Every 2020 Democratic Candidate, Ranked

Power rankings: We track the performance of each Democratic presidential candidate in their bid for the Democratic nomination.
From top left: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders. (Official Photos)

From top left: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders. (Official Photos)

Updated July 29, 2019

We are heading into another two night, 20 candidate bonanza, and after the Mueller testimony and a bevy of racism from President Trump, it promises to be just as chaotic and out of control as the last time around.

We waited until the dust settled on the June debates to update our standings, and did so for a few reasons. First, we wanted the post-debate pundit storm of useless hot takes to die down. Second, we wanted to see new polls and fundraising numbers from Q2 to see how voters are feeling heading into these second round of debates and how campaigns are capitalizing (or not) on their candidates’ performances.

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Bonus: We have our first dropout!

Eric Swalwell

The first candidate to call it quits, Swalwell was little known before the first debate aside from his role on the House Intelligence Committee. He didn’t do himself many favors on the debate stage, and will likely be remembered for the “Pass the torch” moment. Still, Swalwell’s campaign was not all bad. He focused his campaign on gun reform, initiating it with victims of the Parkland shooting, possibly a first for a presidential candidate, and he did well to continue to raise the issue on the campaign trail and during the debates. While his 2020 presidential aspirations have ended, he will likely continue to rise in the Democratic ranks for years to come.

The Non-Debaters

24. Mike Gravel

Latest polling: 0%
Previous position: 23 (-1)
Signature Issues: direct democracy, nuclear nonproliferation, non-interventionism

Gravel has become so inconsequential, many outlets leave him out from their coverage of the primaries altogether. His campaign is run by teenagers, who were live-tweeting the debates in Miami on his behalf. That’s about all there is to know about the Gravel campaign. Moving on…

23. Wayne Messam

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 21 (-2)
Signature Issue: Canceling student debt

Wayne Messam not securing a spot on the debate stage for a second time should signal an end to what was always a more than a longshot campaign. Most of his campaign was already limited to mostly social media posts anyway, and we will likely see him shut it down soon. It will not be surprising to hear Messam’s name again in politics, though. The Miramar, FL mayor has some thoughtful progressive views and could establish a name for himself as a Florida Democrat in a bid for statewide office.

22. Seth Moulton

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 16 (-6)
Signature Issue: National security, veteran’s affairs

Moulton also won’t be at the debates for a second straight time. He ran ads and got interviewed by the press during the debates to stay relevant last time around. It will take much more than that to make it to the fall this time.

21. Tom Steyer

Latest polling: N/A
Previous position: N/A
Signature Issue: Impeachment of Donald Trump

Just when we thought the field was narrowing, we got yet another entrant [screams internally.] Only a billionaire can possibly look at the overcrowded debate stage we had two weeks ago and think the situation would be bettered with their presence. A longtime philanthropist and Democratic donor, Steyer has recently been famous for supporting efforts to impeach President Donald Trump. He is likely entering entirely too late to have a chance, but his massive wealth ensures he can stick around and complicate the field for a while. Eyeroll.

On the Wings of the Debate Stage

20. Bill de Blasio

Latest polling: 1%
Previous position: 17 (-3)
Signature Issues: Having a black son?

For all of the non-frontrunners, the debate presented the first and likely most important opportunity to introduce themselves to the public. Few made a worst first impression than de Blasio. He was obnoxious in his attempts to interrupt other candidates and his attempts to appeal to both progressives and middle America rang hollow against his background as a New York technocrat. The cringe-worthy moment came when he chalked up his experience with police racism to being the only candidate with a black son. This performance ensures that de Blasio will remain just as unpopular outside of the Big Apple as he is inside it, and it is hard to see him doing much better on Wednesday.

19. Steve Bullock

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 22 (+3)
Signature Issue: Campaign finance reform

Bullock is the only candidate who will take the stage this week who was not in the debates last time around. Despite the crowded field, it will be interesting to see what the Montana governor has to say on the issues. In particular, his views on gun control – he instituted an assault weapons ban in a deep red state- would make for a valuable contribution.

18. Marianne Williamson

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 20 (+2)
Signature Issue: Dude, who knows???

Wow. Just wow. What more can we really say about Williamson’s performance:

We are here for Williamson’s meme-ability (and in truth her talk of instilling love into politics is endearing, if not head-scratching.) But at a time when there are children in cages and democracy is being undermined by the White House, the distraction that is Williamson’s debate performance, however entertaining, was nonetheless unneeded. She says she wants to be taken seriously, but also says her debate strategy this time around will be to “be herself.” She might be the only candidate for whom that might be bad advice.

17. Tim Ryan

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 12 (-5)
Signature Issues: Labor and economic issues

This time last year, Tim Ryan looked like a potential future leader of the Democratic Party, challenging Nancy Pelosi for the speakership and casting himself as the de facto spokesman for Rust Belt Democrats. By the debate’s end, Ryan looked more fumbling than frontrunner. The most viral moment obviously came when Tulsi Gabbard took him to task over his categorization of the war in Afghanistan while calling for a withdrawal from one of the longest conflicts the US has ever undertaken. But most other times- aside from a notable moment in which he highlighted the importance of mental health on preventing gun violence- Ryan looked out of touch and out of place in the race for president.

16. Tulsi Gabbard

Latest polling: 1%
Previous position: 24 (+8)
Signature Issue: US non-intervention

No one of the lesser-known candidates did more for themselves in the debates than Gabbard. She projected herself as a tough leader who can stand up for democratic values of both the small and big “D” kind, setting herself apart from the rest of the field by virtue of her military service. Her brightest moment came in the aforementioned exchange with Ryan. All of this has paid off; Gabbard now reportedly counts over 93,000 donors to her name.

There is an argument to place her higher on this list, but it would be one ignorant of Gabbard’s reprehensible past. Gabbard did apologize for her past homophobia – including time promoting “pray the gay away” camps with her father – but in a crowded field where no other candidate has such an issue, this alone makes her unworthy of consideration.

Then there is her apologist attitude for brutal regimes like that of Bashar al-Assad, which was apparent in the debates if you listened hard enough. While technically being correct in her exchange with Ryan, Gabbard essentially dismissed both the Taliban’s reprehensible past (her response to Ryan essentially boiled down to “well they were there before, so what can we do?”) and their support for Al-Qaeda before and after 9/11. While her case to call for withdrawal makes sense, her callous indifference to the brutality of such regimes casts doubt she would deign to intervene when atrocities happen in other parts of the world.

15. John Delaney

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 18 (+3)
Signature Issue: Shouting over others to remain relevant

Delaney started the debate off well, speaking thoughtfully on healthcare and his experience as a businessman and job creator. Then he tried to force his way into more airtime by interrupting others, and it made him look more desperate and obnoxious than astute or presidential. He’s getting a bump in the rankings only because of how bad others did, but not at all because of his overall debate performance.

14. Andrew Yang

Latest polling: 2%
Previous position: 19 (+5)
Signature Issue: Universal Basic Income

Apparently, Andrew Yang did not get the memo that on a debate stage you have to, well, debate. Yang hardly jumped in to discuss any issues, and when he did, there was not much substance to it. He didn’t even care to tout his so-called “Freedom Dividend” – his $1,000 per month per person UBI scheme – aside from alluding to it. He is clearly out of his element, but is polling strongly thanks to a niche online following and lots of funding, so gets a bump.

13. John Hickenlooper

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 14 (+1)
Signature Issue: Consensus building on healthcare and gun control, among other issues

Hickenlooper provided standard centrist Democrat boilerplate in the debate, which counts for more than what the rest of those below him on this list managed to do. However, like most others below him, he has struggled to gain much momentum. He raised just $1 million last quarter and reportedly only has 13,000 donors behind him. Hard to see him improve on this barring a miraculous performance this week.

12. Michael Bennet

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 13 (+1)
Signature Issue: Economic modernization

Michael Bennet was solid but unspectacular on a variety of issues during the debates. He has a chance to make it to September, as he has been able to raise funds effectively ($2.8 million, sixth-most in the field.) There are apparently people out there who are picking up what he’s putting down. July likely provides the last chance for lesser-known candidates to keep themselves in the race, and Bennet is better poised to do so than most.

11. Jay Inslee

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 11 (even)
Signature Issue: Climate change

Inslee had a very strong debate performance overall. He leaned on his record as governor of Washington, and his ability to realize the type of progressive policies that his opponents only have plans for. His talk of empowering unions as a way to secure well-paying green jobs and promote climate change was especially thought-provoking.

He will, of course, be most remembered for being sassed by Amy Klobuchar after saying he was the only one who has protected reproductive rights. But there is a lot to like about Inslee’s campaign, even if it is a very long shot one. He will need an even stronger performance in the July debates to make it to the September stage.

10. Kirsten Gillibrand

Latest polling: <1%
Previous position: 10 (even)
Signature Issue: depends on what type of Democrat she chooses to be that day

In our last iteration, we said Gillibrand’s campaign rested on her figuring out whether she was a progressive or a moderate candidate. She has still failed to do so, and her debate performance bore that out. At different times, she was the tough candidate who would stand up for corruption or the compassionate one that would ensure a family bill of rights. These were all great and insightful aspirations, but they were coming from a candidate who has not established her identity, and so didn’t land well. Judging by the polls, people tend to agree.

The Actual Long Shots

9. Beto O’Rourke

Latest polling: 2%
Previous position: 6 (-3)
Signature Issue: Immigration/Border Security

Few candidates did worse for themselves than Beto, who went from potential frontrunner to likely dropout pretty much overnight. Most of his points weren’t bad, but Beto was missing the charisma that made him such an appealing candidate before. And there was the now-infamous exchange between him and Castro, in which the latter completely undermined his standing as both the premier Texas Democrat and the candidate who most owns the immigration issue. It also further reinforced the notion that Beto struggles to talk about issues in a nuanced manner. He needs to figure out a way to turn his candidacy around in the next debate to get back to being considered a frontrunner.

8. Julian Castro

Latest polling: 1%
Previous position: 8 (even)
Signature Issue: Immigration

Castro made a name for himself on the debate stage, most notably taking Beto to school over immigration policy, and helping to shed light on how the Trump administration is using loopholes in immigration law to push forward with the separation and illegal detention of migrant children. He also was one of the few candidates to highlight efforts of activists, as well as to call for more inclusive reproductive justice policies that would provide more reproductive health options to the trans community. This, along with solid responses on other issues, made him stand out as a legitimate candidate on a crowded stage; in short, he was one of the debate winners.

The reason that Castro doesn’t get a bump up the rankings is that he has not yet been able to capitalize on his debate performance. Polls are not registering many gains in support, except among the Latinx community. He has also been struggling to qualify for the fall debates, sending out a barrage of mass emails in search of donors. He now seems on track to make it to September, provided another strong debate performance has him polling at 2 percent in August.

7. Amy Klobuchar

Latest polling: 1%
Previous position: 8 (+2)
Signature Issue: Healthcare Reform

She did not draw as many post-debate headlines as other ahead of her on this list, but Klobuchar had a great debate performance.

She especially shined when talking about healthcare, and made possibly the strongest case for the need for a public option to the ACA over the Medicare for All. She would do well to use this argument as a way to foil some of her opponents who prefer M4A.

But seriously, the staff abuse thing, not cool…

6. Corey Booker

Latest polling: 1%
Previous position: 7 (+1)
Signature Issue: Civil Rights

Corey Booker was solid in the debates, showcasing his oratory skills and speaking thoughtfully on most issues. Since then, he has continued with his brand of on-camera activism, notably walking five women over the border a few weeks ago.

Like others below him on the list, he has not been able to gain too much traction in the polls, though he has already qualified for the September debates. Given his name recognition and standing with the party, he has staying power in the race but will need someone ahead of him to slip up to make it as a true frontrunner.

The Actual Front Runners

5. Bernie Sanders

Latest polling: 11%
Previous position: 4 (-1)
Signature Issue: Democratic Socialism

In the last power rankings, we alluded to the fact that Sanders faces a tough path to gaining more supporters due to his brand and Joe Biden’s presence sapping many of the likely voters who would otherwise choose him. Sanders was not able to put forth a more appealing message in the debates, preferring to stick to his tried and true script, and looking predictably pedestrian for a frontrunner amid a crowded field of candidates saying many of the same things.

Bernie has been busy since then, talking up his plan to eliminate student debt and joining AOC on a bill to call for a climate emergency in Congress. But this is more par for the course for the Vermont Senator, and some of his old tunes are starting to sound off on the national stage.
Most notably, support for Medicare for All- Sanders’ flagship policy – seems to have waned, with barely more than a third of self-described liberals supporting it. This diminished support for M4A is due in no small part to the fact that no candidate supporting it could articulate why it is better than a public option that keeps private insurance for those that want it. While Sanders is not the only one who has not been able to make sense of this distinction, M4A is his brainchild, and he stands to lose the most if other candidates start attacking it.

There have been internal issues with the Sanders campaign as well, as they have recently been hit with a labor complaint after it was revealed the campaign was keeping staffers on for long hours that decreased their pay to below the $15 an hour Bernie has championed for. This is a bad look for any campaign, but it downright damning and hypocritical for the premier social democrat in the field.

As it stands, Sanders is locked in for September, has raised $18 million in the second quarter, and has consistently polled in double digits. However, his campaign still has not shown it can grow past its base of die-hard Bernie bros, and his brand has lost its luster.

4. Pete Buttigieg

Latest polling: 6%
Previous position: 4 (+1)
Signature Issue: Millennial Economic Opportunity

Buttigieg’s campaign has officially entered frontrunner status, with a lot more room to grow. He outraised all other candidates in the second quarter, a strong indication that he has staying power beyond the fall. The South Bend mayor’s debate performance was solid all around, encapsulating what has been a campaign that has successfully been able to mix progressive principles in a middle America package. The most notable moment came when he was asked about a recent police shooting in his town, in which he candidly admitted he was not able to improve police violence or fix the lack diversity of diversity in the town’s police force.

Buttigieg has justifiably faced much criticism over the shooting (namely, not firing South Bend’s police chief), and it is but one indicator of a campaign that seems to have a major blind spot when it comes to addressing people of color in general, and the black community more specifically. Mayor Pete has responded to this with what he dubs the Douglass Plan, a set of policies aimed to empower black Americans and address systemic racism that he says are in step with the ongoing discussion on reparations. If he can credibly make his platform more inclusive, he can stand a chance to challenge the other frontrunners, or at the very least play kingmaker with an endorsement once the primary elections get underway.

3. Kamala Harris

Latest polling: 12%
Previous position: 3 (even)
Signature Issue: Civil Rights and Economic Reform

Harris has seen the biggest gains in the polls following her now famous exchange where she called out Joe Biden for his refusal to support busing to end school segregation. She has not only been surging in national polls, but early-state polls as well, where she is continuing to lay down solid a campaign framework. She seems to be coming into her own, drawing rave reviews in the events she is attending and doing a better job of telling her story and why she is running.

She stays even in the rankings because some post-debate missteps prevented her from capitalizing on her strong debate performance even more than she did. After hammering Biden on busing, she appeared to walk back her remarks after the debate, saying she wouldn’t necessarily be for busing today. In her defense, the “walking back” bit is overblown; she called busing “a tool among many to be considered.”

This is a nuanced, and likely correct, way to look at the issue. But she should have known better. The media cesspool eager to treat the primaries as a WWE cage match does not care for nuance; all they saw was “flip-flopping.”

Nor is this the only time she lacked clarity recently. Harris said during the debates she is for eliminating private health insurance, and then later said she misunderstood the question. Like many other candidates, she has not been able to clarify the policy details of her healthcare stance. This, along with questions about her past as a prosecutor, limit her as a candidate.

Harris has at least tried to address her healthcare stance, launching her own vision for M4A Monday. It is an interesting hybrid, an M4A with involvement of the private sector and a much longer transition period to single payer than her opponents. If she can effectively explain it and also contrast it to the plans of others, she may be able to gain even more traction.

2. Elizabeth Warren

Latest polling: 15%
Previous position: 2 (even)
Signature Issue: Too Many to List

Warren handled the debates in the most Warren way possible; that is, by being smart and tactical, and staying within herself. Slated alongside lesser-known candidates, she knew she would gain nothing from attacking her opponents onstage, so instead she spoke only on her stances on major issues and let the other duke it out.

Since the debate, she has kept right along with the same strategy. Most recently, she has unveiled a thoughtful immigration policy, days after visiting the border. Harris might have captured all the headlines for the last two weeks, but that’s fine with the Warren campaign. They’ll keep rolling along.

1. Joe Biden

Latest polling: 34%
Previous position: 1 (even)
Signature Issue: Restoring America’s Standing

Even the most ardent Biden supporters will not endeavor to portray his performance as anything short of a setback. Biden not only appeared less presidential but, on a national stage, he seemed less the candidate for the future than ever. It was not so much his stance on busing in the 1970s that is problematic; his reasoning for it back then was understandable, if uninspiring. But Biden still upheld his position all these years later, on the same grounds. It doesn’t exactly scream 2020 POTUS.

For all that, Biden is still the candidate to beat. While he looks vulnerable more vulnerable than before, he has largely recovered in the polls (hence why we always say they are not indicative), has raised the second most funds in Q2, and is still a former VP and longtime Senator with a bevy of accomplishments.

He has also gone on the offensive, going at the policies of several other opponents recently, namely Corey Booker and Bernie Sanders. He has also sought to burnish his credentials on criminal justice reform, unveiling a solid plan.

It is still a Biden vs. non-Biden race, unless something drastic happens.

See you after the July debates!

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Opinion // 2020 / Democratic Party