Elizabeth Warren

2020 Presidential Candidates: How the Democrats Are Trying to Stand Out

With about eight months before the first primary votes are tallied, candidates want to present whatever will stand out because name recognition will help them do well in polls, and, in turn, at the voting booths, Georgetown professor Hans Noel says

With the first Democratic primary debate set for late June in Miami, the field's two dozen candidates are trying to define themselves to voters by highlighting variations of their past accomplishments, personal histories, leadership traits and plans for what they want to do for the future.

With about eight months before the first primary votes are tallied, candidates want to present whatever will stand out because name recognition will help them do well in polls, and, in turn, at the voting booths, according to Hans Noel, an associate professor of political science at Georgetown University.

“There are a lot of candidates, so they need to work hard to distinguish themselves from the pack,” Noel said in an email.

This presidential field is the most diverse in history, including women, African Americans, Asian Americans, a Latino and veterans, as well as Jewish and Hindu contender and an openly gay candidate.

Here are some of the ways the candidates have been broadly presenting themselves to voters so far.

All of the candidates have been running on the benefits that their life experiences will bring to them as president, but some at this early stage have focused especially intensely on their biographies.

Candidates want their biographies to appeal to voters because, in a primary, voters don't have much to go on, Noel said. Most policy proposals only have minor differences between them.

Voters "want a candidate who will connect with them in some way, perhaps by reflecting in a common identity or background," Noel said. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been in the public eye since entering the U.S. Senate in 1973, benefits from national name recognition for serving under President Barack Obama for eight years. His campaign has so far run on his reputation as a Democratic politician who works with Republicans and, thanks to family roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, can connect with working class Americans.

But critics on the left have also pointed to his long record in the Senate to challenge some of his past positions, including his long support of the Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funding for abortion services except in cases of rape, incest and saving the life of the mother — a position Biden reversed last week, saying he changed his mind after seeing abortion rights are being taken away in some states.

Biden has also been criticized for supporting the 1994 federal crime bill, which critics say disproportionately harmed African Americans, and for not directly apologizing to Anita Hill for how he handled her accusation of sexual harassment during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas. Still, Biden has a significant lead in most early polls.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, has talked about how her family's economic struggles as she was growing up have informed her progressive policy platform. Her father suffered a heart attack when she was 12, leaving him out of work. She dropped out of college at age 19 to get married and have her first child, but went on to become a professor at Harvard University.

Before she announced her candidacy, Warren faced criticism for her claims of Native American ancestry. She later apologized for taking a DNA test to support her claim. 

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, whose last name is pronounced "Boot-Edge-Edge," has encouraged supporters to refer to him as "Mayor Pete." An openly gay veteran under 40, he has argued that it should be the member of a younger generation who takes America forward.

Julián Castro, who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration, is the son of a single mother who grew up on the West Side of San Antonio, Texas. His grandmother immigrated to the United States when she was 7.

Author Marianne Williamson has run a campaign on one of the central themes of her books: love. 

Noel said that winning over Trump voters is crucial for candidates, since those who can do so can also tell Democratic primary voters that they are electable, something voters care a lot about this year.

"It is important for Democrats to win some of the Midwest states they lost in 2016 — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania," he said. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have talked about winning support from districts in their states that voted for President Donald Trump.

Klobuchar has proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure project and has plans to support agriculture and family farmers, which are issues Trump has also emphasized to voters. 

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, from El Paso, Texas, has argued that he has appeal in Trump country as well, after coming within three points of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018's midterm elections. 

Other candidates have been running as businessmen turned politicians, just as the president did in 2016. This includes Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has appealed to Trump voters as well, noting he is the only Democrat running for president to have won statewide in a place that went for Trump in 2016. One of the last to join the field, he was unable to secure a spot in the first Democratic primary debate, which presents a challenge for building up his name recognition. 

To stand out and connect with voters, many candidates have at this early stage created major policy proposals as a signal of what they would prioritize as president.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont running as a Democrat, is running in 2020 under a similar Democratic socialist platform to his campaign in 2016, advocating for Medicare for All. He is also focusing on issues such as college-for-all, eliminating big money from politics, a $15 minimum wage and a green jobs program.
  • Warren has also put out many policy proposals, with a campaign refrain that she "has a plan for that." Warren has said she wants to, among other things, end Washington corruption with a series of lobbying reforms, enact new antitrust laws that would break-up “Big Tech” and forgive student loan debt. 
  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has laid out a plan for gun violence prevention that targets loopholes for gun sales and gun manufacturers. He has also outlined a plan to make housing more affordable by giving tax credits to people who pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and setting up "baby bond" savings accounts that children could use to purchase a home when they grow up. 
  • Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, has plans to give teachers a raise at an average of $13,500 per year, prevent gun violence with actions such as universal background checks, have companies obtain “Equal Pay Certifications” and for end-to-end criminal justice reform.
  • Klobuchar also launched her campaign with a new plan for mental health prevention and intervention initiatives.
  • Gillibrand has been campaigning on getting rid of dark money in politics, improving the economy, raising wages and implementing national paid family leave.

Several candidates have made campaign finance reform the focus of their campaigns, including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, from Hawaii, and Bullock, believing that untracked political contributions are having a negative influence on the political system. Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran, is also campaigning to end "wars of regime change."

Castro has been promoting what he calls a "People First" policy that would end over-aggressive policing and establish a roadmap for citizenship for undocumented workers. 

Climate change is the central message for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. His plan would invest $9 trillion over 10 years for a clean energy economy with the goal of net-zero climate pollution before 2045. O'Rourke has a plan to combat climate change with a big price tag as well, calling for $5 trillion in green investments and a guarantee of net-zero emissions by 2050. With climate change a major issue for all of the candidates, here is a look at where they stand.  

Candidates who've served in the House of Representatives have been articulating policy agendas to voters as well.

  • Rep. Tim Ryan, from Youngstown, Ohio, has an agenda that includes an agriculture program for sustainable farming practices. 
  • Former Rep. John Delaney, of Maryland, has an agenda that includes a plan to prepare for the artificial intelligence revolution.
  • Rep. Seth Moulton, of Massachusetts, is a veteran who has made military service the core of his campaign. He wants to restore American leadership with allies, implement a new bill modeled after the GI Bill to urge young people to serve and raise awareness for mental health issues. Moulton was also among the three Democrats who failed to qualify for the first primary debate. 
  • Rep. Eric Swalwell, from Northern California, has plans for universal health care, background checks for purchases of guns and ammunition and for greater transparency from political donors.
Yang, a venture capitalist, has plans to take on artificial intelligence by implementing human-centered capitalism, which will prioritize humans over money. He wants to pass a universal basic income of $1,000 per month and Medicare for All. 

Candidates have gone after the president and his policies in different ways, hoping to show they can take on the president in a general election. Many have said they support the beginning of an impeachment inquiry, if not impeachment itself. 

Biden launched his candidacy by saying the nation is in a battle for its "soul" with Trump in office. He grabbed the president's attention in recent speeches in Iowa, where the president was campaigning as well. 

Warren was the first to come out in favor of impeachment after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. It found that no members of the Trump campaign conspired with members of the Russian government but did outline 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice activities and said that Mueller's team wasn't able to bring charges in those cases due to Justice Department policy.

Harris said, if she were president, her Department of Justice would have "no choice and that they should" prosecute Trump for obstruction of justice.  

Buttigieg also said he would support a future criminal investigation against Trump.

Castro has gone after the president's policies for undocumented immigrants. He believes the administration vilifies immigrants and sabotages America's principles. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has gotten into a public feud with Trump since entering the race, calling him "Con Don" and saying he "must be stopped." The president has responded by tweeting de Blasio is "considered the worst mayor in the U.S." 

2020 candidates have been grabbing voters' attention on social media. 

O’Rourke used livestreams to create nationwide appeal while he was campaigning for the Senate in Texas in 2016. But so far that prowess hasn't translated to success in his campaign for president, with his poll numbers languishing around 1%.

Warren has teamed up with social media star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., releasing a video criticizing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for his role in the decline of the Sears department store chain. They also released a video in which they chatted about how the finale of "Game of Thrones" could have used "feminist analysis."

Buttigieg has powered his campaign by giving an interview to almost anyone, hoping it will spread his message and show off his abilities.

Yang has also made a name for himself by staking out positions on unconventional issues, like universal basic income and getting rid of the penny. His campaign has also attracted a large online presence, known as the "Yang Gang," on social media platforms such as Reddit and 4chan. 

Contact Us