The Atlantic

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

Kamala Harris is the most significant candidate to leave the race, while it’s not clear whether Michael Bloomberg is major or mediocre.
Source: Mike Blake / Reuters

In the Christian calendar, Advent is the time of keeping watch, awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. So, too, it is proving the time to keep watch in the Democratic presidential primary—as the field reshuffles and the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary draw nigh.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts his followers to vigilance: “Understand this: If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” But like Peter in Gethsemane, your cheat sheeter dozed off, taking two weeks for paternity leave just as a flurry of activity struck the presidential campaign. Whoops!

So to catch up: Since we last spoke, Michael Bloomberg and his substantial coffers entered the bid for the Democratic nomination, hot on Deval Patrick’s heels. Meanwhile, three Democrats left the race. The most consequential and notable of these is Kamala Harris, the senator from California—the most significant candidate so far to end her campaign this cycle, though she won’t be the last.

During her quick ascent from California attorney general to powerful Washington, D.C., figure, Harris was hailed as an Obamaesque politician. She won praise for her prosecutorial skill in Senate hearings, and started her campaign with a massive rally in Oakland. And that wasn’t even the high point of her bid. That came in a June Democratic debate, when Harris knocked the former vice president, and current front-runner, Joe Biden on his heels during an exchange about busing and school integration. She was soon polling near the top of the pack.

But the aftermath of that moment hinted at why Harris’s campaign is now history. Having hammered Biden, she struggled to articulate what her actual position was and how it was materially different from his. The vagueness of her stances in general, but especially on health care, proved to be a weakness. So did her record as a prosecutor—once a feather in her cap, but a vulnerability with activists who dominate the Democratic primary. Her campaign was also a chaotic mess, according to a recent New York Times report. With the writing on the wall, Harris left the race rather than dragging out the inevitable, perhaps a wise maneuver.

The two other departures from the race might be described as “expected,” but that would suggest that someone was paying attention to either candidate. Montana Governor Steve Bullock staked his campaign on being an executive who won in a Donald Trump–voting state, but he proved more alluring on paper and to pundits than to actual voters. Also out is Joe Sestak, the Steve Bullock of the He-also-ran? tier of the race. Unlike Bullock, the retired admiral and U.S. representative didn’t even earn pious, handwringing centrist laments in his late-announced, early-ending bid.

These exits leave the field at a still-unwieldy 17 candidates. Not that all of those candidates are created equal. Only seven—Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang—have qualified for the next Democratic debate, on December 19.

Within the other nine, there are three tiers. First, there are Cory Booker and Julián Castro, prominent national politicians who once seemed to have potential as candidates but who have struggled to gain much purchase in polls. Then, there’s a group of candidates who may have much to speak for them but who have never looked like serious contenders, for various reasons: Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Marianne Williamson, and the newcomer Deval Patrick.

Finally, in a category of his own (as he would surely want it) is Michael Bloomberg. No one seems to know what sort of candidate he is. Bloomberg has the cash to stay in the race as long as he wishes, but by rejecting donations, he guarantees that he can’t make the debate stage. Meanwhile, he has begun his campaign with rhetoric that seems more similar to 2012-era Mitt Romney, in both substance and tone deafness, than to other Democrats. Steyer shows that money can buy one’s way onto a debate stage, but that it can’t buy real traction.

Bloomberg’s strategy is reportedly to wait out

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