Clear leaders have emerged in the Democratic pack

There are 23 Democratic presidential candidates. But it's starting to look more like a gang of five with a solid leader, a well-known challenger, and three contenders coming up on the outside.

Polls show Joe BidenJoe BidenPoll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April Obama has taken active interest in Biden's campaign: report The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE surging into a big lead after announcing his candidacy last month. Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment MORE is a steady, though distant, second.

Emerging in national polls and polls in key states, is a second tier — Senators Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren unveils Native American policy plan Poll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April Obama has taken active interest in Biden's campaign: report MORE of Massachusetts and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPoll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Fox News poll shows Trump losing to Biden, Warren, Sanders and Harris MORE of California and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegPoll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Hillicon Valley: Deepfakes pose 2020 test for media | States beg Congress for more election security funds | Experts worry campaigns falling short on cybersecurity | Trump officials urge reauthorization of NSA surveillance program MORE — consistently ahead of the rest of the pack.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the Real Clear Politics average of recent national polls, Biden is at 35 percent, more than double Sanders’ support, with Warren, Harris and Buttigieg in the higher side of single digits. No one else breaks 4 percent.

The same holds in surveys in next year's important early contests. In Iowa, site of the first caucuses in February, Biden holds a narrower lead over Sanders, followed by Buttigieg, Harris and Warren.

There's a similar pattern in the first two primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina (where New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker edges out Buttigieg), as well as two huge March contests in delegate-rich California and Florida

Polls, at this stage, largely reflect name recognition; events of the next six months — debates, political support, fund-raising, any major mistakes or scandals — could jumble the race. But with this accelerated process, it's very uphill for anyone with little support at this stage to blow past the field. 

There is a sense that support for Sanders, whose core backing seemed rock solid, may continue to erode. The biggest target, though, for all others is Biden; that's where the votes are.

ADVERTISEMENT

The former Vice president, who at 78 would be the oldest President in American history, has gotten off to an auspicious start with a carefully controlled campaign that minimizes exposure to the media and even voters, reducing risks for mistakes. The early attack lines on his handling of the 1991 Anita HillAnita Faye HillAnita Hill: I could see myself voting for Biden over Trump Bill Maher: Buttigieg a 'little too young' to be president What I saw at the last impeachment: Rules are for little people MORE-Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasWhat to know about the fight over Trump's tax returns Liberal, conservative Supreme Court justices unite in praising Stevens Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Harris walks back support for eliminating private insurance | Missouri abortion clinic to remain open through August | Georgia sued over 'heartbeat' abortion law MORE hearings or a vote against a corporate-friendly bankruptcy bill seems ancient history. That was all known to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaForget conventional wisdom — Bernie Sanders is electable 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care Obama shares summer reading list MORE in 2008 when he picked the Delaware Senator to be his running mate.

A more relevant liability may be that Democratic challengers, like Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe return of Ken Starr Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress Trump defends promoting conspiracy theory about Epstein's death: 'It was a retweet' MORE in 1992 or Barack Obama 16 years later, succeeded by making the election about the future. Biden does not resonate future. Perhaps the antipathy to President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren unveils Native American policy plan Live-action 'Mulan' star spurs calls for boycott with support of Hong Kong police Don't let other countries unfairly tax America's most innovative companies MORE will make that less germane next year.

To overtake the front runners, any insurgent will have to credibly show in the polls they can win in November; the overwhelming desire to beat Trump is a higher priority than ideology, age, gender or race for many Democratic voters.

The large field of also rans, as of today, bring some pretty good credentials. It was a short while ago that Booker and Texas Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke unveils plan to combat white nationalism, gun violence The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy O'Rourke says he will not 'in any scenario' run for Senate MORE were considered among the party's rising stars. Others include successful Western governors, a former Obama cabinet member, two women Senators just reelected overwhelmingly, some of the highest profile young House members and Colorado Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThe Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? Hickenlooper expected to end presidential bid on Thursday Ex-Obama campaign staffer says Hickenlooper should end White House bid, run for Senate MORE, considered one of the most thoughtful politicians in the land.

They not only have to take votes away from the front-runners but outpace the trio of challengers who're establishing a marker.

ADVERTISEMENT

These three face different challenges to move up. Warren has to deftly persuade the party's left that Sanders is yesterday and she's tomorrow. Her further ascension is inextricably tied to his slippage. 

Harris has to show on the campaign trail the same command she displays as a prosecutor/inquisitor; she devastated Attorney General William Barr in a Judiciary Committee hearing this year. As a candidate, too often she equivocates, looking over her left shoulder — refusing, for example, to criticize Sanders’ proposal to allow imprisoned murderers and rapists to vote. 

Buttigieg has to build on his zeitgeist moment as the new generation outsider, persuading America it’s ready for his unusual mix of attributes: a 37-year-old mayor of a city with little more than 100,000 people, gay, an Afghanistan war veteran, committed Christian, and very brainy Rhodes scholar. 

The tough tests eventually for every aspirant will be to marshal the resources and strategy to navigate a difficult nominating process in which 29 states — with the vast majority of delegates — hit the starting blocks in the first six weeks.

If modern political history is a guide, it may not be sufficient to win Iowa or New Hampshire, the first two tests — but no candidate has won the nomination after losing both.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.