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With the 2020 US presidential election less than two years away, more than a dozen Democratic Party candidates have emerged with the goal of winning their party’s nomination and challenging President Donald Trump.

Among the candidates are familiar names, such as Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who challenged Hillary Clinton in 2016 for the party’s nomination, and newcomers, including Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, the first Samoan-born and Hindu member of Congress, and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg, the youngest and first openly gay Democratic candidate.

“In the primaries, voters tend to vote much closer to the extremes,” said Richard Pacelle, head of UT’s Department of Political Science. “But the general election will come down to who can win Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, areas where the Democrats are resurgent but still need the right candidate who can win back the six million who voted for Obama in 2012, then were disappointed and turned to Trump and his populist message in 2016.”

Pacelle discussed the Democratic candidates and what can be expected from the upcoming primary season.

Whom do you consider to be the immediate frontrunners among the candidates who have officially declared their candidacy?

At this point, the first tier of candidates will be ones with the most name recognition and access to fund-raising dollars: [Vermont Senator] Bernie Sanders, [California Senator] Kamala Harris, [former Texas Congressman] Beto O’Rourke, and [former Vice President] Joe Biden, if he officially declares his candidacy.

Sanders is familiar from his last run. And normally I would include [Massachusetts Senator] Elizabeth Warren among the favorites, but I think Sanders takes away from her base, on top of the controversy around her Native American heritage. Harris isn’t as well known, but she offers an alternative that will play well with voters. She’s younger, a woman of color, not too radical, and is from California, where she will have fund-raising and a larger share of the electors during the primaries.

O’Rourke provides, in some way, the most interesting candidate in the race. He is a mirror, in a sense; people see in him what they want to see. He had a mercurial rise and was a symbol of a passing of the torch from one generation to the next. Progressives think he is very progressive, but his voting record is much more moderate. People love his personality. I have never heard people rave so much about a candidate. But campaign insiders and the media see him as shallow and feel like some of his veneer has been taken off. He is either a superhero or the man behind the curtain—the stripped away great and powerful Oz who turns out just to be another fast-talking guy.

Are there outsiders among the candidates who may emerge among the favorites?

There are outsiders who will probably not make it to the end, such as [New York Senator] Kirsten Gillibrand and Gabbard. But you also have lesser-known candidates like Buttigieg and [Washington Governor] Jay Inslee who give me the sense they can emerge from the bottom and single themselves out.

Buttigieg is young and progressive in a nonthreatening way for the public. He’s from a blue county in a red state. He could end up on the ticket as a vice president. Inslee has made his platform on environmentalism, but he’s not a one-trick pony. When he speaks, he finds a way to tie in jobs and the economy into his environmental concerns.

During the last presidential election, the Republicans had 17 candidates. You had the big debate for the top contenders, and then the others were essentially at the kids’ table. The key for Buttigieg, Inslee, and the other outside candidates is to figure out “How do I break out?”

Other wild cards include [former Colorado Governor] John Hickenlooper and [New Jersey Senator] Cory Booker. Hickenlooper has overseen this Republican-to-Democratic shift in his state. I can see him as someone grouped together with Inslee but who may be squeezed out. Booker and Harris are often put together because they served on the Senate Judiciary Committee together. He’ll be in the middle to the bottom of the top group.

[Minnesota Senator] Amy Klobuchar may be in the top seven. People spent a lot of time focusing on her in the beginning because she checks off boxes. She’s from Minnesota. She’s progressive and moderate. She’s smart. But there have also been accusations that she mistreats her staff, which will come up.

There’s a very diverse group of candidates. What are some key ways these candidates differ?

One of the differences is generational. Beginning in 2016, we saw the rise of female candidates in both parties but particularly for the Democrats. We see this continue with Harris, Gillibrand, Warren, and Klobuchar. There are candidates of color. There are two candidates younger than 40 years old—Buttigieg and Gabbard.

There has also been a shift toward the progressive. It’s similar to what Republicans have faced for the past decade with the Tea Party movement, which has been successful in driving the party further to the right. You saw the effects here in Tennessee with Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, who as moderates were in positions where it was either move further right or leave Congress.

There has been a fractionalization between progressives and moderates that suggests compromising with the other party is a sign of weakness, and that may wind up excluding a huge block of voters out there who are uncomfortable with Trump but also unsure about the progressives.

What are the key factors that will play a role for any Democrat who wins the nomination and wants to challenge President Trump?

There are a lot of issues that will come up during the primaries: the Green New Deal, universal health care, immigration.

The environment is very important because most Democrats—and even some Republicans—know that we have to take climate issues seriously. But the phrasing of the Green New Deal is problematic because it can be framed by Republicans as a radical idea. They’ve already started saying radical Democrats are going to “take your cows away.”

Health care is a mandatory issue—even most Republicans now support affordable health care, though they do not have a plan yet. Democrats think immigration is a winning issue, but there are pockets of nationalism that have been supportive of Trump’s efforts that they will not see until the general election. You will also see Democrats talking about Social Security and continuing to grow the economy, which continues to do well under Trump.

One key issue may be what Trump called clearing out the swamp, which is removing the corruption in politics. As with coal, Trump made miles with that message—but now look at the issues with his cabinet. For Democrats like Sanders, who will raise much of his money in small donations from average people, they need to hit the issue of corruption so hard. It was successful for them in 2018 and it should be in 2020.

Every demographic seems to favor the Democrats moving forward: older votes are moving out of the electorate, and Republicans have challenges with young, black, and Latino voters, which are groups growing every year. But they will have to turn out a positive message. Trump’s poll numbers are low, but when he is matched against an actual person, like Sanders or Biden, the polls tighten.

Is there still potential for a Republican to enter the race to challenge Trump?

Trump will get a challenge from somebody. The governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, has talked about entering the race. Maryland has become a huge blue state and he’s managed to win there as a moderate Republican. You have Bill Weld, who was governor of Massachusetts and ran on the Libertarian ticket in 2016, who has launched a committee. This might be good time for a Corker or former Arizona senator Jeff Flake to enter the race.

If Trump is really bloodied by the Mueller investigation, there’s a group of Republicans out there who want to see him thrown out of office. Even though Trump voters may be a small part of the electorate, they will be vocal and out there to vote in primaries. Unless something major happens, any challenge to Trump is a suicide mission.


Brian Canever (865-974-0937,

Amanda Womac (865-974-2992,