however, as he announced his candidacy very recently and is experiencing the polling bump (albeit a larger one than most) that traditionally occurs.

The two leading candidates also represent the two warring factions within the Democratic Party. Sanders seeks to claim the mantle of the left-wing firebrand to take on Trump with his own version of populism, by endorsing such policies as a $15 minimum wage and universal healthcare.  Contrast this to Biden who plays up his moderate streak in order to try to appear the most electable, much to the ire of those on the left.

Now while these two candidates clearly have many policy differences, are they really that different in style? Both men are well into their 70s, and the prospect of two white men fighting it out for the nomination is unlikely to go down well amongst the increasingly diverse party base. Also, with both setting up their stalls as the left wing and moderate candidates who can bring the best fight to Trump, it’s worth considering if this is really the best move for the Democrats.

While the polling figures of Biden and Sanders suggests there is clearly an appetite for this gladiatorial type of politics, it is hard to imagine anyone turned off by the rhetoric of Trump eagerly seeking to support a toned-down version from the left. Instead, it will take an inspiring candidate to emerge from the rest of the field to make Democrats’ dream of removing Trump from the Oval office in 2020 a reality.

The chasing pack: Assessing the options

While Biden and Sanders are already well known to the American public, other candidates are still trying to bolster their name recognition. In order to try to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field, candidates such as Elizabeth Warren have gone all in on detailed policy proposals.

Warren, who seeks to replace Sanders as the leading candidate on the left, has announced a string of policy proposals such as the introduction of free public university tuition and universal childcare. While these are incredibly popular policies among rank and file Democrats, there is a major weakness to a Warren candidacy. As a former Harvard law professor and sitting Senator for Massachusetts who is also nearing 70, Warren embodies the ‘elitism’ that voters sought to reject when electing president Trump. Despite her policies proposals being hugely popular across the country, nominating Warren would be a risky move as personality is often more important than policy when it comes to American politics.

Other candidates of note in the chasing pack include Beto O’Rourke, the 2018 Texas Senate candidate who did extremely well for a Democrat in this traditionally Republican state, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. O’Rourke was tipped as a rising star within the party following the midterms but has struggled to stand out in the campaign so far. Likewise, Buttigieg, an intellectual who can speak seven languages and who shares Trump’s outsider status as the Mayor of a small city in Indiana, has risen to third in the polls, but has not been able to advance any further. Both candidates are young and energetic with an enthusiastic social media following. It must be asked however, why would Democrats wish to choose a candidate with no proven track record? In fact, some have accused O’Rourke of trying to “fail upwards” by seeking to capitalise after his 2018 defeat. Indeed, for many Democrats, the candidacies of O’Rouke and Buttigieg represent nothing more than ‘white male privilege’ in action.

A candidate who could very well have all the attributes the Democrats need to beat Trump, however, is California Senator Kamala Harris. As a black, female candidate, and – at 54 – younger than the two frontrunners, Harris represents the increasingly diverse Democratic Party, and is running a campaign based around uniting the country. With her background as a prosecutor, she would relish the chance to take on Trump in a debate. Harris is positioned to challenge Trump directly on issues of racism and misogyny in a much more authentic way than Biden or Sanders. Trump will no doubt describe Harris as just another west coast liberal, but she has qualities no other candidate possesses and could prove to be the president’s most formidable opponent.

The view from team Trump

Whilst Trump has largely stayed out of the primary, he has certainly loomed large over the race. The president has been unable to resist the temptation to start labelling his opponents with sharp nicknames, such as “crazy Bernie” and “sleepy Joe”. Everyone knows that Trump is not afraid to get personal during the campaign, but the Democrats should avoid rising to the bait and allowing Trump to distract them from their preferred campaign messages.

While privately the president is said to fear a Biden candidacy the most, due to his perceived strength amongst white working-class voters, it is Harris who could prove more challenging in the longer term. Whether she will rise in the polls enough to overtake Biden and Sanders is another question, but if the Democrats want to get serious about beating Trump in 2020, they should nominate Senator Harris.

The campaign will only move out of first gear however when the debate cycle starts in June. A maximum of 20 candidates will battle it out over two nights on stage in Miami, providing an opportunity for a breakout moment for those candidates who have so far struggled to gain attention. These debates will continue on a monthly basis (except for August) and will last well into the primary elections themselves, which begin with the Iowa caucus in February. They will put the candidates’ differing styles front and centre, allowing the sharpest contrast between those set on attacking Trump and those setting out a positive vision for the future.

If you want to get in touch with our public affairs experts then email Daniel Cambers, deputy managing director of our public affairs practice, here.