With an unpopular incumbent Republican in the White House, and no clear favourite for the Democratic nomination, the contest is wide open.
So far, nine serious (or semi-serious) candidates have either announced they are running or formed exploratory committees to lay groundwork for a campaign. More than a dozen other potential major candidates are mulling throwing their hats into the ring before the first caucus in Iowa in February of next year.
The field of candidates is set to make history for its diversity, with more women and visible minorities than in any contest before.
Mr. Booker shot to national fame as the cool-guy mayor of Newark, N.J., overseeing a renaissance of his city’s downtown and personally fielding requests for municipal services on social media. Look for him to trade heavily on this image in the primaries (his introductory campaign video shows him strolling around his neighbourhood, shouting “wassup?” to passersby.) But his mixed record in city politics could also cause trouble: Mr. Booker’s tenure has regularly been criticized for making mostly cosmetic changes to Newark that didn’t effectively deal with underlying problems of poverty and unemployment.
A senator since 2013, Mr. Booker is also an Ivy-League-trained lawyer who spent a few years working for non-profit social-justice groups. Standing 6’3” with a well-modulated baritone, Mr. Booker has a stage presence that should stand him in good stead once the long string of crowded campaign debates begin in the spring.
A 44-year-old lawyer from San Antonio, Tex., Mr. Castro served as secretary of housing and urban development during President Barack Obama’s second term. Mr. Castro has promised to overhaul the U.S. immigration system to make it possible for all unauthorized immigrants to obtain citizenship, create a subsidized prekindergarten program similar to one he set up locally while serving as mayor of San Antonio and bring in universal health care. He has an identical twin brother, Congressman Joaquin Castro.
Youthful and Latino, Mr. Castro appeals to two core Democratic constituencies that the party has to do a better job of motivating to get to the polls. Highlighting immigration could also help him stand out in the crowded field. His challenge will be building a national political organization that can help him break into the top tier of candidates.
Ms. Gabbard was first elected to Hawaii’s legislature at the age of 21, and has spent the last six years in the U.S. House of Representatives. In between, she served in the National Guard, including a tour of duty in Iraq.
Ms. Gabbard’s challenge will be generating attention against higher-profile candidates. She has also drawn criticism for helping her father, a Hawaii state senator, run a campaign against same-sex marriage in the state in the 1990s and early 2000s, and making homophobic comments at the time. Ms. Gabbard issued an apology last week, saying her views on LGBTQ issues have completely changed since then.
During her decade in the Senate, Ms. Gillibrand has become known for successfully pushing for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibited LGBTQ people from serving openly in the military, fighting against sexual misconduct and calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that deports undocumented immigrants.
Ms. Gillibrand could face a bumpy ride from the base for her positions on immigration and gun control while serving as a congresswoman for a conservative upstate New York district in the 2000s: She voted to cut federal funds to sanctuary cities and make it easier to hunt, for instance. Her work as a lawyer for tobacco company Philip Morris in the 1990s could also hamper her campaign.
A centrist first-term senator and former California attorney-general, Ms. Harris was a career prosecutor before getting into politics. She also has a Canadian connection: Ms. Harris spent her adolescence in Montreal, where her mother was a professor at McGill. Ms. Harris graduated from Westmount High School, whose alumni include Leonard Cohen and Moshe Safdie. Not that she was particularly enthralled with the bohemian metropolis, at least at first. “I was 12 years old, and the thought of moving away from sunny California in February, in the middle of the school year, to a French-speaking foreign city covered in 12 feet of snow was distressing, to say the least,” she recounts in her autobiography.
Ms. Harris’s legal background has made her effective in the Senate. But it could also come back to haunt her campaign in a party whose base is clamouring for criminal justice reform. Despite being personally against the death penalty, for instance, Ms. Harris fought a court decision that ruled the statute unconstitutional. And she opposed efforts to oblige the attorney-general’s office to investigate instances of police killing people.
Mr. Hickenlooper is leaning on his executive experience as Denver mayor and Colorado governor – redeveloping downtown, dealing with natural disasters, toughening gun control laws - to stand out in a group full of legislators. Hailing from a swing state, and having dealt with a Republican-controlled state senate at times during his terms as governor, the 67-year-old is effectively pitching himself as a political pragmatist.
His small business background (he ran a brewpub before getting into politics) and dorky-dad mien could play well with middle-class suburban swing voters. But it could also prove overly milquetoast for a party base in search of an exciting leader.
One of Mr. Hickenlooper’s formative experiences, as recounted in a 2017 meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, involved travelling across Canada: He hitchhiked from Vermont to Montreal with two dogs in tow, then took a train to Vancouver. “It’s almost like I was a calf, and someone put a brand on me,” he recounted. “It’s the first time I ever really saw wilderness…it was all these magical names and magical places.”
Mr. Inslee is focusing his presidential campaign on fighting climate change, promising to launch a transition to 100-per-cent clean energy. The plan, which he compares to John F. Kennedy’s moonshot, is meant in part to differentiate himself in a crowded field by picking an easily identifiable top priority. It also earned him an endorsement from Bill Nye, the television science personality who has found new fame with viral videos taking down climate-change deniers.
On his second term as governor of Washington state, the 68-year-old Mr. Inslee is far from a national figure. He did, however, gain some attention for leading one of the lawsuits that temporarily suspended Mr. Trump’s travel ban. He also tried unsuccessfully last year to impose a carbon price on big polluters in his state.
Ms. Klobuchar has cultivated the “Minnesota nice” stereotype of her home state, projecting a folksy public persona and earning a reputation for bipartisan cooperation during her three terms in the Senate. She has been a skilled legislator, sponsoring more successful bills in the last Congress than any other senator.
The former prosecutor hails from the party’s moderate wing; she’s shied away from embracing single-payer healthcare, for instance. While this may be an asset in winning over independent voters, it could work against her with a Democratic base that has moved steadily left in recent years.
Also working against her: A parade of former staffers who say Ms. Klobuchar frequently berates her aides in private, throws papers around her office when she gets upset and makes her staff come to her house and wash her dishes.
Mr. O’Rourke so worries Republicans that one group ran attack ads against him before he had even launched his presidential campaign. They have good reason to fret: The former congressman from the Texas borderlands came within two percentage points of unseating Senator Ted Cruz in the solidly red state last fall, based mostly on the strength of personal charisma. On the policy front, Mr. O’Rourke has largely defined himself by his positions on immigration, calling for a way for unauthorized immigrants to eventually receive U.S. citizenship. He is on the moderate wing of the party, calling for universal health insurance coverage, for instance, while steering clear of explicitly endorsing a single, government-run system.
Mr. O’Rourke’s signature is direct communication with his large fanbase: He has livestreamed everything from air drumming to Baba O’Riley at a fast-food drive-through to getting his teeth cleaned. But these moments have often read as navel-gazing and can reveal an uncomfortable smugness. In January, when Mr. O’Rourke documented a solo road trip in a series of Jack Kerouac-inspired blog posts, CNN excoriated the “white male privilege” inherent in a middle-aged man leaving his family for a couple of weeks to very publicly try to find himself.
The rumpled Vermont grandfather gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money in 2016, campaigning as an ideological purist against establishment interests. With his famously messy hair and gravelly Brooklyn accent (he grew up in New York before decamping for the Green Mountain State in his 20s), the self-described socialist Senator rocketed from long-shot to serious competitor. This time around, he starts his campaign near the top of most polls.
It’s a testament to the strength of Mr. Sanders’ previous run that most of his pledges – universal health care, free university tuition, paid parental leave, tighter rules for banks and other large corporations – have moved from the margins of American politics to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. But Mr. Sanders may be a victim of his own success: With no shortage of candidates championing his policies, Democratic voters may give the aging hippie a miss in favour of someone younger. Mr. Sanders’ previous run also left a bad taste for some Democrats, not least because of the “Bernie bros” – overzealous and often belligerent male supporters of the Senator who took to flaming Clinton supporters on social media.
Mr. Sanders has spent most of his adult life in politics, with stints as mayor of Burlington, Vermont and in the House of Representatives before winning a Senate seat in 2007.
In her seven years representing Massachusetts in the Senate, the former law professor has established herself as a leader of her party’s left. Best known for championing tougher regulation of the country’s banks, she also backs universal healthcare, cheaper student loans and a “wealth tax” on the richest Americans. Ms. Warren opposes the overhauled NAFTA – or U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement – because she argues it does not do enough to stop American manufacturing leaving the country.
Her skill at delivering a populist message – particularly when railing against the excesses of the financial industry – has delivered her a loyal following in a party whose appetite for a more aggressive policy agenda appears to be growing. It also sets her on a collision course with her Senate colleague Bernie Sanders, who is running pretty much the exact same messaging, as the two battle to become the standard-bearer for the left.
Ms. Warren has also faced accusations of cultural appropriation for referring to herself as “Native American” and “Cherokee” despite having no affiliation with any Indigenous nation and being unable to identify any Indigenous ancestors. She only complicated matters last year by trying to use a DNA test to validate her claim.
The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., is aiming to become the U.S.’s youngest-ever and first openly gay president. A former political staffer and consultant, Mr. Buttigieg is also a naval reservist who did a tour of duty in Afghanistan during his first term as mayor.
Mr. Buttigieg faces long odds, largely because of a lack of name recognition. But surprisingly strong fundraising numbers and a burst of media attention, combined with the unpredictable nature of the country’s presidential politics may give him reason to hope for a breakthrough – or at least boost his profile enough to be named vice-presidential running mate by the eventual nominee.
Rounding out the babyface brigade is this 38-year-old congressman, who represents a district in the San Francisco Bay area. Mr. Swalwell is on his fourth term, and is best known for pushing for gun control. Bonus point: He was born in Iowa, the first state to vote in the presidential nominating contest next year, and is playing up his local roots in his campaign.
The former congressman from Maryland was the first Democrat to declare his candidacy, more than three years before the election. But his head start has not resulted in a surge of popularity or exposure: He is so obscure, many U.S. polls haven’t bothered including him. The few that have, show him struggling to crack a single percentage point.
His chance of winning the nomination is slim, but Mr. Gravel has certainly won the competition for weirdest campaign launch video: A montage of other Democratic contenders giving speeches with a ghostly image of Mr. Gravel’s stern, disdainful face superimposed in the background. A senator for Alaska in the 1970s, Mr. Gravel has subsequently been an unsuccessful businessman and activist for a proposal to allow U.S. citizens to propose laws that would be put to national referendum if enough people petition for them.
Here's the official Mike Gravel 2020 Campaign Launch Ad - "Rock 2.0"— Mike Gravel (@MikeGravel) April 8, 2019
Join the #Gravelanche to push American politics to the left and speak truth to power. Get Mike to the debates by donating $1 at https://t.co/Oh4OMaMvFc pic.twitter.com/8tVlY18Hck
Mayor of the Miami suburb of Miramar, Mr. Messam is a small businessman (he owns a construction company) and former college football hero (he played on the 1993 national championship Florida State team.) Mr. Messam also benefits from a compelling personal story, the son of a Jamaican immigrant father who cut sugarcane by hand during his early years in Florida.
Mr. Ryan has been a congressman for Ohio since 2003, representing a swath of the Rust Belt that has been battered by the decline of the manufacturing sector, including the recent closure of Lordstown’s General Motors plant. On the campaign trail, Mr. Ryan is hoping a moderate image will help win back blue collar voters that broke for Mr. Trump in 2016. On Capitol Hill, he is best known for unsuccessfully challenging Nancy Pelosi for leadership of the Democratic House caucus in 2016.
He’s a serial entrepreneur who has never held elected office, but Mr. Yang has won a devoted online following with warnings that the U.S. isn’t prepared for the rise of automation. His proposed solution is a universal basic income, specifically a monthly $1,000 payment to every American, meant to blunt the effect of this transition. Whether he can translate his crew of meme-loving fanboys into any real-world support remains to be seen.
A California self-help author, Ms. Williamson is hoping to repeat Mr. Trump’s feat of winning the big job in the White House without holding any previous office.
Waiting and seeing
Former vice-president Joe Biden, former attorney-general Eric Holder, and former Virginia governor and Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe.