2020 Candidates Are Lining Up. Which Democrat Matches the Moment?

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in Reno in June. She announced Monday that she was entering the 2020 presidential race.

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s formation of an exploratory committee for president on Monday represents a sort of political ball drop, the beginning of a new year and new campaign that will feature an unusually large number of Democrats seeking the presidency.

Or will it?

As the 2020 Democratic primary gets underway, the defining characteristic of this first stage of the race is the sheer uncertainty about who is even running. More than 30 Democrats are mulling presidential bids, but hardly any of them qualify as an instant front-runner or a gifted, tested campaigner, and some of the biggest names could pass in the end.

[Read here about Elizabeth Warren’s announcement and plans to campaign in Iowa this weekend.]

Even beyond the field of specific candidates, this will be one of the most fluid nominating contests Democrats have had in recent decades. A leaderless party, they are in a moment of transition from center-left politics to a more ideologically pure brand of liberalism.

Democrats are grappling with what they stand for, what their voters expect, and what demographic groups will be most critical in winning an Electoral College majority in 2020. But most of all, they are unified by a once-unimaginable objective that only illustrates how unpredictable American politics has become: ensuring Donald J. Trump is just a one-term president.

It is hard to recall a recent presidential primary where, at the outset of the race, there was this much genuine mystery — not only about who would eventually emerge as the nominee, but who planned to run at all.

Ms. Warren’s announcement Monday was expected. And it will not be a surprise when Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California enter the race in the coming weeks.

But the number of would-be candidates who may ultimately stay out of the race is larger than the list of contenders who are certain to run.

There are the well-known, or at least much-buzzed-about, Democrats who are still deliberating: Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is the most prominent of this group, and leads the field in initial polling in Iowa. But there is also great anticipation over Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the runner-up for the Democratic nomination in 2016, and Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, whose losing Senate bid this year electrified many grass-roots Democrats.

It is unclear if any of these men will enter the race — particularly Mr. Biden, who, associates say, is ambivalent about running after over three decades of presidential fits and starts.

[Make sense of the people, issues and ideas shaping American politics with our newsletter.]

There is also great uncertainty about lesser-known potential contenders who could be formidable — and if the Trump phenomenon proves anything, it is that making any assumptions about candidates is folly.

Will Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — who both just won third terms in presidential battleground states — go beyond their flirtation with running? And what of the roster of current and former Democratic governors, like Steve Bullock of Montana or Terry McAuliffe of Virginia?

Presidential politics recalls the adage that 80 percent of life is showing up.

Except in the case of primaries. Then, it’s about knowing when to show up.

That question, more than anything, is what looms over Ms. Warren’s candidacy: Would she be the president today if she had run in 2016, as some liberal activists and admirers urged her to? Mr. Sanders ended up filling the void on the populist left and ran a surprisingly strong campaign against Hillary Clinton.

Ms. Warren was hardly the first White House hopeful to risk waiting. Bill Clinton, for example, opted out of the 1988 campaign and still became president four years later.

But the more recent history of presidential calculations suggests that candidates are wiser to run when the moment presents itself. That is what Mr. Obama did in 2008 after just four years in the Senate, the same period Ms. Warren would have served by 2016. Some Democrats think 2020 is Mr. O’Rourke’s moment: He has been in the House for just six years, but many liberals see his energy and freshness as inspiring.

[How early do presidential campaigns start? Earlier than you may think.]

One reason Ms. Warren announced on Monday and declared so early, her allies suggested, was to erase any uncertainty about her intentions among supporters whom she kept waiting — and ultimately disappointed — in 2016.

But now, instead of a head-to-head race against Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Warren is entering a wide-open campaign facing questions about her sensitivity on race and her political savvy after the release of a DNA test of her Native American heritage. Her decision to take the test angered some allies on the left and did nothing to stop Mr. Trump’s mockery of her roots.

Timing is also crucial in presidential races because the issues can change so quickly. Mr. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and policies around race and immigration have shifted the political conversation away from matters of economic inequality, which has been the life’s work of Ms. Warren and which defined much of the 2016 Democratic primary.

Still, her party has plainly moved to the left on economics and social justice. So as much as anything, Ms. Warren’s candidacy will test whether 2020 primary voters will demand that their candidates take unwavering positions on issues like universal health care and Wall Street regulations, much as they have historically expected them to do so on supporting abortion rights.

Mr. Sanders’s 2016 candidacy demonstrated that there is hunger among Democrats to confront Wall Street excesses and income inequality. But what’s less clear is how much of a premium the voters will put on purity on these issues — and if they will overlook a softer line from a candidate who inspires them and who they think can defeat Mr. Trump.

Ms. Warren is one of several potential candidates who have crusaded against the influence of wealthy donors and corporations, even to the point of calling out fellow Democrats for taking a more pliant approach to big-dollar fund-raising and business regulation. And she is unlikely to be any less confrontational with rivals in the primary who are heavily backed by billionaire donors, or who are billionaires themselves.

“I don’t think we ought to be running campaigns that are funded by billionaires, whether it goes through super PACs or their own money that they’re spending,” she told reporters on Monday. “Democrats are the party of the people.”

That poses a threat to possible Democratic candidates like Michael R. Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, who are aligned with liberals on important issues like climate change and immigration but embody the kind of capitalist wealth that many despise. She may also cause trouble for non-billionaires like Mr. Booker and Mr. McAuliffe, who have collected enormous sums of money over the years from banks, hedge funds and pharmaceutical corporations. Mr. Booker recently became the first candidate to have a super PAC formed in support of his anticipated campaign.

There is reason to expect Democratic primary voters and activists will be wary of candidates they see as too cozy with big money.

In the 2018 midterms, Democratic candidates who disavowed corporate money fared exceedingly well in primary elections, and the incoming House majority is expected to make ethics and campaign-finance legislation one of its first priorities. Revulsion from a money-soaked political system is one of a few concerns that links Democrats on the activist left, such as Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with less ideological party favorites like Mr. O’Rourke.

It is not difficult to imagine Ms. Warren emerging as a kind of good-government buzz saw on debate stages dotted with billionaires and super PAC beneficiaries. Whether or not voters thrill to her persona or policies, there may be no candidate better equipped than she is to help set the rules of engagement around political money and the 2020 field — and to call out those who flout them.

Ms. Warren’s step into the 2020 race was one of the biggest political stories of the day, but even a Democrat of her stature had to share the news cycle with an ongoing government shutdown and Mr. Trump’s demands that Congress finance a border wall with Mexico. So it is likely to go for most of the 2020 campaign, as a president prone to political brinkmanship and angry outbursts simultaneously navigates divided government and his own battle for a second term.

Crises in government could routinely overshadow the Democratic primary campaign. Democrats’ internal debates about ideology and their party’s identity could be obscured by louder, more venomous clashes between the two parties. And challengers hoping to beat Mr. Trump on the campaign trail may have difficulty competing for attention when he is in the White House — or on Twitter.

At times, there could also be moments of friction between the Democrats running for president and the Democrats helming the party in Congress. In the case of the shutdown, there is relatively little daylight, at least so far: Neither legislative leaders like Nancy Pelosi nor candidates like Ms. Warren want to build a border wall. But in other fights — from cabinet nominations to possible impeachment proceedings — there may be a wider gap between would-be presidents striving to win primary votes and legislative tacticians aiming to outmaneuver Republicans or cut deals with them.

Candidates like Ms. Warren, and other sitting senators like Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker, will each have to strike their own balance between joining the fights of the day in Washington — often in reaction to Mr. Trump — and introducing themselves to voters around the country, outlining their agendas and drawing contrasts with their rivals for the nomination.

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