10 New Factors That Will Shape the 2020 Democratic Primary

This race for the nomination will be different from any that have come before.

David Goldman / AP

The economy can only go down from here. The number of revelations from Robert Mueller can only go up.

But that doesn’t mean a Democratic candidate is a shoo-in for 2020—everyone thought Donald Trump faced too many hurdles to win in the first place, too. The Democrats who are about to launch presidential campaigns can tell themselves Trump looks weak now, but this could be just the midpoint in his reordering of American politics in his image.

Before any Democrats can get to Trump, though, they’ll have to get through the “Why not me?” primary—the next 14 months of scramble and mania, set against a primary-calendar shake-up that for the first time has delegate-heavy California and Texas both voting at the beginning of March, which will make it so candidates have to campaign for those millions of much more diverse votes in order to have a chance of locking up the nomination. The only thing that’s clear so far: The early polls being circulated will likely have as much relevance to the outcome of the race as learning Mandarin does to visiting Algeria.

Within weeks from now, the 2020 Democratic-primary race will be at full force. Here are 10 factors that will define it—and make it unlike any that have come before.

The pundit president

Donald Trump seems to spend a lot less time in the Oval Office than he does in front of his TV. And he seems to spend a lot less time thinking about policy than he does thinking about the campaign to save his own job.

The most predictable part of Trump’s reaction to the primary campaign: He’ll be tweeting about all the big candidates as they get in. He’ll throw out nicknames. He’ll insinuate. He’ll let loose rumors from the oppo files, forcing reporters to chase them down.

Then there will be his own campaign rallies, featuring hours of commentary on the race and everyone in it, each night full of outrageous comments and assertions that will swamp whatever efforts any of the Democratic candidates make to get attention separate from him. Usually, an incumbent lets the other party’s primary finish before getting engaged in the race, but Trump isn’t the usual incumbent. The 2020 Democratic candidates will be introduced to the broader American public not just by the media and their own campaigns, but also by the man they’re hoping to run against.

Millions and millions 

Flirting with a campaign is fun. Flying to New Hampshire and Iowa can be an adventure. But putting together an actual campaign costs money. And given that the primary calendar now puts California and Texas so early in the process, any campaign looking to survive will need to run simultaneously in both of those large states, along with the traditional early states and a handful of other big primaries. The candidates will need to run organizing operations on the ground across the country, and they’ll need to run commercials on the air.

According to Democratic operatives who are planning campaigns, to get to the first week of March, when Super Tuesday is held, it’ll take a minimum of roughly $40 million. On the high end, it could soar past $60 million. And they’ll need many millions more to take them through the rest of the campaign season.

Even with high-rolling super PACs coming in with uncapped spending, there’s a finite amount of Democratic money out in the country, making it difficult for a crowded field of candidates to raise funds. The billionaires Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer would both be expected to self-fund their campaigns if they decided to run, and Representative John Delaney of Maryland, who’s already running, has kicked in millions from his much smaller fortune. The winnowing of the field could start to happen quickly as candidates realize they’re going to come up short.

Historic diversity

There’s never been a presidential-primary race with more than one female candidate. There’s never been a presidential-primary race with more than one black candidate. There’s never been a presidential-primary race with more than one candidate running from the left of the base.

All those patterns will be broken in 2020. And that means the traditional calculus about who gets which voter groups is out the window.

Some of these changes could directly affect candidates’ thinking about the primary map. The heavily African-American Democratic electorate in South Carolina, for example, tends to favor black candidates and those with strong ties to the black community. But this time around, there will likely be at least two black candidates, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and others with a long history of support from black voters.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, the conventional wisdom is that local New England candidates have the edge. But this cycle, there could be several who come from neighboring states, such as Elizabeth Warren, who launched an exploratory committee on Monday, and Bernie Sanders.

And at the same time California is moving up in the primary calendar, this race could have four Californians—Harris, Steyer, Eric Garcetti, and Eric Swalwell—and others with strong support in the state, such as Sanders and Joe Biden.

If no one can count on locking down any particular group or place, it could mean just about everything is up for grabs.

Impeachment fever

For the moment, Democrats in Congress have tamped down talk of impeaching Trump. For the moment.

The 2020 election will be the first ever where the candidates running against the sitting president will be campaigning on his need to be removed from office by Congress. Bill Clinton’s impeachment loomed over the 2000 election, but he wasn’t on the ballot. And Richard Nixon was well into his second term before Watergate really caught up with him.

Democratic activists will demand to know where the 2020 candidates stand on impeachment questions, and there likely won’t be much room for anything but absolutism. Revelations from Mueller’s Russia investigation are likely to keep coming—including indictments, pleas, and sentencing deals—and the new House Democratic majority is planning multiple new lines of inquiry. If the past two years are a guide, the Democratic candidates’ responses to the latest Trump scandals will get much more attention than any policy rollouts they might prepare.

And that’s not to mention an impeachment trial itself: Any House members who are running for president would be in a position to vote on sending impeachment articles to the Senate, and any senators running would be in a position to vote on whether to keep their Republican opponent in office.

Grappling with Obama

Perhaps nothing has been better for Barack Obama’s popularity than Donald Trump. Yet nothing has been worse for Barack Obama’s legacy than Donald Trump.

As they look ahead, will Democrats want a restoration of the last president’s policies, or a restart?

Obama has met with many of the candidates who are looking to get into the race, giving them advice and encouragement. But he won’t endorse in the primaries, and will likely avoid any moves that could look like he’s putting his thumb on the scale—all his quiet maneuvering for Hillary Clinton in 2016, after all, didn’t end up with her in the Oval Office.

At least two potential candidates, Biden and Eric Holder, are former Obama-administration officials, and the president has talked about seeing echoes of himself in Beto O’Rourke.

For all the Democrats still gushing about Obama, many also see his presidency as full of missed opportunities: What if, for example, he’d included a public-insurance option in Obamacare? What if he had been harder on Wall Street after the crash? What if he hadn’t goaded Trump that time at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner?

The Obama conversations won’t happen in a vacuum. The former president has stepped back from the public conversation since the end of his anti-Trump midterms blitz. But not for long: His memoir, which will include his own review of his performance as president, is expected to land next year—somewhere in the middle of the debates, forums, state fairs, and cattle calls of the 2020 Democratic primary, and just in time for everyone running to have to answer lots of questions about him.


Democrats are desperate for a candidate who can take on Trump. They can try to parse tactical advantages and demographics to decide who that is, but the easiest way is to imagine them in a debate together. And the easiest way to imagine them is to see how the Democratic candidates themselves debate.

Luckily for them, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) last week announced that there will be 12 official primary debates. Each will mix front-runners with back-runners, attempting to put anyone who meets a basic set of qualifying criteria on equal footing.

All political debates are performance art, but multicandidate primary debates are the most unpredictable kind. The format is built for unexpected breakouts and flops, especially in a field of candidates who will start out almost completely unknown.

They won’t have to wait long to begin their arguing: The DNC schedule has the first two debates set for June and July, fewer than 200 days away.


Back in 2008, Barack Obama scored a massive victory in the Iowa caucuses that set him on the path to the nomination. His grand total: 37.6 percent, eight points ahead of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. He got there because of a huge spike in new caucus voters. With their help, he crushed his opponents, even though the number of votes Edwards and Clinton got would have easily been enough to win in any other year.

Operatives with multiple campaigns say they are discussing preliminary plans that assume first place in Iowa might take as little as 30 percent. That doesn’t translate to many actual voters: The record-setting 2008 caucuses had a roughly 240,000-person turnout. Getting to 30 percent of that would take only about 72,000 people.

This year, the primary results could be even more scattered. If candidates spread out across all the early-calendar states—which have varied profiles and span the width of the country—and no one wins multiple states, it’s possible that no national leader will emerge. Or, because delegates are often won proportionately and not winner-take-all, the candidate who amasses the delegate lead might be able to do so without coming in first in a single state. Or the race could stretch into the spring with a pack of five or six candidates who’ve all been running about even for months.

The other side

The Republican electorate doesn’t tend toward soul-searching or taking out its leaders—at least not usually. This time around may prove a little different, as the remaining Never Trumpers reach out to Had-Enough Trumpers and There’s Got to Be Something Other Than Trumpers—who, along with the rest of the traditional Republican Party, have been left dizzy and confused by the president. Operatives are working hard to come up with a consensus choice to run against Trump. But so far, they have not come close to a consensus, let alone a choice.

For the Democratic candidates hoping to make it to the general election by picking up wayward Republican votes, that could mean engaging in the debate going on within the other party. They’ll have to answer several tactical questions: Do you agree with the Republicans attacking Trump? How do you do that without seeming sympathetic to the Republican arguments and leaving yourself vulnerable to the absolutism of some Democratic voters? How do you embrace the turmoil within the other party while also making the wider aspirational embrace that campaigns are going to be aiming for?

Who’s getting hacked?

Russia. China. Any number of other countries. Any number of other groups. A lone actor.

Who really believes that candidates will be able to get through the next two years without getting hacked?

Chances are, the basic stealing of information will be the least of it. Campaigns will likely invest more in cybersecurity and encryption than ever before, but that’s only part of the battle. According to multiple candidates and the operatives working for them, this could be the election when faked documents and videos seep their way into the national conversation. While they won’t be able to be traced, they will have to be answered.

The X factor

Recession? War? Natural disaster? Presidential meltdown?

Trump spent the holidays showing just how wild he can make things on his own. The months ahead could present any number of world- and history-turning events, and any number of reactions from the president will shape what follows them.

More than just reacting, the people auditioning to replace Trump as commander in chief will have to come up with their own proposed solutions amid the flames of whatever is burning—and will likely have to do so more than once.