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The US Democrats search for a saviour

With as many as 20 presidential hopefuls, the party is not short of candidates to fight Donald Trump. But is anyone truly fit for the task?

By Sophie McBain

By the end of January, nine Democrats had announced they intended to run for the US presidency in 2020 – and one, Richard Ojeda, an outspoken, tattooed army veteran and former West Virginia state senator, had already dropped out. The Democratic primary race is likely to be crowded, with around a dozen candidates still expected to enter the contest.

Among the most high-profile candidates to have announced their bids are four senators: Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. A number of other promising contenders have not yet officially entered the race but are likely to do so, including former vice-president Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic Texan who almost unseated the Republican senator Ted Cruz in the 2018 midterms.

Harris, a 54-year-old former attorney general of California and the second black woman ever elected to the US Senate, is emerging as one of the strongest candidates. She currently leads the candidate rankings published by CNN, the Washington Post and Rolling Stone and was described by the psephologists at poll analysis site FiveThirtyEight as the contender with the broadest appeal among Democratic voters.

Harris is running on a progressive platform and has expressed support for universal health care, a key demand of the Democratic left and a popular policy among voters. However, she has been criticised by the left for her somewhat conservative prosecutorial record.

It may, in any case, be too early to talk of favourites. A January poll by the Washington Post and ABC News found that 56 per cent of Democrat or Democratic-leaning voters could not say who they wanted to win the party’s nomination. Among those who did express a preference, 9 per cent said they would vote for Biden in the Democratic primary, 8 per cent said Harris and 4 per cent said Sanders. (Bizarrely, 4 per cent said they would vote for Donald Trump.)

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The Democratic nomination process will also be a debate over the future of the party: does the ageing Democratic establishment need to cede ground to younger candidates? (Three of the presumed front-runners – Sanders, Biden and Warren – will be over 70 in 2020.) Are the Democrats the party of the centre left, or is the radical wing spearheaded by Sanders now ascendant? The 2020 field is expected to be so crowded that “there are literally fights within fights that may occur before we get to Iowa [the first primary race],” Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist, told me.

The large field is particularly unusual since Democrats will be standing against an incumbent president and incumbents traditionally hold the advantage. Democrats evidently view Trump as vulnerable, and with reason. The president faces mounting legal pressure and his approval ratings languish in the forties or lower. “Democrats should be able to take him out in 2020, particularly if the economy goes south,” Ed Kilgore, another experienced Democratic strategist told me. “But, clearly, they need to understand that they lost in 2016, probably more than Trump won. That’s a warning – and it is a little scary to have a field that large.”

For now, the distinguishing feature of the 2020 race is its unpredictability. Trump’s 2016 victory has contributed to the disconcerting impression that anything is possible, any candidate could win. The Democratic establishment’s grip on the primary process has also loosened in recent years, as internet fundraising has enabled candidates with strong grass-roots support to compete without the backing of the party elites and large liberal donors. Big donors tend to abandon candidates that perform badly in Iowa or New Hampshire, but candidates funded by small donations may have more staying power. Indeed, Kilgore raised the possibility of the Democrats’ first contested nomination – with no candidate automatically crowned at the party’s summer convention –  since 1952.

In view of all this, it’s hard to find professionals willing to make firm predictions for 2020. Trippi worked on Jerry Brown’s successful 2010 campaign to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor and observed that California often precedes the rest of the country politically. After Schwarzenegger’s scandal-ridden celebrity governorship, Californian voters chose Brown, the most politically experienced candidate. Does this mean voters could turn to someone like Biden?

Kilgore thinks Democrats need to find the most “unbreakable” candidate: “Someone who has a basic level of competence and popularity, good basic skills, no skeletons in their closet, no major weaknesses the Republicans could exploit and a toughness about them to withstand the rigours of what is going to be a very intense campaign.”

Naomi Burton, the 29-year-old co-founder of Means Of Production, which created the viral campaign videos for the congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley – two progressive, grass-roots candidates whose midterm victories disrupted the political establishment – told me the winning candidate will need “emotional, high energy” and a “political imagination”. She supports Sanders, viewing him as the party’s true progressive, and the senator remains notably popular among young Democratic voters.

During the 2016 presidential elections many Democrats were dangerously complacent. Not so now. Even before most 2020 candidates have declared, there is a sense of unease. It’s not just that the primary outcome still feels so hard to predict, but also that the stakes are so high. Democratic voters need to find the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump, and the man or woman most qualified to heal the country, to restore public faith in American institutions and to reaffirm national values. It seems lots of Democrats want the job, but who’s truly up to it? 

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This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe