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U.S. Politics What’s next in the Democratic nomination race? A guide to the debates, candidates and more

Democratic nomination candidate Joe Biden speaks as Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris listen during the Sept. 12 debate in Houston.

Mike Blake/Reuters

The U.S. Democratic Party wants a champion who can unseat President Donald Trump. Who will it be? What will they stand for? And will they have what it takes to win over a nation that’s been polarized and transformed by three years of Republican rule?

Ambitious and contradictory visions for health care, the environment, immigration and the economy are battling for supremacy, but we won’t see the final victor for a while. For the rest of 2019, the crowded field of candidates is still in the debate stage, with the most recent one on Sept. 12 and the next one on Oct. 15. Canada will start and finish a federal election before the Democrats even reach the primaries, setting the stage for a presidential election showdown next November. To navigate the long process ahead, here’s a primer on the candidates, major issues and the dates to watch.

The debates

Why debates matter so much this year

To whittle down its large field of candidates, the Democratic Party this year scheduled up to 12 debates in six rounds of up to two, with increasingly strict thresholds for who can participate. The first two rounds gave 20 a chance to speak, albeit briefly and not all on the same stage on the same nights. The third round had 10 speakers, the first time all of them could share the same stage in one night.

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FirstJune 26-27Miami
SecondJuly 30-31Detroit
ThirdSept. 12Houston
FourthOct. 15Ohio (city TBA)
FifthNovember TBATBA
SixthDecember TBATBA

For the candidates, qualifying for each round is a vicious cycle of fundraising and publicity. To get on the debate stage, they need to meet minimum thresholds of unique donors and registered support in officially recognized polls. To make the third round, candidates needed 130,000 donors and a minimum of 2-per-cent support in polls, up from 65,000 and 1 per cent in the first two rounds. But to get donors and higher poll numbers, they need the exposure that the debates provide. This has made the candidates more dependent on national media coverage and wealthy donors who can pay for the advertising needed to get more small donors.

Recaps of past debates

Round 1

June 26: First debate a sparring match over health care, immigration

June 27: Harris draws first blood, forcing Biden on defensive over race

Round 2

July 30: Five key takeaways from night one

July 31: Joe Biden versus everybody dominates night two

Round 3

Sept. 12: Democratic candidates gang up on front-runner Biden

The candidates

Progressive front-runners

  • Bernie Sanders: The 2016 Democratic race brought this Vermont senator, who self-identifies as a socialist, a broad but boisterous base of “Bernie bros” who welcomed his plans for universal health care and fiery rhetoric aimed at banks and corporations. He supports the Medicare for All and Green New Deal plans for health care and climate change, respectively (more on those in the “issues” section below).
  • Elizabeth Warren: A Massachusetts senator, she too supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and proposes an “ultra-millionaire tax” on the wealthiest Americans. But positioning herself as a less controversial alternative to Mr. Sanders has been difficult because of her claims to Indigenous heritage, which she once tried to validate with a DNA test despite having no affiliation with an Indigenous nation.

Centrist front-runners

  • Joe Biden: This is the career politician’s third run at the Democratic ticket, and the 76-year-old sees it as his last. He’s been leaning heavily on his eight years as vice-president in the Obama administration, whose economic and foreign policies he promises to restore. But he’s also come under fire for his track record on race, such as the 1991 Anita Hill hearings and school busing in his political home base of Delaware.
  • Kamala Harris: Currently a senator and formerly a state attorney-general in California, Ms. Harris is the highest-profile black candidate and, if chosen for the nomination, would be the first black woman to fight in a U.S. presidential election. She spent her adolescence in Montreal, where her mother taught as a McGill University professor. Like another eminent Quebecker, Justin Trudeau, she’s based her campaign on tax cuts for the middle class and progressive immigration policies.

The down-but-not-outers

  • Cory Booker: This New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor is selling himself on a social-media-savvy image, his relative youth (he’s 49) and a message of national unity.
  • Pete Buttigieg: At 37, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., is the youngest contender for the nomination, and if elected to the White House, he would be the first openly gay president.
  • Julian Castro: This Latino former mayor of San Antonio, Tex., served as housing and urban development secretary during the Obama administration. His campaign is focused on immigration reform and universal prekindergarten.
  • Amy Klobuchar: A Minnesota senator who won public acclaim for her questioning of Brett Kavanaugh in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. As a moderate, she’s been reluctant to support universal health care, but she has promised aggressive measures to halt the opioid crisis and lower prescription drug costs.
  • Beto O’Rourke: A former congressman in red-state Texas, Mr. O’Rourke fought Republican Ted Cruz in a close but unsuccessful Senate race in 2018. In the process, he built a devoted online fan base that’s taken him farther than many of the other lower-tier moderates, but it remains to be seen if he can ever challenge the front-runners.

One-note wonders

  • Bill de Blasio: As mayor of New York, Mr. Trump’s hometown, Mr. de Blasio instituted a universal preschool program and raised the minimum wage. Mr. de Blasio’s main focus is on economic equality and challenging big business.
  • Tim Ryan: A congressman from the Rust Belt state of Ohio, Mr. Ryan is courting the Midwestern blue-collar vote with promises of labour and trade policies to strengthen manufacturing.
  • Andrew Yang: This entrepreneur promises a form of universal basic income called the Freedom Dividend, a $1,000 payout to all Americans over 18.
  • Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock and John Delaney: Think of these three – a Colorado senator, Montana governor and former Colorado governor, respectively – as the Nay Team. They, along with dropped-out candidate John Hickenlooper, have framed themselves in essentially similar terms, as moderates and bipartisan compromisers who think the progressive candidates’ policies are too unrealistic, especially on health care.

Long shots and no-hopers

  • Tulsi Gabbard: This Hawaiian congresswoman has made foreign policy her cause, calling for an end to U.S. military interventionism in Syria and Afghanistan. She’s also been an outspoken defender of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the nation’s years-long civil war.
  • Wayne Messam: Like the others in this category, Mr. Messam didn’t make the cut for the debates but has not dropped out of the race. He is mayor of Miramar, Fla., and owner of a construction company. His signature issue is cancelling student debt.
  • Joe Sestak: A former congressman from Pennsylvania and retired U.S. Navy vice-admiral. His key policies are expanding the Affordable Care Act and combatting climate change with a cap-and-trade regime.
  • Tom Steyer: A billionaire hedge-fund manager turned philanthropist and environmental activist. He says he’d declare climate change a national emergency on his first day in office.
  • Marianne Williamson: This Californian author of self-help books was launched to prominence in the 1990s by Oprah Winfrey, who still calls her a “spiritual friend and counsellor.” She’s also attracted controversy in the past for skeptical views of psychiatry and medicine.

Who’s dropped out so far

  • Kirsten Gillibrand
  • John Hickenlooper
  • Jay Inslee
  • Seth Moulton
  • Eric Swalwell

The issues

Climate change activists take part in the international Strike for Climate protest in Los Angeles on May 24, 2019.

Frederic J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Climate change: Extreme weather, fuelled by greenhouse-gas emissions, is a threat to civilization that scientists warn can only be addressed by aggressive changes to how we live, work and travel – especially in the United States, the second-largest emitter in the world after China. Early in 2019, a Democrat proposal for a Green New Deal called for a massive shift to zero-emission energy sources within 10 years, and upgrades to transportation infrastructure and housing. The Green New Deal is a non-binding resolution that has so far been endorsed by several of the presidential hopefuls, including Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Harris, Mr. Booker and Ms. Gillibrand. Mr. Biden’s climate-change plan adopts some of the Green New Deal’s key points but strikes a more moderate approach.

A patient is given a numbing shot during a procedure to have 11 teeth extracted at a mobile medical clinic in Harrisonburg, Va., on March 2, 2019.

Parker Michels-Boyce/The Globe and Mail

Health care: To get medical treatment, Americans have to navigate a maze of private insurance and the limited public options offered under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act. Democrats are being split between those who want to totally replace private insurance with a single-payer system – Medicare for All – or just expand government care for those who can’t afford insurance. Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren, Ms. Harris and others have each championed their own versions of Medicare for All, while Mr. Biden and Mr. O’Rourke favour the expanded-medicare model.

Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Tex., on June 18, 2018.

Mike Blake/Reuters

Immigration: After years of horrific headlines about border detention camps and Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, the Democratic candidates overwhelmingly agree that Trump-era immigration policy is broken – and most have denounced Mr. Trump for creating a climate of racism by vilifying Mexicans and Central Americans as criminals, rapists and invaders. But there are key disagreements about how to fix immigration. Some candidates favour making irregular border crossings a civil rather than criminal offence, but Mr. Biden and other centrists want to keep existing penalties. Most candidates favour restructuring ICE, but not abolishing it, as left-wing Democratic lawmakers and activists have urged. None are proposing the “open borders” policy that Mr. Trump says they are, but there is a consensus that deportation efforts should be more targeted and family detention should be abolished or curtailed.

What’s next? How primaries and caucuses work

Philadelphia, 2016: Delegates cheer during the second day of the Democratic National Convention. The 2020 party gathering is being held in Milwaukee.

Matt Rourke/The Associated Press

After debate season comes primary season, in which Democrats in each state and U.S. overseas territory choose which candidate their delegates will support for the nomination. These races run from February to June. Most are primaries, or statewide secret-ballot elections. But some are caucuses, an older method of deciding nominees in which delegates meet at a state convention, then declare support en masse and in person. The Iowa caucus on Feb. 3 is the first of the season, and a potential make-or-break moment for the candidates. You may also hear people talking excitedly about Super Tuesday, which is on March 3 this time: That’s the day when the greatest number of states hold their primaries all at once.

Each candidate wants to secure as many delegates as possible who will vote for them at the Democratic National Convention, which is held in Milwaukee next July. Most of the people there will be pledged delegates, who are obligated to support the candidate their home state or territory chose. Then there are the superdelegates – members of the party establishment such as ex-presidents, current elected officials, activists and labour leaders – who have free rein to support anyone they want. Superdelegates were a source of friction in 2016 when most of them backed Hillary Clinton early on, which supporters of her rival Mr. Sanders saw as an unfair advantage. This year, the Democrats are limiting superdelegates’ power by blocking them from voting on the first ballot if doing so would decide the outcome right away.

Primaries and caucuses

Exact dates subject to change

3/3/2020Am. SamoaCaucus6
3/14/2020N. MarianasCaucus6
6/6/2020V. IslandsCaucus6
6/7/2020P. RicoPrimary51

Source: The New York Times

More reading

Analysis from David Shribman

It’s finally happened: Democrats have turned on Obama’s legacy

The Democratic debates exposed a failure to resolve the party’s growing identity crisis

Democratic contenders too busy fighting each other to worry about Trump yet


Editorial: When Trump (dog) whistles, that doesn’t mean Democrats should come running

Lawrence Martin: In the Democratic debates, Trump triumphs

Compiled by Globe staff

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With reports from Adrian Morrow, Tamsin McMahon, Associated Press, Reuters and The New York Times News Service

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