The Memo: What the leading 2020 Dems need to do

The Memo: What the leading 2020 Dems need to do
© Hill Illustration

The Democrats seeking the presidency are entering the most critical phase yet of their campaigns with fewer than 100 days left before the first contest, the Iowa caucuses.

There are 18 candidates left in the field, after Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanGM among partners planning .3B battery plant in Ohio San Francisco 49ers suspend announcer after reference to quarterback's 'dark skin' More than 100 Democrats sign letter calling for Stephen Miller to resign MORE (D-Ohio) became the latest to drop out last week. There are likely five candidates, at most, who have a realistic chance of becoming the nominee. 

What do they need to do?

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Democratic strategist: 'Medicare for All' exposes generational gap within party Yang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations MORE

Biden was the undisputed front-runner in the early stages and retains a slender lead in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national polling average.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Biden has come under pressure from Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenArtist behind gold toilet offered to Trump sells banana duct-taped to a wall for 0,000 Democratic strategist: 'Medicare for All' exposes generational gap within party Yang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations MORE (D-Mass.) in particular. She has surpassed him in several national polls and is also leading the polling averages in the two vital early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Biden needs to improve across the board if his early strength is not to melt away.

The former vice president’s debate performances have been generally poor. At times he has meandered to such an extent that questions about his age and vigor become unavoidable. Biden is 76, which would make him the oldest person ever elected president if he won in 2020.

Biden has also struggled in terms of fundraising, trailing in fourth in money raised in the third quarter. His campaign last week dropped its prior objections to super PACs — a move presumably made out of necessity, but which drew criticism from Warren and her fellow progressive, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocratic strategist: 'Medicare for All' exposes generational gap within party Yang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations Biden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee MORE (I-Vt.).

There is a broader problem, too. There is little evidence, by any metric, that Biden is sparking any great excitement among the Democratic base. 

Biden’s support has proven more durable than his critics expected, but he is nearing a moment of truth.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass)

Warren has shown far greater momentum than any other candidate in the race.

She can credibly claim to be a co-front-runner, at least, alongside Biden, thanks to her polling standing in the early states, her fundraising prowess and the large crowds she draws to her rallies.

But her prominence brings challenges too. At the most recent debate, in Ohio, Warren came under far more sustained attack from her rivals than ever before. She held up adequately but unspectacularly. And there will likely be more jabs to come, starting with the next debate in Georgia on Nov. 20.

Warren has often faced the critique that she is less electable against President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he will 'temporarily hold off' on declaring Mexican drug cartels as terror organization House Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Artist behind gold toilet offered to Trump sells banana duct-taped to a wall for 0,000 MORE than more centrist figures such as Biden. She and her supporters vigorously push back against the charge, but how persuasive she is on that point will be crucial, given the Democratic ardor for defeating Trump above all else.

Warren’s lead in Iowa is not a wide one — she is up by fewer than 4 points in the RCP average — and a loss there could put her whole strategy in peril.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders has bounced back since he had a heart attack earlier this month, delivering a vigorous “comeback” performance at the Ohio debate and holding a huge New York City rally at which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez: 'Won't you look at that: Amazon is coming to NYC anyway' House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump Biden: Media misinterpreted Ocasio-Cortez's impact on Democrats MORE (D-N.Y.) delivered an emphatic endorsement of him.

For Sanders, the question is whether he can expand his support. While Warren’s standing in the polls has risen consistently over time, Sanders has plateaued at best. He has not risen above 20 percent support in the RCP national average since May. He stood at 17.3 percent on Friday afternoon.

Skeptics note that Sanders performed so strongly in 2016 in part because he was the only credible alternative to eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonYang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations Top GOP legislator in California leaves party GOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties MORE. A multicandidate field has posed bigger challenges.

Still, Sanders retains a fervent base of support, which in turn has given him a lot of money. He raised more than any other candidate in the third quarter

Can Sanders use his money to somehow catapult himself past Warren in Iowa or New Hampshire? His viability as a potential nominee likely depends on it.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDemocratic strategist: 'Medicare for All' exposes generational gap within party Yang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations Biden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee MORE (D)

Buttigieg’s appeal is plain: He is a very youthful, media-savvy messenger for the same kind of centrism espoused by Biden, who is almost 40 years his senior.

Is that enough? Probably not, unless Biden’s bid truly implodes.

Still, Buttigieg has been making progress in opinion polls, particularly in Iowa. A recent survey from Iowa State University put him in second place, behind Warren, with 20 percent support in the Hawkeye State.

A strong performance in the first state could propel Buttigieg into real contention. But he has struggled mightily to elicit any significant support from black voters. Unless that changes, it will likely be fatal to any hopes he has of becoming the nominee.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisYang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations Biden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events MORE (D-Calif.)

Harris has had a disappointing stretch of late. 

She briefly soared in the polls after mounting a vigorous assault on Biden on race-related issues in the first debates in Miami in late June. 

But she has slid since then and now appears to have been eclipsed by Buttigieg. She is running at around 5 percent in national polling averages, and is polling even lower than that in Iowa.

Getting voters to take a second look in such a crowded field is a challenge — and even more so for Harris, who has been dogged about questions as to her core beliefs and consistency throughout her campaign.

She can shine in debates, however, and will likely need to score big in the two remaining clashes this year if she hopes to vault back into real contention.

Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBloomberg apologizes after critics say his calling Booker 'well spoken' was racist Biden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee Booker unveils legislation for federal bill to ban discrimination against natural hair MORE (D-N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBiden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events There's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down MORE (D-Minn.)

Booker and Klobuchar are significant names on the national stage, but both have struggled to get traction in this race.

Hypothetically, they could have some massive debate moment, or Biden’s bid could fall apart, creating more room in the center-left lane in which they both run.

Short of that, though, they seem doomed to also-ran status.

Other candidates: Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetBloomberg on 2020 rivals blasting him for using his own money: 'They had a chance to go out and make a lot of money' Senators want FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates MORE (D-Colo.), Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats worry about diversity on next debate stage The Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached Steve Bullock exits: Will conservative Democrats follow? MORE (D), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D), former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyDelaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates 2020 Democrats thank Harris for friendship, candidacy after senator drops out MORE (D-Md.), Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardBiden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats worry about diversity on next debate stage MORE (D-Hawaii), Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamWayne Messam suspends Democratic presidential campaign 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum The Memo: What the leading 2020 Dems need to do MORE (D), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), businessman Tom SteyerThomas (Tom) Fahr SteyerBiden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats worry about diversity on next debate stage MORE, author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonDemocrats take in lobbying industry cash despite pledges Chicago suburb to use recreational marijuana sales tax to fund reparations program: report The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Witness dismisses 'fictional' GOP claims of Ukraine meddling MORE, businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangYang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations Biden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events MORE.