Top Democratic Presidential Candidates
*Criteria for ranking:
• Debate performance
1) Elizabeth Warren
After winning the first two debates, there is no wonder Senator Warren finds herself atop this list of capable Democratic hopefuls. While Warren shared the Miami debate victory with Julian Castro, she wiped the floor with her other Democratic rivals in the second debate. From the start of the Detroit debate, Warren and Senator Sanders were simpatico on every topic.
Most of the lower tier candidates took expected shots at the front runners (Warren and Sanders), but this did not break their ideological connection. From healthcare to tax policy, Warren and Sanders were Batman and Robin, fighting the same Democratic villains using the same ideological weaponry. Setting herself apart from Sanders was Warren’s academic approach to explaining complex issues. Many millennials find Sanders' loud, aggressive nature captivating. However, most find Sanders' communication style unduly hostile and unbecoming of a president. In other words, Sanders cannot yell his way to the nomination. Warren, on the other hand, is equally sharp in rebuttal as Sanders, but more measured in her presentation.
The Democratic Party elected more women and candidates of color during the 2018 midterm election than at any point in U.S. history. Thus, it stands to reason that Warren would benefit from a similar sentimental wave of change. The party is hungry for women, candidates of color, and youthful progressivism. Warren may not be young (71 years old in November 2020) or a person of color, but she is as progressive as they come. Her policies are further left than the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform.
Before running for U.S. Senate, Warren worked tirelessly to protect consumers. Her scholarship includes extensive research and publications reflecting her knowledge and activism focused on bankruptcy law. Democratic primary voters recognize Warren as a lioness fighting for the rights. This label bodes well for Warren as she attempts to galvanize young voters into supporting her campaign.
2) Julian Castro
Like Warren, Secretary Castro earned a top spot on this list with his dominant debate performances in Miami and Detroit. No candidate demonstrated a stronger command of as diverse an array of issues as Castro, with Warren representing the lone exception. Castro's tenure in the Obama administration prepared him for this stage, and it shows. The conviction with which he defends his platform is refreshing, and despite competing against an artificially inflated field, Castro’s composure remains unwavering.
Castro opened his campaign with a comprehensive list of policy goals building on the work he performed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration. He can speak authentically about his desire for real immigration reform and changes to policing in the United States, from his experience leading a federal department.
Any discussion of Castro without acknowledging intangible qualities would be incomplete. The Democratic Party will need to rally behind a single candidate that provides the most persuasive counter message to Trump’s xenophobic and racist dog-whistling. Andrew Yang claims, ‘the opposite of Trump is an Asian man who likes math.’ The more precise "opposite" of Trump is a well-spoken, highly qualified, thoughtful Latin American public servant. No other candidate but Castro offers the Democratic Party that contrast. Does that mean Castro should win the nomination because of his heritage? No, pay attention.
Acknowledging Castro’s ethnic background means Democratic constituents are aware. They are aware of the juxtaposition of a Latin American man challenging a white nationalist for the country’s highest office. Since Trump has made it clear that he intends to highlight race throughout the 2020 election, if the Democrats ignored race, it would not serve their best interest.
3) Kamala Harris
Senator Kamala Harris’ political career is on a meteoric rise. Similar to former President Obama, Harris is pursuing the party’s nomination after serving less than one full term in the U.S. Senate. Her pointed criticism of Trump and his judicial nominees while serving on the Judiciary Committee have captured the attention of the nation. Politicos are fully aware of Harris’ litigating skills from her time as California Attorney General. Despite this, the Senator needed the first debate to help familiarize a broader range of voters with her dynamism.
Harris used the Miami debate as a platform to highlight critical contrasts between her campaign and frontrunner Joe Biden’s. Harris’ calculated takedown of the former Vice President enabled her to expand national fundraising efforts. In the first twenty-four hours following the Miami debate, Harris’ campaign received over $2 million in donations. Harris now has the fourth most cash on hand entering the Iowa Caucuses.
For a Democratic electorate hungry for diversity, the prospect of electing a multi-racial Black and Indian woman excites the party’s base. Most notably, it excites the most loyal, highest participating (arguably most important) members of the party’s base - Black women.
Harris can electrify a crowd and has the requisite legal background to deliver the Democratic Party’s message of justice over criminal negligence, progress over retrogression, and compassion over callous disregard for humanity, as a professional prosecutor. Harris was understandably thrown off balance by Congresswoman Gabbard’s attack of her prosecutorial record during the Detroit debate. Harris sits in the top tier of hopefuls seeking the party’s nomination. As such, she should have anticipated the attack and been better prepared to respond to criticism of her record. Most lower tier candidates followed Harris’ lead and focused judgment towards Biden. Gabbard represented the lone exception to this standard. However, that second debate hiccup will ultimately have no longterm impact on the race.
Gabbard is not a legitimate candidate nor qualified to share the stage. Gabbard’s policies do not align with the party she seeks to represent as its standard-bearer. Gabbard was one of very few Democrats to vote against admitting Syrian refugees to enter the country. Additionally, Gabbard has been the most outspoken critic of Barack Obama, the most popular president since Ronald Reagan. The most odd element of Gabbard’s attributes is her repeated apologizing for the murderous, tyrant Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Most recently, following the Detroit debate, Anderson Cooper attempted to help Gabbard correct the record on her history of Assad apologizing. On three separate occasions, Gabbard refused to admonish Assad’s brutal actions. That interview was disqualifying for the Hawaii representative. One week after suffering through two high profile mass shootings, Gabbard was asked by Francesca Chambers of the Daily Mail, if she ‘thought Walmart should stop selling guns.’ Gabbard, annoyed at the question, replied, “that’s up to Walmart.” Gabbard’s curt reply was not only nonresponsive, but it was also disrespectful to the victims and their families seeking Congressional action to curb gun violence.
Of course, it is ‘up to Walmart.’ The journalist was not asking for her perspective on Keynesian economic theory. Chambers sought to understand Gabbard’s personal view on a matter of national security. Gabbard's arrogance at that moment stripped her ability to articulate the problem of large retailers making guns so readily available. In a word, disqualifying. Thus, devoting any more time or attention to Gabbard is unworthy fodder for Democratic primary voters.
Regarding Harris’ record as a prosecutor, one note must be explained. State attorneys general are sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States while enforcing federal and state laws. Harris was not a “progressive prosecutor” and that ought not to be the standard by which any prosecutor is judged. As prosecutor, Harris implemented a first of its kind racial bias training program for police officers. Harris also constructed the “Back on Track” program. Back on Track permitted first-time drug offenders (including drug dealers) to earn a high school diploma and a job instead of serving time in prison. These are progressive policies. Also of note, while serving as California AG, less than ten percent of prosecutors in this country were nonwhite.
Less than twenty percent of prosecutors were women. As a Black woman, Harris received enhanced scrutiny as a law enforcer by virtue of her gender and race. Ignoring those facts while criticizing her for being ‘tough on crime’ is indicative of a person who does not genuinely care about criminal justice reform, but rather, engaging in gotcha political warfare. Harris brilliantly performed the role of top law enforcement official, and she has every reason to be proud of her record.
Harris is likely the candidate most prepared to challenge a petulant, anti-intellectual incumbent. Though she has remained in the top three across major polls since announcing her candidacy (Real Clear Politics), performing well in South Carolina will prove vital to her success.
4) Cory Booker
If there was ever a candidate that could rebuild the Obama Coalition, it’s U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. While Kamala Harris adopted the campaign slogan ‘for the people,’ as mayor, Booker truly lived and governed for the people of Newark. As chronicled in the 2005 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Street Fight,” Booker elected to live in a low-income housing project in Newark while he was mayor.
He believed that living amongst the people that elected him would improve the public trust and more importantly, enhance his perspective of their needs. In Booker’s words, we should “Make every politician live in the worse neighborhood in their city. I guarantee the city would turn around a lot quicker.”
This unfiltered authenticity was endearing to Newark residents. Booker’s tireless work in his hometown was not unnoticed. His popularity in the city rose and eventually spread throughout the state. A senate run was inevitable. Given a similar opportunity to speak his truth and share his heart with the country, Booker would consistently poll in the top three, where he belongs.
Booker’s share of the Detroit debate victory (with Castro) is mostly attributed to Biden staffers telegraphing the former Vice President’s lines of attacks. This telegraphing over share allowed Booker (Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law grad) to study and develop thorough responses to Biden’s attacks and prompts from the CNN moderators days in advance. Booker’s impeccable preparation and calm demeanor combined with his infectious smile and witty personality stole the night.
All eyes were on Harris to see if she could repeat the dominating performance from Miami and Biden to see how he would salvage his first debate beat down. Nonetheless, viewers and listeners left with a renewed understanding of the Democratic race – Booker, and Castro are no slouches and deserve a shot at center stage.
5) Bernie Sanders
It boggles the mind how an individual who has never joined a political party, can demand to become that party’s standard-bearer. To this day Senator Sanders (Independent) of Vermont refuses to join the Democratic Party. Weak party executives fearful of further division are ill-equipped to compel such membership of Sanders. Undoubtedly, Sanders’ inclusion in the 2016 primary forced the Democrats to consider issues that might otherwise have received less airtime or been omitted from the party’s platform. However, the party’s new direction came at a critical cost – unity.
But for this non-Democrat, unity is of no importance. Winning, and winning at all costs is what drives the Sanders campaign. If he tears down his Democratic rivals or one of the most reputable publications in the world (Washington Post), it does not matter to this candidate. That selfishness cost the Democratic Party three years ago, and if it is not careful, it will cost them again.
Many Sanders supporters declared their allegiance to him instead of the party. That recalcitrant “Bernie or Bust” faction caused irreparable harm to the Hillary Clinton campaign. Sanders refused to leave the race despite being mathematically eliminated. His selfish obstinance produced deeper division in the party and contributed to the Trump victory.
Would be Clinton voters either stayed home or were persuaded by Bernie or Bust folks to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. If Sanders wins the nomination, his obstinance would come full circle. Black voters and Democrats loyal to the Obama administration (that Sanders continually vilifies), would likely write-in Hillary Clinton in protest.
After eight years of a popular (Black) president in the Oval Office, Sanders demanded ‘revolution!’ The timing of his demand for revolution was always suspect.
Sanders never demanded revolution after eight years of Bush and illegal wars. Sanders never demanded revolution after eight years of Bill Clinton’s embarrassing philandering. Sanders never demanded revolution after the terror-inducing Crime Bill (that he voted for) devastated Black and brown communities. No, Sanders demanded revolution after eight years of Barack Obama. Sanders may have persuaded Killer Mike and Dr. Cornell West and some other high profile Black celebrities to support his campaign. But the bulk of Black Democrats would never support a Sanders candidacy.
There is no path to the Democratic nomination without Black voters.
If Sanders continues to underperform with that critical voting bloc, he will lose, period. This is neither conjecture nor hyperbole. Sanders has done an unacceptably poor job of convincing Black voters to support him.
• Sanders received 18% of the Black vote to Clinton’s 82% in Virginia.
• Sanders received 16% of the Black vote to Clinton’s 83% in Georgia.
• Sanders received 30% of the Black vote to Clinton’s 68% in Ohio.
• Sanders received 29% of the Black vote to Clinton’s 70% in Illinois.
• Sanders received 7% of the Black vote to Clinton’s 93% in Alabama.
• Sanders received 16% of the Black vote to Clinton’s 84% in South Carolina.
• Sanders received 28% of the Black vote to Clinton’s 71% in New York.
• Sanders received 12% of the Black vote to Clinton’s 88% in Mississippi.
These primary results from 2016 are embarrassing! Sanders cannot excuse this as a ‘lack of name recognition’ as he patronizingly did the last election cycle. He also cannot assert that the South is irrelevant in a Democratic primary. If Sanders genuinely intends to compete in all 50 states, then he must discontinue the hypocritical dismissal of his failures in the South and find a way to reverse this trend.
6) Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana is another rising star in the Democratic Party. If you have not heard his name yet, stay tuned. He will surely be awarded a prime speaking slot during one of the three nights at the Democratic National Convention in 2020. In addition to his youth, Buttigieg represents what the party has traditionally stood for – compassion, compromise, and courage.
When describing his reason for running, Buttigieg explained:
“We need bold ideas. We need a different perspective. Our generation is the one that provided most of the troops after 9/11. We’re the generation that grew up with school shootings as the norm. We’re the generation that’s going to pay the bill for some of these tax policies right now. And we’re the ones that are going to be living through the impact of climate change that are accelerating as we speak. Of you’re thinking about what the world’s going to look like in 2054, which is when I will be the age of the current president, you just have a different sense of urgency about some of these issues because they are not somebody else’s problem – they’re personal.”
It took nerves of steel to make his sexuality public in a conservative midwestern state that embraced the homophobia of former governor Mike Pence. To Buttigieg’s credit, his responsiveness and success as South Bend mayor contributed to his landslide victory after coming out. However, this small-town mayor is on a much grander stage. Unfortunately for Buttigieg, he shares Senator Sanders’ fatal flaw – an inability to make his message resonate with Black voters.
Buttigieg must convince a national electorate that his abysmal response to protestors earlier this summer was an anomaly. Several Black residents gathered in South Bend to protest the police department’s inaction after Sgt. Ryan O’Neill shot and killed a Black South Bend resident, 53-year-old Eric Logan. The controversy surrounding Logan’s killing centers on Officer O’Neill’s body camera inexplicably being turned off. "You are truly running for president, and you want Black people to vote for you?” asked a protestor. To which Buttigieg defensively and inappropriately replied, "I'm not asking for your vote." Since Logan was killed, Buttigieg has been in recovery mode.
While understanding this incident should not define Buttigieg’s candidacy, he also must continue to be held accountable. Unlike Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson, Buttigieg is qualified and not running on the fringes merely for name recognition. Buttigieg has a unique platform that will appeal to voters all over the ideological spectrum.
7) John Hickenlooper
Democratic constituents need to research John Hickenlooper. This former two-term mayor of Denver and popular two-term governor of swing-state Colorado is a diamond in the rough for the Democratic Party. No candidate has more executive experience than Hickenlooper (including Biden). Hickenlooper transformed the economy of the 19th largest U.S. city during his eight years as mayor and followed that by passing courageous bill after courageous bill as the state’s governor the next eight years.
Hickenlooper’s legacy as a progressive governor is unblemished. He fought for environmental reform. His aversion to capital punishment drove his decision to stay an execution. He expanded Medicaid, leaving the office with nearly every Coloradan having health coverage. He signed into law universal background checks for gun sales. Despite his initial skepticism, Hickenlooper created the first regulatory framework for legal marijuana in the country. Hickenlooper is progressive. His progressive resumé is beyond reproach. Young voters gravitating towards Sanders because it is more fashionable to tout their Bernie bona fides should reconsider. During this reconsideration, young Sanders supporters should determine whether Hickenlooper provides the same agenda without the ‘socialism’ controversy or intra-party division.
Hickenlooper has proven he can reach across the aisle to pass significant progressive legislation with bipartisan support. In Hickenlooper’s own words, “I’m running for president because we need dreamers in Washington, but we also need to get things done… I’ve proven again, and again I can bring people together to produce the progressive change Washington has failed to deliver.”
8) Joe Biden
“This is a battle for the soul of this nation,” according to former Vice President Joe Biden. Unfortunately for Biden, this perspective is not nuanced, and most Democratic voters do not view him as the proper messenger. Fears of a Trump re-election have bolstered Biden’s early poll numbers. The desperation is palpable for Democratic voters clinging to an unfit, mediocre candidate because they mistakenly believe he provides the best counter to Trump. Allowing logic to guide their ballot box decision making will better serve Democrats longterm. Sure, Biden tugs on emotional heartstrings, but emotions should not be disconnected from reason.
Biden’s only legitimate hope to the nomination is to convince a sufficient number of primary voters that he is the second coming of Barack Obama. Though even that strategy is flawed considering the seismic shift the party’s undergone since Obama’s 2008 nomination. Young Democrats invested in the process desire radical change that Biden could never represent or champion. Black and Latin American Democrats seek a candidate that can comfortably and effectively speak to issues explicitly affecting their communities. But Biden brings nostalgia. He reminds older Democratic voters of what the party once was and how the country could be. The problem is, the party needs a nominee that doesn’t represent what the country could be, but rather, what the country should be.
To Biden’s credit, the last two-term president selected him as a running mate. Obama saw in Biden what the country saw – a thoughtful, capable, fighter who has served the public with distinction his entire adult life. However, this is no longer Obama’s party. While establishment Democrats long for the days of stagnant centrism, the party was hijacked by its new radical, pro-socialist wing three years ago.
Leading in the polls is a result of disaffected voters searching for any viable solution to the Trump epidemic. Therefore, Biden’s reign as the frontrunner is unsustainable. Once voters and the media concentrate on the backgrounds of Biden’s Democratic rivals, the former Vice President will slide in the polls. His penchant for gaffes and self-induced negative headlines will have a cumulative effect. Most problematic of Biden's recent racially insensitive gaffe is that it more closely resembled a Freudian slip than a "gaffe." Proclaiming that ‘poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids’ was a sad commentary on Biden’s worldview. How does he recover from that? Alternatively, Democratic voters should look within and ask themselves, should he recover?
9) Beto O’Rourke
Speaking out against white supremacy is not praiseworthy. Having a white nationalist occupy the White House does not mean Democratic primary voters should lower their standards of decency. Yes, O’Rourke spoke passionately and convincingly about the need for Trump to temper his racist propaganda, even using expletives to drive his point home. But O'Rourke should not be propelled into the top tier merely for stating the obvious. In the wake of mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, the former Congressman was asked ‘if there was anything [Trump] could do to make things better.’
“What do you think?” O’Rourke asked in response. He continued,
“You know the shit that he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like…members of the press, what the fuck? It’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism. He is promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence. He’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, I don’t know what kind of question that is.”
Appreciation for O’Rourke’s targeted anger was well placed. He articulated the frustrations of the masses with inept journalists refusing to hold Trump and his staffers accountable for promoting white supremacy.
O’Rourke’s candidacy should henge primarily on whether he has a realistic path to the White House. If past is prologue, he does not.
Winning matters. Had O’Rourke successfully defeated incumbent Senator Ted Cruz in 2018, he would not be running for president in 2020. Instead, O’Rourke would be making longwinded (but much needed) speeches on the Senate floor. Thus, rewarding O’Rourke’s failure to unseat Cruz with a presidential nomination would be problematic and dumb. Winning in Texas would have shown Democratic voters that O’Rourke is a viable candidate that can challenge Trump in red, blue, and purple states.
While O’Rourke was admittedly up against impossible odds as a Democratic candidate in a state that has not elected a Democratic Senator since 1988 (four-term senator Lloyd Bentsen), his defeat is telling. In 2018, Texas drew the sixth highest increase in voter turnout from the last midterm. The Lone Star state even saw significant gains in youth turnout. Herein lies the problem for O’Rourke’s candidacy – O'Rourke could not convince motivated, young voters, that turned out in droves, to cast a ballot for him in his home state. Democrats should assume this failure would be replicated on the national level.
10) Amy Klobuchar
If likability were the only measure of candidate legitimacy, Senator Klobuchar of Minnesota would be leading the pack. Klobuchar is not only well-liked by her Democratic peers, but the Senator is viewed fondly by her Republican colleagues as well. This bipartisan affection for Klobuchar may seem insignificant, but in a town warped by partisan gridlock, being able to convince folks across the aisle to do anything meaningful is noteworthy.
Klobuchar has sponsored or co-sponsored more bills enacted into law than any current U.S. Senator the past eight years. Considering her likability, productivity, and midwestern roots, Klobuchar may be a top vice presidential candidate. Sadly, as mentioned above, name recognition is a factor. Few voters outside of the midwest being familiar with Klobuchar does not bode well for her presidential aspirations.