Dems embrace diversity of choices for president in 2020
But the growing field underscores a generation gap
WASHINGTON — There are fresh faces and old hands. Billionaires and at least one person still paying off student loans. A skateboarder, a brewery founder and a coffee magnate are all taking a look.
Dozens of Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020.
The result could be a divisive, messy set of primaries, but many Democrats are exhilarated by the prospect of a wide range of choices, mirroring the congressional races in 2018.
“If there’s one thing we learned over the last two years, it’s that primaries are a good thing,” said Amanda Litman, founder of Run for Something, a group established after President Trump’s election in 2016 to recruit and train young progressives to run for office. “They make our party stronger.”
In sorting through their choices between young and old, liberal and more centrist, white men and women and people of color, Democrats will be deciding not only who they want as a nominee, but what kind of party they want to be now that the Clintons’ quartercentury political dynasty is essentially over.
The earliest candidates to announce underscored the unparalleled diversity of the emerging field.
A woman, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, was the first major national figure to set up an exploratory committee. A Latino, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, announced his candidacy Saturday. A black woman, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, is on a book tour that will likely be followed by an announcement later this month.
But three white men’s decisions about whether to run could have outsized effect on the 2020 field: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas all have the rest of the field watching for their decisions.
If Biden runs, he becomes an instant frontrunner on the strength of his experience and vast political network. His entry would also guarantee that a central question of the primary will be a generational one, as younger rivals will argue that it is time for the older guard to pass the baton.
That generational split will widen further if the 46-year-old O’Rourke jumps in. He became a national sensation in his failed 2018 Texas Senate campaign.
O’Rourke is not the youngest hopeful: California Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., one of the youngest at 38, still owes about $100,000 on his student loans.
If Sanders decides to run, his will be a big presence in the lane of leftleaning candidates, one that would likely crowd ideological allies such as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who announced her candidacy Friday, and Oregon Sen Jeff Merkley if he runs.
With about three dozen Democrats either in the race or saying they are considering it, 2020’s Democratic primary field could rival the GOP’s sprawling 17-candidate field in 2016. It could break the Democratic record set in 1976, when 13 candidates ran serious bids for the nomination, according to Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, who sees some parallels to today’s situation.
Democrats that year were riding high after their 1974 post-Watergate landslide, and the power of party bosses had been weakened.
“With no one influential enough to say ‘no,’ anyone with presidential ambitions said ‘yes,’” Sabato said. Now, the role in the nominating process for party leaders and so-called superdelegates has been diluted, and ambitious Democrats have been emboldened by their success in the 2018 midterm elections.
Biden, 76, and Sanders, 77, ride atop many polls — thanks largely to name recognition — and already have strong national political organizations in place. One obstacle they face, however, will be the clamor from some Democrats for a changing of the generational guard after a midterm election that reinforced the importance of young people to the Democratic Party coalition. According to exit polls, 67 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Democrats in House races in 2018.
“We are in the process of turning our party over to the next generation,” said Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chair who ran for president in 2004. “I want a candidate under 50 or 55.”
Dean did not name names, but about half the people who are or are considering running — including Warren, 69 — are over 55.
Still, older candidates can appeal to younger voters, as Sanders showed during the 2016 campaign. In an August 2017 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Sanders’ ratings among voters ages 18 to 34 was 53 percent positive and 22 percent negative. Biden’s ratings in a January 2018 poll were 46 percent positive and 21 percent negative.
Biden’s supporters say his age is less important than his experience as a lifelong public servant and see him as the best equipped to go toe-to-toe with Trump.
“I think I’m the most qualified person in the country to be president,” Biden said in December.
But he is also going to have to show he is in step with a changing America.
“Any candidate who is going to win a Democratic primary needs to engage young people and women, AfricanAmerican women in particular,” said Amanda Litman. “It’s hard for me to imagine many of the older white men being able to engage those groups.”