Chasing 2020 Part 3 Of 4: Comparing The Candidates For The Democratic Nomination

Marc Nozell  | Flickr Creative Commons

Marc Nozell | Flickr Creative Commons

General Introduction

The Democratic Party of the United States has undergone profound change since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 which has nudged the party farther to the left and engendered crises of identity and confidence among its adherents. Indeed, since the end of Barack Obama’s second term and the disgraceful exit from mainstream politics of his intended successor, Hilary Clinton, the Democratic Party has been scrambling to reinvigorate itself. The party’s alignment with socialist doctrine has so far led the re-identification effort while wholesale admonition of the policies of the Trump administration, encapsulating the feeling of the majority of the Democratic electorate, has become a virtual litmus test for potential candidates. 

The lack of clear leadership and the supposed imperative of defeating Trump has led nearly two dozen Democrats to throw themselves into the 2020 contest, each advertising that their candidacy will prove to be the definitive challenge to what is understood as Trump’s wanton demagoguery. While many are seasoned politicians with established political portfolios, many others are either relative newcomers or have never been elected to office. Furthermore, while the progressive playbook features prominently in most of their platforms, the central issues advanced in each of their campaigns differ significantly and imply that each potential president would pursue different central goals if elected.

This article will serve as the third in a four-part series aimed at examining the many candidates’ backgrounds, platforms and chances of winning the Democratic nomination for the 2020 Presidential Election. Each article will use a formulated methodology to group candidates into four tiers based on their likelihood of winning the Democratic Party nomination in 2020, with Tier One candidates demonstrating the highest probability. By dividing the candidates in this fashion, these articles will present readers with a more informed view of their favorite candidate’s campaign and, taken together, will illustrate the sometimes hidden divisions between Democratic politicians. In doing so, the articles will also help paint a more complete picture of the state of the Democratic Party and anticipate the direction the eventual winner will take it.

Tier Two Candidates: The Significant Contenders

The tier two candidates differ from those in tier three by each demonstrating strong acquisition of multiple essential characteristics along with many ancillary characteristics in addition to their personal traits. Highlighting the importance of previous political experience, these candidates all have political backgrounds in either local, state or federal offices making them traditional contenders for higher office. While most of these candidates were largely unknown before 2018, many have come to become ubiquitous among Democrats following the 2020 Primaries and have demonstrated impressive levels of outreach and campaign fundraising. As such, these candidates are recognized as being significant contenders for the Democratic Nomination and should be closely watched in the coming weeks.

Peter Buttigieg

At thirty-seven Peter Buttigieg is the youngest candidate in the 2020 Presidential contest and comes with a unique background. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city with just over one hundred thousand residents, Buttigieg is as of yet the only openly gay candidate in this race, having publicly come out shortly after current Vice President Mike Pence (formerly governor of Buttigieg’s home state) signed a bill that sanctioned religious burden as a legal defense in discrimination cases (largely seen as inimical to members of the LGBTQ community). A highly educated (Harvard University) millennial and recipient of the coveted Rhodes Scholarship, Buttigieg is a military veteran having served a seven-month tour in Afghanistan and previously made waves after campaigning for the position for Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2017.

While absent from his official campaign website, based on his many interviews and campaign rallies it appears that Buttigieg’s platform is generically progressive with tinges of moderate liberalism. Specifically, he echoes progressives in his desire to reintegrate the United States within the Paris Agreement, in his opposition to free trade (epitomized by NAFTA), and in his obvious pro-LGBTQ stance. However, certain moderate compromises, such as his plan to implement an all-payer rate setting program and retain private insurance in lieu of implementing wholesale universal healthcare, as well as his views on the enfranchisement of felons, demonstrate a considerable divide between his policies and those of mainstream progressives. Furthermore, with a concrete platform not yet set out and without a central guiding policy proposal, his program seems weak compared to those of other major candidates (2).

Despite his platform’s relative failings, Buttigieg seems to have acquired a solid grasp of the essential requirements articulated in the methodology. While until recently largely unknown outside his home town, he has become recognizable on the national scene since his unsuccessful bid for DNC chair, with his name gaining greater traction after launching his exploratory in Jan. 2019, as reflected in various polls (3). Furthermore, he has been prominently featured in the media with appearances on many large outlets such as CNN and MSNBC (6) which has contributed to his growing name recognition and donor base. In terms of resources, the municipal politician has raised an impressive $7 million in campaign fundraising since announcing his intention to run, easily meeting the sixty-five thousand individual donor threshold to qualify for the DNC debates in June. By doing so, Buttigieg has been able to keep pace with his more established rivals and has managed to attract even more attention from prominent Democrats, including many key contributors to Obama’ campaign (9).

While demonstrating a surprising acquisition of essential requirements, Buttigieg’s score among the ancillary characteristics fluctuates greatly. For one, despite his claim of having more political experience than both the incumbent President and Vice President, his experience is purely local, with his tenure as mayor of a relatively small Mid-Western city and lack of any federal or statewide political experience unlikely to hold up against his more established competitors (2). Furthermore, his record in office will be a tough sell to many among the Democratic electorate who yearn for someone with the political gumption to push through liberal reform. Indeed, his record is typical of municipal politics (i.e., inner-city beautification measures, sanitation reform, etc.) and has been mired by a scandal involving the demotion of the city’s first black police chief and an alleged dismissal of the “Black Lives Matter” movement (2). However, Buttigieg does have extensive experience campaigning, having worked on both gubernatorial and presidential campaigns and having run a prominent national campaign for Chair of the DNC in 2017 (6).

Buttigieg’s acquisition of the support network characteristics varies in success. While he has shown himself to be capable of drawing large crowds to his campaign rallies, his national network does not seem to be very developed and it is unlikely that his local organization in Indiana (one of the last states to hold their primaries) will be enough for him to overtake his opponents’ grassroots coalitions (2). Furthermore, while Buttigieg has received some celebrity endorsements from figures such as Ryan Reynolds and Amy Poehler (who is best known as the fictitious wife of Buttigieg’s TV alter-ego from Parks and Recreation) he has not yet secured endorsements from many LGBTQ organizations, such as the prominent Victory Fund, which is surprising at this stage given his status as the only openly gay candidate (2). Despite these support network shortcomings, however, Buttigieg does have endorsements from a slew of mayors, five Obama-era ambassadors and, most importantly, from the former DNC chairman Matt Grossman, which may signal tacit support from within the Party itself (6).

Finally, in terms of Buttigieg’s personal traits, he seems to have moderate community involvement by being active in his local parish and having championed community projects during his term as mayor (2) and benefits from an active career in politics as well substantial academic achievement (3). Most important to his personal image however is the fact that Buttigieg is a young gay veteran, which projects a very positive image to democratic voters who are keen on seeing candidates that differ from the typical presidential contender (3). In sum, Buttigieg scores 48 points which makes him significant and competitive candidate solidly in tier two. However, despite his essential characteristic scores, his relative lack of experience, mundane public record and undeveloped support network makes him unlikely to win the nomination against the seasoned political veterans running against him.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand is a former corporate lawyer and seasoned veteran of the Senate, having acquired her seat in the wake of Hilary Clinton’s appointment as Secretary of State in 2008. Formerly a junior Congresswomen from Albany, New York, Gillibrand has recently garnered a reputation as being a stalwart proponent of justice for victims of sexual assault and has led the charge to hold abusers, such as her former colleague Sen. Al Franken, accountable for their deviancies. A previously moderate Democrat, Gillibrand has dramatically shifted her political alignment to the left throughout her Senatorial career and has been a vocal opponent of Donald Trump throughout his presidency.

As stated on her official campaign website, Gillibrand’s platform is rife with progressive rhetoric and reflects the realignment of the Democratic electorate. Alongside the usual calls for a $15 minimum wage, affordable higher education, universal healthcare “as a right” and gun control efforts, her program is largely structured around the dual issues of the advancement of women and ethics reform. Indeed, her platform calls for immediate paid family leave, equal pay legislation and an effort to promote Planned Parenthood and abortion/contraception by eliminating a Trump administration gag-rule preventing doctors for informing pregnant patients about alternative options. Additionally, it is understood that she would enforce the same unique ethical standards on Congressmen that she herself has pioneered, namely the release of tax returns and official schedules in an effort to impede the efforts of lobbyists (3).

As mentioned above, while Gillibrand was relatively unknown before 2016 she has since become an increasingly important name in Democratic politics after becoming the face of the movement to expose and throw out her colleague Sen. Al Franken for sexual assault accusations. Despite the temporary surge of attention, her campaign has struggled to acquire the name recognition of the other major contenders and, as such, she has not been able to attract the level of media attention expected from a candidate of her caliber (3 and 3). However, while Gillibrand has only managed to raise $3 million from fundraising, her presidential campaign does have access to her holdover Senate campaign funds of over $9 million which gives her a competitive war chest of over $12 million, placing her fifth among the Democrat contenders (9).

In addition to her fair acquisition of the essential characteristics, Gillibrand does have significant political experience having been a federal political (Congresswoman and later Senator) for well over a decade (6). However, her record in Congress is mixed as her transition from quasi-conservative moderate Democrat to progressive champion was not immediate. Indeed, her early years saw her oppose many initiatives (e.g., enabling undocumented immigrants from obtaining drivers licenses and prohibiting the DOJ to use federal funds to crack down on state-sponsored cannabis legislation). As such, many have labeled her as a politician of convenience rather than conviction, an accusation that has hurt her credibility as a progressive lawmaker despite her recent record of opposing most of Trump’s nominees (2). Her long political experience, however, has given her significant exposure to campaigning in one of the most populous states in the Union where she vigorously sought (and succeeded) to establish a name for herself despite initial opposition from downstate New York City metro area Democrats (6). These various campaigns have also enabled her to develop a significant support network in the large elector state of New York (4) which may serve to counterbalance her lack of any significant endorsements both private and political (2 and 2).

Lastly, her personal traits paint a confusing picture of Gillibrand’s persona. While her career as a corporate attorney saw her work many pro bono cases, thereby helping her community (3), it also saw her involved in many questionable suits, such as the legal defense of Phillip Morris (tobacco manufacturer), a potent issue often brought to light by her political opponents (2). Furthermore, while Gillibrand has shown herself to be very approachable to voters, even recently arm-wrestling a young fan, her aforementioned reputation as a political flip-flopper has raised questions and the sincerity of her convictions (2). Thus, Gillibrand earns a score of 47, placing her in tier two as a significant but not yet major candidate. While her political and campaign experience is significant, the fact that she has not benefitted from the name recognition and media coverage of her rivals has greatly hurt her chances of winning the nomination while her reputation for being progressive by convenience has hindered her ability to gain compassion from many Democrats and can be likened to the reception of her former mentor Hilary Clinton in 2016.

Amy Klobuchar

Amy Klobuchar is a U.S. Senator from Minnesota who has been in office since 2006. Highly educated at Yale and Chicago Law School, Klobuchar began her career as a corporate lawyer and started her political career before even being elected by successfully lobbying the Minnesota legislature to pass a pioneering law guaranteeing new mothers 48-hour hospital stays after delivery. She officially entered politics in 1998 becoming Hennepin County attorney before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, where she has remained since.

Absent from her official campaign website, Klobuchar’s campaign appears to be much more moderate than most of the other Democratic contenders. For instance, while she emphasizes the environment, education and immigration, her solutions are much less radical and consist of reinstating the Obama Era Clean Power Plan, permitting the use of 529 tax-deferred education accounts for a broader range of schooling (e.g., vocational) and reforming but maintaining the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), respectively. Furthermore, while Klobuchar supports single payer proposals, she has made clear that her presidency will aim to achieve more realistic goals such as the expansion of Medicare to those fifty-five and older and lowering the price of pharmaceuticals. Significantly, Klobuchar is unique in emphasizing both cybersecurity - through the regulation of big tech, preserving net-neutrality and preventing foreign election adds - and an infrastructure package that would provide all American households with internet connection by 2022 (2).

 While Klobuchar is not yet a household name, she is widely recognized as a rising star of the democratic party and has been followed throughout the past decade, even being pegged as a possible first female President (6). However, she has not been widely featured in the media despite her large political presence among pundits. Indeed, aside from a CNN town hall (which is a formality for candidates of her caliber) most of her press has been negative, with many highlighting the alleged abuse of her staff and her quirky behavior (e.g, eating a salad with a comb) (3). Klobuchar does have a lot of money to spend however, which is likely to assist her campaign’s efforts to attract with more positive press. Since her intentions to run have been made public she has raised over $5 million, which along with her $3.5 million hold-over funds from her 2018 Senate campaign puts her available resources at $8.8 million, with over $6 million remaining after her initial operating expenses have been covered (9).

 While her acquisition of essential requirements may vary, her political credentials do not. Having been a Senator for over a decade, she has more than enough federal political experience to make her stand out among the field (6). Furthermore, her record also stands out as successfully partisan since she routinely passes liberal legislation, being the most successful Senator in 2016 in the number of supported laws passed and was at the forefront of the effort to impede the nomination of Trump’s judicial candidates, namely Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 after which her popularity temporarily surged (6). Additionally, her state-wide electoral wins as a three-term Senator demonstrate that she has significant campaign experience. Her electoral wins are more expressive in that she has managed to not only hold on to her seat but win landslide victories over her Republican opponents in a state that, while democratically leaning, supported Clinton by less than 2 percentage points over Trump (6).

Her previous campaigns have also given her a wide support network in Minnesota which gives Klobuchar a ready state-wide base in influential early voting “Super Tuesday” primary state (4). Furthermore, while Klobuchar’s reported on private connections have been limited to members of her family (0), she has an impressive network of political endorsements from all levels of government. From former Vice President Walter Mondale to a slew of former ambassadors, governors, congressmen, state officials, and former DNC chair people, Klobuchar has amassed an impressive group of political supporters rivaling those of endorsement frontrunners Booker and Harris, who both hail from larger states with more political clout (6).

Finally, along with her initial concerned citizen lobbying efforts and law firm pro bono work demonstrating community engagement (2), she has a strong career background of being a highly educated attorney with two decades of experience in the political arena (3). However, despite her public speaking abilities and legalistic pedigree, Klobuchar has developed a reputation for belittling staff and being the worst boss in Congress, which does not reflect the genuine and compassionate character that voters like to see (1). In sum, Klobuchar scores a commendable 52 points making her a significant candidate to watch. Furthermore, with her strong endorsements and gleaming political experience, should she manage to attract enough positive media attention to increase her name recognition and dispel the accusations of harshness, Klobuchar is on the path to becoming a major candidate in this election.

Beto O’Rourke

Robert (Beto) O’Rourke was virtually unknown outside of his native El Paso before 2018 save for those who may have watched his amusing road trip with Republican Congressional counterpart Will Hurd (TX) over Facebook. After his impossibly close but ultimately unsuccessful bid for one of Texas’s Senate seats, however, O’Rourke was catapulted into the national spotlight as a potential new face of the Democratic Party. Being relatively young, progressive, charismatic and hailing from a city adjacent to the Mexican border, the junior Congressman from Texas was ushered almost unwittingly into the 2020 Presidential contest. Progressing from adolescent computer hacker to Columbia University graduate to punk rocker, O’Rourke finally settled back in his home town of El Paso, starting a software company before being elected as a member of the city council in 2005. In 2012 he won election to U.S. Congress where he served three terms before making an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate, losing by less than 2 percentage points and gaining the most votes by a Democrat in the history of Texas.

O’Rourke’s platform as presented on his official campaign website is made up of excerpts of his announcement speech where he lays out his vision for America. As such, his positions are not clearly made out and are deduced based on this speech and his other appearances. Beto’s campaign is highly progressive in scope and repeats many of the central points of progressive ideology. It is critical of the current arrangement of American democracy of which certain elements, such as the Electoral College (which he equates to “slavery”), are seen as unfair. To combat democratic corruption, O’Rourke has refrained from taking Political Action Committee money and has advocated for packing the Supreme Court. Furthermore, he supports the Green New Deal to combat climate change (which he compares to Nazis), providing reparations for slavery and securing the border with “smart” technology such as drones and sensors. However, on other points such as education and healthcare, Beto strays from the progressives by advocating for “debt free” (i.e., through improved subsidized funding options) rather than free public universities and the maintenance of private plans, respectively. While progressive and popular, O’Rourke’s platform is lacking a definite central message and unique flair. Additionally, Beto has been seen to be noncommittal to many important progressive issues such as free college and often seems to hesitate when striking out major policy points such as increasing the number of SCOTUS judges (2).

Beto O’Rourke is a unique tier, three candidate because he demonstrates perfect acquisition of the characteristics of the essential requirements. He has exploded in popularity since his Senate in 2018 and has kept his momentum in entering the 2020 Presidential contest (9). Bolstered by heavy media coverage including his own seemingly ubiquitous live streams, Beto evolved from unknown Congressman to presidential heavyweight in less than a year. (9) Since (and even before) his announcement, he has been considered a major candidate, an opinion reinforced by his significant first-day fundraising haul of over $6 million. As of first quarter reports, O’Rourke has raised over $9 million for his campaign and is said to have an equivalent net worth able to use for his bid (9).

In contrast to his score in the essential requirements category, O’Rourke’s acquisition of ancillary characteristics is less impressive. While Beto has had a fairly long political career, serving as city councilor between 2005 and 2011 and continuing to serve his district in Congress for three terms between 2013-2019, his failed Senate run in 2018 means that he has never held a significant position at the federal level, making him an outlier among the other major candidates (4). Furthermore, while he has been very vocal about progressive issues and has taken a very left public stance on key positions to Democrats, his Congressional career was more bi-partisan, often siding with Republicans on key votes and taking very different stances than his progressive allies (2). On the campaign trail, however, Beto has portrayed himself as a staunch progressive, an image that has garnered him much support. Indeed, the momentum gained from support by Texas liberals gave Beto a wide-reaching Senate campaign in 2018 where he no doubt gained valuable experience campaigning across the largest state in the lower 48 that will be invaluable in his push across the country(4). Additionally, the grassroots organization that developed throughout his 2018 Senate run was lying dormant and has since reactivated to give him a healthy score in his home state, trailing Trump by 1 point in a hypothetical contest (4).

During his 2018 Senate campaign, O’Rourke received an overwhelming number of endorsements from sources ranging from world-class celebrities such as Beyonce to local organizations such as the Houston Chronicle. However, while it is still early in the contest, this level of private support has not been repeated. In any case, the vast wealth of his family, especially his father in law gives O’Rourke a fair level of probably private support (2). In contrast, Beto has received a fair amount of political endorsements from former governors, ambassadors and state representatives. However what is unique is that he has garnered endorsements from politicians in various states (e.g. U.S. representatives in FL, NY, TX and state representatives in IA and SC) which demonstrates extensive political support rather than the intensive support we see with Harris and Booker who each have dozens of endorsements primarily from their home state (4).

Finally, in the realm of personality, where O’Rourke ostensibly shines, certain irregularities become apparent. O’Rourke has indeed demonstrated involvement in community engagement through his business and by means of his membership in charitable organizations such as the Rotary Club and United Way (3). Furthermore, O’Rourke is well educated and has had a successful career in business (even if the ethics behind some of his dealings, such as contracting his own company for his campaign to the tune of $125,000, have been questioned) before gravitating to politics at both the local and federal level (2). However, while O’Rourke has shown himself to be remarkably charismatic and to many is considered a powerful public speaker able to draw large crowds, he has been targeted for his shady past and oftentimes borderline unethical behavior. From personal fumbles such as a DUI charge to more serious allegations of conflicts of interest during his tenure as El Paso city councilor and insider trading while in Congress, O’Rourke has been at the center of many scandals that have been used as potent ammunition by his rivals, most notably Ted Cruz in 2018 (2).

In all, O’Rourke scores a solid 58 points which makes him close to breaking out of tier two and joining the other major candidates. Due to his perfect score in the essential requirements category, his high score is not surprising and his placement in tier two rather than tier one highlights the importance of the ancillary characteristics for achieving the nomination. With that being said, Beto is extremely close to breaking into tier one and it is likely that with more political (or even significant private) endorsement and by refining the message of his campaign O’Rourke will join the ranks of tier one candidates.