The 2020 Democratic Primary Race: Who’s Up, Who’s Down — May Edition


MAY 20, 2019

And then there were 23.

When last we left the Democratic Presidential primary challengers in April’s chart, there were 18 announced candidates (plus Joe Biden, whom we correctly assumed at the time would soon jump into the race with both feet).  Since then, four more white guys have joined the fray — Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) and NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio — most of whom will complete in the political center lane to challenge Joe Biden, while DeBlasio will likely head over to the crowded political left lane.

It’s one month until the key first debates, scheduled for June 26 & 27 in Miami Beach.  To avoid the trainwreck that the multi-candidate debates delivered to the Republicans in 2016, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has established a set of qualifying ground rules that the candidates must meet to get on the debate stage.  Here’s a handy guide to them:

You must have 65,000 individual donors from across 20 states.


You must receive at least 1% support in three polls the DNC deems as qualified.

The DNC has limited the number of candidates that will make the stage to 20 (10 candidates per night).  If a candidate meets both qualifications, it’s a pretty sure thing they’ll be on the stage.  Eleven candidates have already met both criteria (Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Booker, Castro, Yang, Gabbard), so you’ll see them all on the stage.  Seven candidates have met one qualification (Delaney, Gillibrand, Hickenlooper, Inslee, Ryan, Swalwell, Williamson) so far, which means they’ll likely make the stage unless some of the new guys in the race rank higher in polling and/or donations before the debate.  The remaining five (Bennet, DeBlasio, Bullock, Messam, Moulton) need to get their act together fast.

Two big events since our last chart have had some impact on the standings in the race.  The Senate grilling of Atty. Gen. William Barr gave three candidates (Booker, Harris, Klobuchar) a chance to shine and offered all other candidates some talking points about Barr’s duplicity.  Similarly, the Draconian abortion law in Alabama, along with serious threats to a woman’s control of her body in other states, may, if handled right, become a gold mine for the Democrats, particularly the female candidates.

Just a reminder: the following chart is extremely subjective, based on far too many hours watching cable news and reading newspaper punditry, and I am not nearly ready to decide which candidate I am supporting.  That being said, here’s how I believe the candidates rank as of May 20:


1.  JOE BIDEN — The conventional wisdom (which I believed) was that Biden’s best day would be his first, then he would fall back in the polls like all of his competitors have.  But now that he’s in, Biden’s polls have zoomed upward — in this week’s FOX News (!) poll, for example, Biden’s support (35%) is more than twice than that for second-place Sanders (17%).  Biden’s big challenge over the next month is offering more details on his positions and to prepare a better defense for his work on the notorious Crime Bill, his vote authorizing the Iraq War and his lack of apology for his personal treatment of Anita Hill.  Still, I suspect that every other candidate would welcome the chance to be in the position in which Biden finds himself. (Last month: #1)

2.  BERNIE SANDERS — Sanders is clearly the candidate most hurt by the addition of Biden to the mix.  After leading in several polls prior to Biden’s addition, the Vermont Senator had the chance to make the case to add more moderate voters to his core of followers.  With Biden in, however, that chance has largely disappeared.  Sanders smartly is the one candidate who is taking on Biden’s record directly, and while his base is incredibly loyal, if he’s ever going to grow his voter support, he’s got to begin to shake things up now.  (Last month #2)

3.  ELIZABETH WARREN — With the Native American/DNA issue largely put behind her for now, Warren has made the most progress this month by offering specific plans for any number of issues and her full-throated endorsement for impeachment proceedings to begin.  Her TIME Magazine cover story helped to cement her comeback and featured her catch-phrase “I have a plan for that.”  And while campaigning on the stump, it’s clear that she does have a plan for almost anything.  With Sanders fading a bit, this month is an opportunity for her to get her positions in order for the debate.  (Last month #5)

4.  KAMALA HARRIS — Of the three candidates who questioned William Barr at the Senate hearing, Harris’ interrogation was the one that went viral with her persistence at asking whether Trump or anyone at the White House suggested that he open an investigation of anyone.  Barr hemmed and hawed, finally deciding on the defense that he didn’t quite understand the meaning of the word “suggest.”  Harris made mincemeat of him.  That exchange displayed the fighting spirit for which Democratic primary voters may be looking.  The former prosecutor is likely to be formidable at the debates, so upward movement is possible. (Last month #4)

5.  PETE BUTTIGIEG — Settle down, Mayor Pete fans.  His campaign is not tanking — it’s just returning to where it should be given his artificial boost as the “Flavor of the Month” in April.  His love-fest tour continues — his TIME Magazine “First Family” cover story with his husband Chasten no doubt brought him welcome attention, and his Sunday town hall on FOX News allowed him to introduce himself to a block of voters that most of his rivals are bypassing.  In his TV interviews, he continues to display deep knowledge of the facts, a skill that should serve him well on the debate stage, but we have yet to see very many detailed position papers, and other candidates who have offered theirs are beginning to take notice.  (Last month #3)



6.  BETO O’ROURKE — What the hell is he doing?  I’ve dropped him out of the top tier because he seems to be frittering away this valuable month in which he could have corrected the increasingly meandering nature of his campaign.  He came to California and spent one day just walking around Yosemite with a few people.  And this week, he posted live footage of his haircut when he should have been working on his policy positions which are still vague.  Yes he can rouse up a crowd standing on a coffee shop table and offer unity talk, but “Beto-Mania” can only take you so far, and that’s why I’ve dropped him out of the first tier.  (Last month: #6)

7.  AMY KLOBUCHAR — At the Barr hearings, Klobuchar, a former prosecutor like Harris, delivered a strong performance, arguably her best moment since her campaign announcement in the snow.  She seems to have weathered the controversy about abusing her staff, and the fact that her personal family experience with substance abuse has led her to be an advocate in the opioid crisis is a powerful narrative that appears to have reached voters.  She will need to channel that inner prosecutor at the debates, but a powerful performance could get her out of the second tier.  (Last month: #8)

8.  CORY BOOKER — You can’t fault Booker for not trying.  He’s all over cable news, as personable as always and offering detailed sound bites on his positions on a wide range of subjects, as befitting his Rhodes Scholar background.  But he seems to be losing traction every month, his support dwindling almost to the level of the lowest tier candidates.  He delivered a solid performance questioning Atty. Gen. Barr, but Klobuchar was better and Harris best of all, so he gained little ground there.  His last best hope are the debates, so he had better be ready.  (Last month: #7)

9.  JULIÁN CASTRO — The former HUD Secretary hasn’t been shy about television appearances, yet his campaign has gotten little traction, even on the subject of immigration, which as a Texas politico he knows more about than many.  He made a big deal pleading for donations to get him on the debate stage, but that was a one-day story, and at this point, Castro needs a lasting moment.  His best hope is that first debate because his window is closing.  (Last month #10)

10. ANDREW YANG — Rivals may rise and fall, yet entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s small but fervent following has kept his poll numbers above 1% and the donations rolling in.  While I suspect that his name recognition is still under 50% by primary voters, Yang was one of the first candidates to clear both thresholds to make it to the debate stage where his proposal to tax companies like Amazon to provide additional revenue that could be distributed to Americans to provide a Universal Basic Income (UBI) will undoubtedly be one of the topics on the table. (Last month: #11)

11. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND — Incredibly, Sen. Gillibrand (D-NY) has only one qualifier (polling) to get her to the debate stage, but I suspect, given her aggressive pushback to the recent wave of abortion restrictions in red states, that she’ll get enough contributors to qualify.  Still, at the start of this campaign, Gillibrand would easily have been considered in the top 8, but all of those rivals are now pulling away from her.  If she is not able to make the debate stage, I suspect that Sen. Gillibrand is done.  (Last month #9)

12. TULSI GABBARD — Rep. Gabbard (D-HI) is here only because she has made it to the debate stage with both qualifiers, a significant achievement.  But the source of her support has come into question, with a recent article in The Daily Beast citing significant contributions she is receiving from prominent Russian sympathizers.  She has dismissed the report as “fake news” (the favorite phrase of you-know-who) and her glaring position that Syrian President Bashar Assad is not an adversary of the United States (a position only shared by Vladimir Putin) only adds to the suspicion that she may be allied with Russia.  It’s a fascinating subplot in the entire debate story.  (Last month #14)



13. JAY INSLEE — Inslee, the governor of Washington, has made climate change his signature issue, one that has proven to be a top concern among Democratic primary voters.  He’s become a staple on cable news shows, giving him greater visibility, so I suspect we’ll see him on the stage in Miami Beach.  (Last month #12)

14. ERIC SWALWELL — Another cable news regular, the California congressman is a virulent Trump critic, which will always play well with the base.  And as a member of Jerry Nadler’s House Judiciary Committee, Swalwell may get more TV time in the upcoming investigations being conducted by the committee on Trump’s obstruction.  Will likely make the debate stage.  (Last month #13)

15. TIM RYAN — Another Congressman who tried to oust Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, Rep. Ryan (D-OH), given his Rust Belt base, is making manufacturing his primary focus, and it makes sense, given that Trump’s narrow victory in these states is what put him over the top.  Will likely make the debate stage.  (Last month #16)

16. JOHN DELANEY — Former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) has met the polling qualification but has come up short on donors so he has devised a unique appeal to potential donors — he has promised to give $2 of his own money to charity for each of the next 100,000 individual donors to give to his campaign.  The jury is out as to whether it’s working well enough.  A question mark as to whether he can make the stage.  (Last month #15)

17. JOHN HICKENLOOPER — Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, an ex-businessman who made his fortune in micropubs, is running on a platform to make the economy better.  A noble goal, but one of the few calling cards that Trump possesses is not screwing up the economy, so I’m not sure how this will resonate with voters.  A question mark as to whether he can make the stage.  (Last month #17)

18. MARIANNE WILLIAMSON — Williamson has been a spiritual guide to many over her long career as an inspirational speaker, which may account for her 1% support in many polls.  Donations are a different story, and if she doesn’t qualify there, she’s another question mark as to whether she can make the stage.  (Last month #18)



19. SETH MOULTON —   On paper, this Massachusetts Congressman has everything.  A Harvard grad, four tours in Iraq, winner of the Bronze Star.   Almost perfect.  But he’s another member of the anti-Pelosi wars, and that may not sit too well with primary voters, whose ire is against Trump, not the Speaker.  He’s making the obligatory cable rounds (Rachel Maddow, etc.), but I do wonder why it took so long for him to jump in.  Though up against the clock to qualify, I think he has a good chance of making the stage.  (NEW)

20. MICHAEL BENNET —  The popular Senator from Colorado was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent surgery last month.  The procedure was successful and he is cancer-free for now.  That’s great news for him, so why is he immediately undertaking a Presidential campaign?  Is he fishing to be VP with Biden, whose centrist lane he clearly occupies?  If so, forget it.  Biden’s demographic needs for a VP lie elsewhere.  But Bennet is popular enough that, even given the short time frame left to qualify, he could make it to the stage.  (NEW)

21. STEVE BULLOCK —  Steve Bullock’s main calling card is that, in a year when Donald Trump won Montana, this policy-wonk Democrat was easily reelected, the only candidate in the field to make that claim.  He is known for a folksy touch with farmers in particular, which could bode well for him in the first caucus state of Iowa.  But he just got in the race last week, and he has two steep hills to climb in order to qualify for the debate.  Incredibly daunting, but not impossible.  (NEW)

22. BILL DeBLASIO — When you get around to fixing the deteriorating New York City subway system, Mr. Mayor, then we can talk.  (NEW)

23. WAYNE MESSAM — The mayor of Miramar, FL has been in the race since March 28.  Who would have known?  Please exit through the gift shop.  (Last month #19)

Our next chart will evaluate the remaining candidates just before the June debates.  Will any of these 23 finally see the light and drop out?  As Maddow says, watch this space.