ground game

The Democratic Party’s big choice in 2020

Manchester, NH - 4/30/2017 - Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the annual fund-raising dinner for New Hampshire Democrats in Manchester, NH, April 30, 2017. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the annual fund-raising dinner for New Hampshire Democrats.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — As former vice president Joe Biden addressed New Hampshire Democrats last weekend, he acknowledged his appearance would kick-start conversation about the 2020 presidential race.

So he made his intentions clear, at least for now, saying, “Guys, I am not running.”

But Biden was right about the start of the next presidential race. And whether or not he’s a part of it, Democrats are starting to consider what kind of candidate would be an ideal opponent for the president.


Trump’s candidacy was unprecedented, and his win was unexpected, so would Democrats be wise to match someone with similar celebrity power? Or should they go with an entrepreneur who has never run for office? Or is the party looking for a new face, particularly a woman or a minority?

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Biden, in many ways, is the opposite of Trump. He served for decades in public life, knows most world leaders, and says he has never owned stock. In fact, required financial disclosures showed Biden was consistently one of the poorest members of the Senate.

Could Democrats win the White House with an unexciting but known entity who can argue that he or she will quietly just do the job without tweeting, er, making too much noise?

“Democrats are just beginning to get their head around which direction they want to go,” said Jim Demers, who led Barack Obama’s campaign in New Hampshire in its infancy. “It might come down to the boring candidates you know versus the new up-and-comers.”

Without a Clinton, Bill or Hillary, looming over — or running in — a presidential race for the first time in nearly 30 years, the potential field of Democratic candidates could be very large. Typically, candidates want a clear shot at the contest, so that’s unusual for a president’s reelection race.


So far there appears to be a generational divide, with potential candidates like Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. All of them will be over 70 years old by the next presidential election.

At the same time, and as The New York Times pointed out this week, there’s a younger generation of Democrats, including Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, or Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who could vie for the nomination.

“In 2020, the Democratic base wants someone with courage, [and] new voters will want someone with vision,” said Jamal Simmons, a former Democratic National Committee aide who has worked on presidential campaigns. “But uniquely in this election, I think the right candidate will need to demonstrate that they are also competent and can do the job.”

Another way to think of the 2020 contest is to look back to the situation Democrats faced in 1984. In that year, the party faced a former Hollywood actor and first-term president. Ronald Reagan had a rocky start to his administration, but he eventually found his way.

To challenge him, Democrats put up a field with a few different types of candidates.


In one corner was John Glenn, a US senator and national celebrity who was the first American to orbit the planet. Then there was Senator Gary Hart, a candidate known for his fresh ideas and, four years later, his extramarital affair. There was an old-school liberal, former senator George McGovern. In the end, former vice president Walter Mondale won the nomination.

Mondale went on to lose the presidential race by a landslide, winning only Minnesota and Washington, D.C.

To win the nomination, Mondale’s aides said they focused on his experience. Speaking after the 1984 campaign at Harvard, his pollster, Peter Hart, said a focus group during the primary showed them this strategy could work.

Hart had the new ideas that could help the economy, but when asked which candidate was better on foreign policy and doing the job, “15 hands shot up for Mondale,” Hart said, according to a transcript of the event. “They answered that Mondale knew what he was doing, he’s experienced, he’s been there.”

When Hillary Clinton picked Tim Kaine as her running mate, he was criticized as being an unexciting choice for the ticket. Kaine even made self-deprecating jokes about it. But for the Clinton campaign, the choice was seen as another way to reinforce a message that the Democratic ticket was more serious about governing than was Trump.

Keeping in mind what happened with Mondale, and also with the Clinton-Kaine ticket, it’s a question whether Democrats will make the same decision in 2020.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: