Looking ahead to the 2020 elections

The Iowa caucus, which marks the formal beginning of the 2020 election season, is less than three months away. Political science fellow Mark P. Jones discusses the prospects for the Democratic presidential candidates, and the road from the primaries to the presidential nomination.


1. Who are the leading Democratic presidential candidates today? And which other candidates have a glimmer of a chance of capturing the Democratic nomination?

The three front-runners have been the same for the past three months: former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders.  Biden remains the leader in the Democratic Party’s shrinking center lane while Warren and Biden dominate its expanding left lane.

South Bend (population 102,000, less than the capacity of Kyle Field) Mayor Pete Buttigieg sits alone in a second tier, with his only route to victory a Biden implosion combined with Buttigieg’s ability to box out any rivals for the center lane mantle.  If Biden implodes, Buttigieg’s principal rivals for this mantle would be Senator Amy Klobuchar (from the third tier) and billionaire Michael Bloomberg if he decides to run.

If Bloomberg enters the race, the late launch would be unprecedented in the modern primary era.  But, if anyone could pull it off, it would be Bloomberg who enjoys a high level of name recognition from his Bloomberg empire and successful three terms as mayor of New York City (population 8.4 million), not to mention a $53 billion personal fortune that would allow him to avoid the time consuming task of courting donors and to staff up quickly.  Furthermore, while he would likely not campaign heavily in the four early primary and caucus states, his ability to saturate television, radio and digital markets to a far greater extent than his rivals would provide him with a significant advantage on Super Tuesday when campaign advertising will be of paramount importance.

None of the remaining candidates have a viable path toward victory. This includes former San Antonio mayor and Obama HUD secretary Julián Castro, the lone Texan after Beto O’Rourke’s withdrawal.

2.  What are the principal pros and cons of the three front-runners and Bloomberg?

Biden and Bloomberg provide the Democratic Party with its best odds of preventing President Trump from being re-elected. Biden, however, has proven to be a less than stellar candidate, and, like Bloomberg, is considered too centrist and unlikely to effect profound policy change by the Democratic Party’s ascendant progressive base.

Warren and Sanders’ far-left positions on issues such as health care, the environment, government regulation and taxes are popular with the party base.  They have however raised concerns among establishment Democrats that a Warren or Sanders candidacy could provide a life line to Trump’s flailing campaign and cause the country to suffer through a second term of a president who virtually every Democrat wants to see leave office in January 2021 at the latest.

3.  When does the Democratic presidential nomination process start and how does it work?

The primary process begins in the four early primary and caucus states: Iowa caucus (February 3), New Hampshire primary (February 11), Nevada caucus (February 22), and South Carolina primary (February 28).

These four elections set the stage for Super Tuesday. On March 3, 16 states and territories will hold their respective primary or caucus, including those with the largest and third largest delegate prizes, California and Texas.  All together, 30% of all elected delegates will be chosen on March 3.  Elected delegates are the only ones eligible to vote on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, with unelected super-delegates only allowed to vote if no candidate captures an absolute majority on the first ballot.  This year’s primary calendar is very front-loaded, with 68% of elected delegates chosen by the end of March, 88% by the end of April and 95% by May 19.

The delegates are allocated to candidates proportionally based on their share of the statewide and district vote.  Candidates are only eligible to receive delegates if they capture 15% of more of the vote (statewide for those seats and in the individual districts for those seats).  This high threshold suggests that by March 4 (by which time 40% of all elected delegates will have been chosen) the field of viable Democratic candidates will have been winnowed down to between two and four.  The need to compete simultaneously in 16 different states/territories on March 3 means the campaigns with the deepest pockets will possess a substantial advantage due to their ability to saturate television, radio and digital markets with campaign advertisements and/or to deploy vast field operations to mobilize their supporters to turn out.

Check back here after Super Tuesday for Jones’ assessment of how the remaining Democratic candidates might fare against President Trump.