Several Democrats would enter the 2020 presidential campaign with established economic brands. But strategists say it’s their political aptitudes in a national race that may decide who advances.
At least four in a swelled field of possible presidential contenders will likely be seen as the “economy candidates”—an influential group who operatives say should sharpen their individual angles ahead of what’s expected to be a primary filled with similar economic ideas.
In interviews with more than half a dozen strategists, there was some consensus that Joe Biden, the 75-year-old, Scranton, Pa., native, landed on the same economic policy wavelength as Sen. Sherrod Brown, the 65-year-old from Mansfield, Ohio, who recently unveiled a pro-worker blueprint for the Democratic Party.
Moving leftward, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 76, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 68, are largely aligned on their critique of income inequality and banker greed, and their advocacy for corporate reforms.
Breaking down the two groupings, Democratic pollster John Anzalone said “one kind of does ‘the villains’”—Sanders and Warren—and “the other one does ‘I feel your pain,’” referring to Biden and Brown.
This handful of Senate-allied giants have orbited around similar economic themes that dominated the 2016 nomination fight. But the strategists agreed these potential rivals must show decipherable differences in political styles to stand out.
“The differences are matters of emphasis,” said Robert Reich, who served as Labor secretary under President Clinton. “The question will be how convincingly they make their case.”
The 2020 presidential election is just more than 1,000 days away, and the Iowa caucuses are about two years from now. But it’s already clear what will be a defining theme of the Democratic nominating contests and the campaign to defeat President Trump.
“The question in 2020 isn’t, ‘Will the economy be doing well?’” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said. “It’s, ‘For whom is the economy doing well?’”
Biden’s name recognition and humble upbringing could help him build a case that the economy is working against middle-class Americans. For now, he’s been touching ground across the country and speaking at a host of Democratic candidate fundraisers. And his emphasis on “American values” has inspired multiple op-eds, podcasts, and speculation about a third presidential bid.
“Guys like Joe Biden … this goes all the way down to their bones,” Third Way cofounder Matt Bennett said. “This is how they have lived their lives and how they have approached the economy as political leaders.”
But others say “middle-class Joe” may have competition in that space, should he run. Brown, who has already won over blue-collar whites in Ohio, where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 8 points—could work to sharpen his appeal to neighboring battlegrounds. He still has a competitive reelection this year, but with his main Republican challenger, Josh Mandel, now out of the race, Brown looks to be in as strong a position as ever to check off a significant political hurdle to launching a national bid.
In terms of addressing economic strife, Brown “feels it right down to the tips of his toes,” one well-placed source close to several of the four potential economy candidates said. “It’s a visceral reaction to it.”
And while Brown may be the least-known nationally among the group, multiple sources advise against ruling him out.
“It’s the difference between representing Massachusetts and Vermont, and representing Ohio,” the same source said, emphasizing the electoral map.
Still, Sanders and Warren, who hail from the most progressive wing of the party, have baked-in brands that inspire liberal fans and grassroots donors to assemble well beyond New England.
While Sanders has routinely shot down claims that he is prepping for another run, onlookers point to his busy travel schedule in places like Iowa and New Hampshire as evidence that he is considering it.
Sanders could argue that Trump’s tax-code overhaul and failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act have “abandoned any pretense of populism,” D.C.-based political scientist John Sides said.
It’s a message that says, “These people are not looking out for you, but I am,” he added. “That’s how Sanders could do it.”
Another aspect of any political strategy on economics, multiple sources agreed, is the candidates’ own attitudes toward campaign money.
“In the Democratic Party, it’s the online grassroots money” that matters, the source familiar with multiple Democrats said—a nod to the $27-average donations that fueled Sanders’s 2016 campaign.
Reich, who endorsed the Vermont senator in the primaries, agreed: “The real question is, how willing are these Democrats to talk candidly about power and privilege—even at the potential cost of turning off some big Democratic donors?”
Warren has never launched a national bid and would likely be asked about her campaign contributions. She is the Democratic caucus’s biggest fundraiser, reporting over $14 million in cash on hand at the end of 2017—largely from small donors—for what is expected to be an easy reelection campaign in November.
And while her Harvard-inspired brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and recent tome, This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class, evoke a bookish liberal, some point to her sheer policy grasp and readiness to counterpunch Trump as a potent mix.
One strategist argued that Warren is also the best suited of the four possible contenders to navigate the so-called policy litmus tests, many of which include complex economic components, circling the Democratic Party.
“It’s a little bit of the fantasy-versus-reality,” Anzalone said. “Warren is probably the one who can go back and forth between those two.” And “she can talk pure policy better than Sanders,” he added.
But Wall Street rhetoric is only one part of broader economic grievances that may not resonate as strongly across the country as in the Northeast’s financial nerve center, another strategist argued.
“Are people putting their kids to bed at night worrying about banker bonuses, or are they worrying about whether that kid is going to have the opportunity to earn a good life?” Bennett said.