Early Campaign Strategies for the Top Democratic Contenders

I thought it might be helpful to do a roundup of the latest news about the top 2020 Democratic presidential contenders.

  1. Joe Biden still hasn’t announced, but the whole idea of kicking things off with Stacey Abrams as his running mate has been nixed. Abrams recently said, “I think you don’t run for second place.”
  2. Bernie Sanders told Chris Hayes that he would not support the legislation announced by House Democrats to strengthen Obamacare.
  3. Pete Buttigieg is definitely benefiting from the media’s love affair with the narrative of an underdog on the rise.
  4. Elizabeth Warren announced a plan on Wednesday to target corporate agriculture and support family farms.
  5. Kamala Harris wants the federal government to help close the teacher pay gap.
  6. Cory Booker gets his turn at a CNN town hall meeting Wednesday night.
  7. Even the hometown press is going after Amy Klobuchar for her record as county attorney.
  8. Now that the press has covered the fact that Beto O’Rourke sometimes stands on countertops and waves his arms too much, they don’t seem to be paying much attention to him.
  9. Kirsten Gillibrand released her tax returns and called on other candidates to do the same.
  10.  Julian Castro is making universal pre-K his signature issue.

That’s what the press is paying attention to. When it comes to overall campaign strategies, it is very likely that the race between these candidates will go through several cycles in the months between now and when the nominee is officially confirmed at the Democratic Convention. But with some of the top contenders, we are starting to see how those plans are developing.

For example, it is clear that Elizabeth Warren is laying the groundwork for being the policy wonk of the field. Given her reputation as a fighter, she can build on that to create a strong message about why she’s running and what she wants to accomplish.

The move by Bernie Sanders to hire people like David Sirota and Briahna Joy Gray indicates that he might be counting on the idea that his base of voters from the 2016 primary is large enough to make him a top contender in such a large field of candidates.

Edward-Isaac Dovere writes that Cory Booker is happy to be flying under the radar right now.

The other 2020 Democrats will have their media moments, Booker and his campaign people believe, and the voters will cycle through them. And as that happens, he’ll keep reaching out to voters in small venues, such as these in Ames and Davenport, and building out an organization to hold on to them. Others will flare up and falter, according to the Booker campaign’s plan, and the New Jersey senator will be there to pick up the pieces…

…while opposing campaigns snicker that he’s already become an also-ran, several top Democrats look at him and see a potential sleeper—if he can raise enough money to keep his campaign together, and hold on to nervous supporters who see other candidates seeming to leap ahead while he insists he’s the tortoise.

In Iowa and the other early-primary states, Booker’s people are among the more experienced and respected on-the-ground operatives…

At this point, Booker is betting on the tortoise approach of “slow and steady wins the race.”

I’ve always thought that Julian Castro’s game plan was to develop a large enough bloc of support (primarily in the Hispanic community) to play kingmaker and possibly vie for a vice-presidential slot.

As I watch the early stages of the race Kamala Harris is running, what is most notable is that she seems to be focusing on her natural base of support among Californians and African Americans. In terms of the former, she has gained the support of 21 of the state Senate’s 28 Democrats, 75 percent of the caucus. In addition, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Governor Gavin Newsom, and the labor and civil rights leader Dolores Huerta serve as her California campaign co-chairs.

As a graduate of Howard University and a member of the AKA sorority, Harris is plumbing the depths of those connections, while spending a lot of time talking to African American audiences—including speeches at Martin Luther King’s church and Morehouse College in Atlanta this week.

This is one of the clearest examples of an early campaign strategy that sets the candidate up well for the future. Harris knows the important role California’s early primary will play this year. She is also aware of the fact that African Americans (particularly Black women) are one of the most powerful forces in national Democratic politics today. She needs them firmly behind her. Once that is accomplished, she can do what Jamele Bouie discussed several months ago.

One possible implication of all of this is that black candidates may have the strategic advantage in the Democratic primary. Not because they’ll automatically win black voters, but because they won’t have to demonstrate the same social solidarity. Like Obama, they can stay somewhat silent on race, embodying the opposition to the president’s racism rather than vocalizing it and allowing them space to focus on economic messaging without triggering the cycle of polarization that Clinton experienced.

Beto O’Rourke is counting on the same strategy that got him within a few points of beating Ted Cruz; I’m not sure why Kirsten Gillibrand is in this race; Amy Klobuchar is going nowhere unless something changes dramatically; and Pete Buttigieg will have to prove he’s more than just the media’s favorite underdog to be taken seriously.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.