The first contests to pick the Democrat who’ll challenge President Donald Trump in 2020 play to the strengths of Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, giving each a significant edge when voters begin winnowing the field of contenders.
Both are talented fundraisers who set down markers by jumping in early to what’s already shaping up to be a crowded field. Most polls of voter preference currently show California’s Harris and Warren, of Massachusetts, trailing former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, who have made previous presidential runs and are better known.
Yet it’s not clear whether Biden or Sanders will run, and each has baggage from past campaigns that would complicate their path to the nomination in a party increasingly defined by women, minorities and young people.
The Iowa caucuses are followed by the New Hampshire primary, where candidates from neighboring New England states enjoy a built-in edge. Vermont Sanders in 2016 and John Kerry of Massachusetts in 2004 won blowout victories, and Warren hopes to follow suit.
For now, many Democratic political operatives gauge Warren and Harris as front-runners for the nomination.
“Harris has the most self-evident path on paper,” said Brian Fallon, who served as Hillary Clinton’s national press secretary in 2016 and isn’t involved in any of the current campaigns. “Warren has the crispest rationale and has shown a penchant for driving the conversation.”
The Iowa caucuses a year from now will mark the official beginning of the months-long nomination process. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker entered the race on Friday, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand jumped in last month, and at least a dozen other Democrats have taken at least preliminary steps toward a campaign or are considering the race.
Warren’s economic message — taking on Wall Street and addressing income inequality — is well-suited to the populist leanings of the state’s Democrats. Iowa catapulted Barack Obama’s insurgent 2008 candidacy and gave Sanders an initial burst of momentum to make a highly competitive challenge to Clinton, who was the odds-on favorite in 2016.
“I would definitely say that Elizabeth Warren is a front-runner,” said Bryce Smith, the 27-year-old Democratic Party chairman of Dallas County, which includes the Des Moines area. “The name recognition dramatically helps her. Her progressive policy and background in the Democratic arena puts her out in the the front of the pack, or towards the front of the pack.”
Smith said Warren’s proposal for a 2 percent wealth tax on net worth above $50 million, rising to 3 percent above $1 billion, will appeal to Iowa caucus-goers. “We don’t see that as a big impact to the people living here in Iowa,” he said. “That taxation might actually come back to help us in the long run.”
If Warren pulls off a win in Iowa “she should have an advantage in New Hampshire from the exposure she’s had for many years just being here, that most people who run for president from Massachusetts end up having,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant based in Boston. “You do that, you’re hard to stop.”
Next come Nevada and South Carolina toward the end of February, and then the Super Tuesday states on March 3, where Harris enjoys advantages and is widely seen as the candidate to beat, given her biographical appeal and policy emphasis on civil and immigrant rights.
South Carolina is the first primary with a significant share of black voters, a pillar of the Democratic base that fueled the victories of Clinton in 2016 and Obama in 2008, and Harris’s message is tailored to that community. The Palmetto State has picked the Democratic nominee in all but one contest since 1992, and Harris, who would be the first black woman in the Oval Office, has history-making appeal to a base that’s also heavy on women.
“I think she’s the front-runner in the primary, period. In South Carolina, definitely,” said Bakari Sellers, a former Democratic state senator from South Carolina. “My momma and her friends choose the Democratic nominee,” he said, referring to older black women who are active and have leading roles in the community.
Another benefit for Harris is that her delegate-rich home state of California votes months earlier than usual, on March 3 — the state’s primary in 2016 was June 7 — and plans to let voters cast their ballots beforehand. Several Super Tuesday states like Alabama and North Carolina have large shares of black voters.
Plenty of factors could change that dynamic, starting with the shape of the field. A run by Sanders, whose message and target constituency are similar to Warren’s, could cost her support. And Booker may be a formidable competitor to Harris among black voters.
“Senator Harris, along with Senator Booker, are positioned to do well,” said Symone Sanders, a former aide to the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign. “But I caution people to think just because they’re black means they have a huge advantage over non-black candidates.”
Both have courted African-American lawmakers and made overtures to voters with their platforms. Harris, who announced candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, has a proposal to reduce racial disparities in maternal mortality, while Booker has offered a “baby bonds” plan aimed at eliminating the wealth gap between white and black children.
“In a two-person race like in 2008 and 2016, you need to put together a coalition of several different groups of voters,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to Obama. “But in a large field like the Republican contest in 2016, dominating one group of voters can be sufficient to win.”
A cluttered field of progressives, which includes Gillibrand, could split votes on the left and clear the way for a more moderate candidate like Biden. Several other Democrats who likely would run more centrist campaigns also are weighing bids, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
Julian Castro, a Housing and Urban Development secretary under Obama, has a unique appeal to the growing Latino electorate as potentially the first Hispanic president. The field also includes Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who’d be the first openly gay and the first millennial president.
One wild card is former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who generated an enthusiastic following, and demonstrated prodigious fundraising ability, in his ultimately unsuccessful campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz last November.
Early as it is, Trump’s been doing a little handicapping on his opposition. In an interview with the New York Times, he said Harris had “a little better opening act than the others” and that Warren’s credibility was damaged by her release of DNA testing indicating she had some distant Native American ancestors. Trump has frequently ridiculed Warren for her claim of Native American heritage, calling her “Pocahontas” — a nickname that she and some American Indians have called a slur.
In a separate interview with CBS, the president was dismissive of Booker: “I know him. I don’t think he has a chance.”