How We Got Here
The 2020 Primary was a 27-person pileup to see who was best to succeed Sanders and Biden- and we got Sanders and Biden. So what happened?
If it feels like the 2020 Democratic primary has been going on forever, it’s because it has. One could argue when exactly the primary proper began; Rep. John Delaney announced his candidacy back in May 2017. Businessman Andrew Yang announced that he was running for the party’s nomination six months later. The first “major” candidate to declare their candidacy was Senator Elizabeth Warren, who announced her run on December 31st, 2018, 13 months before the first votes were cast.
In reality, the primary probably began on November 9th, 2016, when it became clear that there would be a Democratic primary in 2020. Following Clinton’s shocking loss, there was no go-to standard bearer for the Democratic party. The election of Trump was a resounding rejection of the Clinton/Obama doctrine that had ruled Democratic politics since the early 90’s, and while the party certainly had a deep bench, there was no obvious Democratic savior who would be best suited to take on Trump in 2020.
There were many bright prospects in the post-Trump era for the Democratic party: newly elected California Senator Kamala Harris had long been talked up as a future presidential candidate, and Cory Booker, fresh off a firebrand speech at the 2016 DNC, seemed poised for a 2020 run. There were several experienced senators and governors that seemed like great fits to unite the party after a bitter and divisive primary, many of whom garnered some star power from their opposition to Trump and Trump appointees early on in his administration: Senators Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand and Harris all had semi-viral moments during confirmation hearings and action on the Senate floor that showed the public that they were not only able to stand up effectively to Trump, but that they may even have the chops lead the opposition. The bench would grow even deeper as the Trump years went on; Beto O’Rourke nearly beat Ted Cruz in the 2018 Texas Senate election, hurling him into stardom and creating a national buzz about a possible presidential run. Meanwhile, a young Mayor from Indiana had long been building a network that would lead up to a run for the presidency. The list went on. And on. And on.
And yet, the strong field that was shaping up was forming in the shadow of two political giants: Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden (who nearly ran for President himself in 2016), and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the runner up in the 2016 primary. Sanders, who began his campaign as nothing other than a check on a seemingly inevitable Clinton nomination, ended up changing the party platform and reenergizing the Left in a way that had not happened since the 1960’s. Should he run in 2020, he would be a juggernaut with the support of the left and young voters behind him. Biden was the only successor of the Obama administration who seemed to escape 2016 unscathed, and with two presidential runs behind him, speculation began early that he had his eyes set on 2020.
So then why, with two strong candidates for the nomination waiting in the wings, was the 2020 Democratic primary field the largest in United States history? Why couldn’t Biden and Sanders clear the field? There were a few problems with Sanders and Biden that made voters uneasy, the principle among them being their age. Sanders is currently 78 and Biden 77; Donald Trump was already the oldest President ever elected and is currently 73. Putting the Democratic Party on the back of two men who would end their first term in their 80’s was a harrowing prospect for voters who were singularly focused on guaranteeing that Trump was a one term President. Voters were still uncomfortable with running a socialist against Donald Trump in the general, and Biden’s support in the Democratic establishment was soft, at best. His past voting record didn’t exactly line up with the current values of Democratic voters, and was famously prone to gaffes and missteps that had ended past campaigns. Before he announced his candidacy, President Obama, who had already talked Biden out of running in 2016, reportedly told Biden: “Joe, you don’t have to do this”. And, finally, Democratic voters presented the party with a paradoxical wish: early polling showed that voters were hungry for a fresh face to represent a new generation of Democrats, but one who was also experienced and would be a safe bet against Trump. Many candidates seemed to think they fit the bill.
And so the field got big. Then it got bigger. And then, by April, the field had become the largest in history, topping off (depending on who you count as “major candidates”) at 29 candidates for the Democratic nomination. Here’s a quick rundown of candidates who threw their hat in the ring, from experienced governors and senators, members of the US House, mayors, businessmen, an author, and a campaign that may or may not have been three teenagers in a trench coat:
(In order of announcement)
1. Rep. John Delaney, MD
2. Andrew Yang, NY
3. State Sen. Richard Ojeda, WV (Whose campaign lasted a mere 2 months)
4. Senator Elizabeth Warren, MA
5. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, HI
6. Sec. Julián Castro, TX
7. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, NY
8. Senator Kamala Harris, CA
9. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, IN
10. Marianne Williamson, CA
11. Senator Cory Booker, NJ
12. Senator Amy Klobuchar, MN
13. Senator Bernie Sanders, VT
Already a lot of candidates! This field was already larger than the 1976 Democratic primary field, which at the time was the largest field in the party’s history. And it wasn’t even March.
14. Governor Jay Inslee, WA
15. Governor John Hickenlooper, CO
16. Mayor Wayne Messam, FL
17. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, TX
18. Rep. Tim Ryan, OH
And with that, the 2020 field had become the largest in history, larger than the 2016 Republican primary, which topped out at 17 candidates. But not everyone had their say yet!
19. Senator Mike Gravel, AK (His “front porch” campaign was largely run by 3 teenagers from NY; the Senator himself did no campaigning.)
20. Rep. Eric Swalwell, CA
21. Rep. Seth Moulton, MA
22. Vice President Joe Biden, DE
23. Senator Michael Bennet, CO
24. Governor Steve Bullock, MT
25. Mayor Bill de Blasio, NY
26. Rep. Joe Sestak, PA
And for a bit, that seemed to be the full field. Already, it was incredibly packed, and as will later be discussed, incredibly oversaturated. However…
27. Tom Steyer, CA
By this point, Eric Swalwell and Ojeda had already dropped out. Surely, there was no more room for anyone else, right? Right?
28. Gov. Deval Patrick, MA
29. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NY
Every person who seemed like a prospective candidate (other than a few, like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown or New York Governor Andrew Cuomo) became a candidate, and then people who no one ever suspected would become a candidate became a candidate. Additionally, Donald Trump having won the presidency with no prior government or military experience probably gave credence to the presidential ambitions of many potential candidates- after 2016, really anybody could run for president. Whether driven by bravery, a sense of duty, or ego, almost 30 people jumped into the race to become the person who would face off against Donald Trump in the general election. Each presented themselves as the best alternative to either Joe Biden, the moderate frontrunner, or Bernie Sanders, the progressive frontrunner. Progressives like Warren and de Blasio went as far as they could without having to draw a distinction between themselves and Sanders, should they risk losing goodwill with the left flank of the party. Some, like Gillibrand or Harris, tried to bridge the two sides of the party together, while others, like Bullock and Bennet, were running explicitly under the assumption that the moment Biden collapsed, voters would flock to a younger, experienced moderate.
It was an impressive field, and the most diverse in history. A field including six women, seven people of color and two Jewish men gave Democratic voters pride and hope that their nominee would reflect the diversity of the Democratic party and its values.
Fast forward to March 6th, 2020, and there are two candidates remaining, and they’re the two every other candidate was implicitly (or explicitly) making their case against: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
So what happened? How did the most diverse field in history boil down to, as many have bemoaned, two white men in their late 70’s? The answer lies in the ever-changing nature of political campaigns in United States, some political science, and a ton of money.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Before Trump was elected. Remember that time? Me neither. Among the first polls gauging the 2016 Democratic primary field, all found Clinton with a dominating lead. But, if you looked past Frontrunner Clinton, the next three names, according to a February 2015 poll from CNN were: VP Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Is it a coincidence that these three were the last standing, 5 years later, in the contest to face off against Trump? What Nostradamus-like powers do the pollsters at CNN have?
Name recognition is extremely helpful early on in any election (obviously), but it becomes even more powerful as there are more names stacked up against you. In the summer of 2019, when the field maxed out at 26 candidates running at once, only 10 candidates were polling above 1%, and only 3–4 were polling above 15%. That meant that the bottom 16 candidates, combined, had about 8% of the vote, while Joe Biden was running away with it at around 30%. In a crowd of candidates so large, it’s no wonder that the only ones who were able to get any traction were the ones who the public already knew; Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and, briefly, Kamala Harris.
And then there is the exception to the rule, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who rose from complete obscurity and would go on to win the Iowa caucuses. The seeds to his rise to fame had been carefully planted for a long while; in 2010, he ran for State Treasurer in Indiana and lost badly. In 2017, as Mayor of South Bend, he ran for DNC chair before dropping out shortly before voting began. However, through these unsuccessful runs, and a carefully curated resume, he was able to network with the right people (such as his future Comms director, Lis Smith) who would help lay the foundation for a successful presidential run. As voters waited for an alternative to Sanders and Biden to merge, he and Warren found lasting success; Warren as a longtime talked up presidential candidate who had a plan to unite the progressive wing of the party and the Democratic establishment, and Mayor Buttigieg as a fresh face who impressed nearly every voter who saw his face on TV. And he was on TV quite a bit. Lis Smith’s plan for Buttigieg was to get him on television as much as possible so that the American people could be introduced to the young man who could take on the mantle of the Democratic party’s rising star. His star would eclipse that of O’Rourke’s, and over a dozen other moderates (although Buttigieg had initially entered the race as a progressive, he found more success after a tack to the center in the fall). He would pull in almost $80 million over the course of his campaign, more money than Biden and almost on par with Warren, and over 800 times his own net worth.
For nearly two dozen candidates, many of whom had resumes far more impressive than that of Buttigieg (or even Warren, who was only in the Senate for six years), the highest they reached in polling was 1 or 2%. Sitting Senators and Governors would quickly be eliminated from the debates as the two frontrunners, who the media suspected were always on the verge of waning, never did. Kirsten Gillibrand ended her run in the summer, as did Inslee, Hickenlooper, de Blasio and a number of others. Why did they never catch on with voters who were looking for a new, but safe, candidate that reflected the diversity of the party to take on Trump?
Here’s where the political science comes in. As Julia Azari, professor of Political Science at Marquette University, notes, the traditional primary model really doesn’t work well when the number of candidates passes into double digits. Voters are only capable of handling so much information, and since American primaries start very early and go on for a very long time, there was very little room for a Steve Bullock or a Michael Bennet to maneuver in a field of so many other presidential prospects. Voters cling to the names they know, the candidates who get a lot of media attention, or the candidates who can buy enough ads to ensure you know who they are. In short, the field became incredibly oversaturated, and that was the death knell for nearly every candidate who was not named Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and to a lesser extent, Yang, Steyer and Klobuchar. Those seven names would already create a pretty packed primary with a lot of ideological representation from across the party- now drop in 22 other candidates on top of them. It seems that those candidate’s money and name recognition kept them viable, at least until Super Tuesday, while the Delaney’s and Hickenlooper’s of the world faded into the background.
But then, what happened to Harris and Booker? They were two candidates with decent name recognition, a decent amount of money, and delivered, at one point or another, great debate performances- and looked like winners on paper. For the black candidates in the field, the main problem was Joe Biden. Biden’s strength with black voters started out strong and never faltered, even in February 2020, when Biden won black voters in Nevada while taking 2nd overall after a double whammy of losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. Many expected Biden’s black support to slowly erode and move to other candidates, but it never happened. And it makes sense- he was the Vice President to the first black President of the United States, although he did not have his endorsement, and black voters (especially older black voters, who vote in much higher numbers than young black voters) skew more moderate and tend to view the Democratic establishment more favorably. Black voters genuinely liked Joe Biden and did not see any reason to flee and vote for Harris, who positioned herself as more liberal than Biden, or Booker, whose strong debate performances never improved his standing. It didn’t help that Kamala’s campaign had deep flaws, essentially being run by two different camps on either coast, and Harris herself struggling to find staying power and a consistent message after her fiery June debate. By December, Harris had run out of money and left the race, and Booker left soon after in January. The oversaturation of the field certainly did not help candidates like Harris and Booker get the money they needed to build nationwide campaigns, and the campaigns had to shutter their doors once the money ran dry.
Many also-rans blamed the DNC for the thresholds they set for the debates (65,000 individual donations and 1% in three polls for the first debates, and the threshold would raise as time went on), claiming the need to chase individual donations cost them the ability to meet voters and campaign in their preferred manner. However, to Tom Perez’s credit, the threshold set by the DNC for the first set of debates was extremely generous, and if one is not able to reach 2% in polling regularly, it’s a pretty good indication that that person will not be the public’s pick to become the party’s nominee. Bennet, Booker, Hickenlooper and many others would invoke Jimmy Carter, who rose from relative obscurity to go on to win the nomination in 1976. However, Jimmy Carter was not running against 28 other people, and was never polling at 0.5%. None of them became Jimmy Carter.
Where did all the money go to? It’s no secret that Sanders was the #1 fundraiser in the primary, raising almost $130,000,000 since the start of his campaign, all from donations averaging $21-$27. The two billionaires, Steyer and Bloomberg, put hundreds of millions of their own fortunes into advertising and campaign building, making the market that much more competitive for candidates struggling to raise enough money just to keep the lights on. Buttigieg, and to a lesser extent, Biden and Harris, became the favorites of large donors and bundlers, preventing other moderates from reaping the benefits of Wall Street and Establishment money. Warren was a formidable fundraiser, and Klobuchar was always able to take in just enough to keep her head above water, especially after a surge in fundraising after the New Hampshire debate. And finally, Andrew Yang, whose longshot campaign became a viral phenomenon, raised almost $30 million from his loyal fan base (Shout out to the #YangGang!) and brought him unexpected success in early state polling, at one point even outpolling Harris in her home state of California. Unfortunately for Yang, the viral moments did not translate into votes, and he dropped out after New Hampshire. Similarly, as Paul McCartney could have told you, money could not buy Steyer or Bloomberg love, and they received diminished returns after humungous spending. Steyer only received 11% of the vote in his final stand in South Carolina, and Bloomberg’s Super Tuesday numbers mostly ranged from around 10–17% of the vote. Tom Steyer had almost zero name recognition, and Bloomberg had the opposite problem. Plenty of people knew who he was, and they did not like him.
And so, as a result of oversaturation, scattered money and lack of name recognition, the largest and most diverse field in the country’s history was whittled down to 12 candidates by the time voting began. 12 is still an incredibly large field, as large as the Republicans’ by Iowa 2016, but still a huge decrease in numbers and diversity from the summer of 2019. Of those 12, only seven had any significant support: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg rounding out the top tier, with Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer were polling well in other early voting states (Michael Bloomberg’s campaign would not begin until Super Tuesday. Ironically, that’s also where it ended.) The infamous Iowa Debacle and the close New Hampshire primary showed two candidates on top: Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, the latter of whom survived a heart attack in September and a year of speculation that his campaign would be over by the time the first ballots were cast.
Despite having the highest name recognition in the field, and decent favorables, Biden was badly hurt after a respective 4th and 5th place finish in Iowa and New Hampshire, and moderate Amy Klobuchar had surged to a strong 3rd place in New Hampshire. Buttigieg’s early success and huge fundraising hauls didn’t help, either. Biden had been putting up disappointing fundraising numbers for months as big money and small donors alike remained skeptical on Biden’s chances to win the nomination. It seemed voters in the first two states shared the same skepticism. Elizabeth Warren wasn’t doing much better, despite a enjoying a brief moment as the frontrunner in the fall. She had finished 3rd in Iowa and a distant 4th in New Hampshire.
However, Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s chances dried up once more diverse states started to vote, and it was clear they would not be able to take on Sanders, who had won the popular vote in the first three states. The progressive wing of the party had mostly coalesced around Sanders, with Warren languishing at around 12–14% nationally, and Sanders rising to 30%. If the field remained so large, it would be mathematically difficult for any candidate to reach a majority, and Sanders would most likely come to the convention with a sizable plurality of delegates.
Then came the Democratic party’s Voltron moment. 72 hours before Super Tuesday, where Bernie Sanders was expected to dominate in the West and North East, Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped from the race, immediately backing Biden, whose domination in South Carolina revitalized his campaign after a very, very rough February. The first openly gay candidate to ever run for President and one of the only women left in the race coalesced behind the one candidate who could possibly stop Sanders from winning the nomination; Joe Biden, whose long-predicted collapse had simultaneously happened and never happened. With Super Tuesday on the horizon, the largest field in history had come down to two moderates, Biden and Bloomberg, and two progressives, Sanders and Warren. (It’s worth noting that Tulsi Gabbard had still not dropped out, and picked up her only 2 delegates on Super Tuesday, but had become a non-factor in the race long ago.)
What was supposed to be Sanders’ coronation became the moment Joe Biden claimed the frontrunner title once more, winning states he had not even campaigned in or tried to win. Biden swept the suburbs (where voters are especially skittish on Sanders) in states like Minnesota, Massachusetts and Maine where the moderate vote had been previously been scattered amongst 3 or 4 different candidates, leaving him with a sizable delegate lead over Sanders. Whether these voters genuinely supported Joe Biden, voted for Biden as a vote against Sanders, or just checked the former VP’s name on the ballot as a result of fatigue over a two year long primary is unknown, but it delivered a huge blow to Sanders after a historic run in the first three states. Bloomberg and Warren saw the writing on the wall after garnering less than 70 delegates each, and dropped out soon after Super Tuesday. Bloomberg backed Biden. At the time of writing, Warren has not endorsed a candidate.
What happened to Warren’s once ascendant campaign deserves its own post mortem, as it will go down in the history books as a prime example of the struggles a woman faces when she runs for the presidency. Alex Thompson wrote very well about the failure of the Warren campaign here, speaking with dozens of past Warren staffers who have their own opinions as to where exactly the campaign went wrong, and the unique challenges it had to overcome. It’s clear that Warren’s position as frontrunner collapsed after her inability to explain her Medicare for All plan in the October 15th debate, and a number of polls showing her down against Trump in key battleground states probably scared off a number of media savvy supporters. As with Kamala Harris, the Warren team struggled to settle on a way to brand their candidate; Staffers from her first senate run, and Warren herself, wish that she had stuck to her roots as a fighter for the middle class and come out guns blazing to take over the progressive lane from Sanders rather than trying to forge her own lane in the primary. There are differences in the way voters perceive an angry male fighter and an angry female fighter, and so the campaign had to work uphill against many double standards that the Sanders and Biden camps did not. There’s a lot more to the story, including building too large a campaign infrastructure that became unsustainable once fundraising numbers plummeted, and a scuffle in the winter between her and Sanders that arose after it was leaked to CNN that Sanders had allegedly told Warren in 2018 that he did not think a woman could win the presidency. Though the leakers may have thought this would give Warren the upper hand in a debate about sexism in the party, it backfired on her and did not leave a dent in Sanders. Regardless, Warren’s exit from the primary left many Democratic voters wondering just how long they would have to wait for the first woman president.
And so, it’s come to this. The two candidates who led the polls over a year and a half ago are the only two candidates left in the race. The race came down to two white men who would each be the oldest President ever inaugurated if elected (although Sanders would be the first Jewish President and Biden only the second Catholic President. I guess Biden gave up losing for Lent!). If you had gone into a coma in December 2019 and woken up just now and asked, “So what happened while I was out?”, I would have to say “A whole lot. But also, nothing much.”