The 2020 Democratic presidential field has been filling up with a historically diverse array of candidates, including five women, four racial minorities, a little-known white congressman and a gay mayor. Several have shown strong candidate skills.
Two prominent white males, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, are edging toward active candidacies.
The potential candidate who has been leading most Democratic polls, former Vice President Joe Biden, has held back, and until Tuesday, so did the candidate running second, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Given their superior name recognition, they presumably don’t need as much run-up time since they’ll find it easier to raise funds and set up a campaign than neophyte hopefuls.
But let’s face reality: Despite their current standing, both Biden and Sanders face significant barriers in winning the nomination, let alone the presidency. It might have been better for them — and their party — if they bypassed the 2020 race. That goes for former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, too.
It starts with the fact that Biden and Sanders, along with Bloomberg, would be close to 80 if elected. Given a choice, Americans tend to opt for younger candidates; in five of the six presidential elections before 2016, the younger candidate won.
Over the last century, Democrats seeking to regain the White House have fared best with generation-changing candidates, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama. In 2020, Democrats need to look ahead, not back, and avoid over-reacting to Donald Trump’s lack of experience by choosing a candidate who has held office for decades.
As long as Biden and Sanders weren’t candidates, poll standings based on name recognition masked their political problems. But some problem are obvious, and others have already started to emerge.
In recent weeks, stories have quoted many Democratic operatives expressing doubts about a third Biden presidential bid. And just last week, the New York Times examined Sanders’ failure to attract minority support in 2016, a problem unlikely to get better in a field that includes two prominent African-American senators, California’s Kamala Harris and New Jersey’s Cory Booker.
Biden not only would be 78 on Inauguration Day, but he also first won major office in 1972, before several potential rivals were born.
The former vice president sought the presidency twice before and failed badly, the last time in 2008 despite his strong showings in debates with Democratic rivals. If he ran again, some of his past actions, which got little attention before, might hamper him, notably his strong advocacy of some of the harsher anticrime legislation of the 1990s and his mishandling of Anita Hill’s testimony in the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings.
Though Biden hopes his eight years as Obama’s loyal vice president would enable him to win substantial black support in the crucial early South Carolina primary, he could face an uphill battle against Harris and Booker. He may have a better chance of being the next secretary of state than the next president.
As for Sanders, his unexpectedly strong showing against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic race stemmed from unique circumstances; he was the only option for younger and more liberal Democrats who opposed the former secretary of state.
By running again at 79, he won’t just have one unpopular rival; he is facing a diverse array of candidates, all younger and many espousing the positions like "Medicare for all" and free college, which were Sanders staples in 2016.
That may explain why, in a December poll taken by the liberal Daily Kos web site, Sanders ran an unexpectedly poor fifth with 11 percent, trailing Sen. Elizabeth Warren, O’Rourke, Biden and Harris. Four years ago, he was the group’s heavy favorite.
In recent weeks, criticism has surfaced about how the Vermont senator ran his last campaign, especially the male dominance and a number of incidents in which female staff members were poorly treated. A number of his 2016 operatives have moved to other camps. And Sanders is bound to face more criticism this time for refusing to shed his independent status and join the Democratic Party, as well as for his reputation as a political loner who doesn’t work well with others.
Bloomberg, 77, faces different issues. Widely respected for his 12 years as mayor of New York, he also has a shaky Democratic history. He left the party to run for mayor, became a Republican and then an independent and only recently rejoined the Democrats. A somewhat wonky campaigner, his initial efforts have not produced any surge of enthusiasm, and his candidacy remains uncertain.
Democrats need to draw stylistic, as well as policy, contrasts with Trump. Picking a nominee who is even older than the oldest person ever elected to the presidency seems like the wrong way to do it.