The Atlantic

The 2020 U.S. Presidential Race: A Cheat Sheet

Bill de Blasio was out in front of the Democratic Party’s leftward shift—but then other candidates left him far behind.
Source: Gary Cameron / Reuters

If someone had said on January 1, 2014 that the 2020 Democratic presidential race would feature a contest between leftists and moderates trying to appeal to leftists, it would have been a big surprise, but it would also have sounded like good news for Bill de Blasio. That day, De Blasio was inaugurated as mayor of New York after defeating a host of more moderate Democrats and then easily dispatching a Republican. He had big ideas for a progressive overhaul of New York City after years of Michael Bloomberg’s technocratic reign, and he eyed a larger national role for his brand of policy. In The Atlantic, Molly Ball wondered whether de Blasio’s plans were too much, too fast.

But almost six years later, that mayoral election looks like a watershed for electoral progressivism. In the next election, Senator Bernie Sanders ran an unexpectedly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton. Two years later, Democratic voters sent a host of strong progressives, led by New York’s own Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to Congress. Not every Democrat in the 2020 race is a progressive, but most are to the left of past nominees—and those who aren’t find themselves on the defensive over their stances on issues like health care. One of those leftist candidates is de Blasio himself, who entered the race in May.

But as it turned out, the 6’5” mayor towered over the field only in physical stature. People might have liked de Blasio’s political vision but they didn’t like him. In one final indignity, the Working Families Party, which he helped found, announced this week that it was endorsing Senator Elizabeth Warren for president. It was, to be fair, an acrimonious decision—but only between Warren and Sanders. De Blasio was an also-ran in this race, just as he was in the larger contest. On Friday, he announced on Morning Joe that he was ending his campaign.

What went wrong? First, Warren and Sanders stole de Blasio’s spotlight. Both have their own weird charismas, very different but both more powerful than de Blasio’s, and they also have a larger platform. New York City may be the country’s leading city, but it’s still hard to be a mayor running for president. The last mayor to win a presidential nomination was in fact the Big Apple’s mayor, but that was DeWitt Clinton, in 1812. De Blasio’s run more closely mirrored John Lindsay’s 1972 flop.

His reputation as mayor didn’t help. De Blasio succeeded in implementing many of his pet policies, and he won reelection, but he hasn’t been an especially beloved steward of the city, especially among the chattering classes, who could either be a New York mayor’s best ally or his worst enemy in trying to go national. He quarreled with the press and was embroiled in a series of minor scandals. Then there was the presidential run, which came against the counsel of nearly everyone who knew de Blasio, and which only seemed to convince New Yorkers he was bored with the job. In a Siena college poll of the New York primary this week, de Blasio registered 0 percent. So much for favorite sons.

He didn’t do much better nationally. De Blasio qualified for the first Democratic debates, and actually put in a decent, if somewhat stilted, performance, but he didn’t manage to qualify for the latest debate, and his polling was headed into oblivion nationwide, too, making his exit inveitable.

“I feel like I’ve contributed all I can to this primary election,” de Blasio said on Morning Joe Friday. There’s an unbecoming mix of self-pity and self-aggrandizement in that statement, but he’s not wrong: This wasn’t de Blasio’s year, but he helped set the table for the contest he’s leaving.

As the primaries progress, this cheat sheet will be updated regularly.

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