WASHINGTON — A large group of Democratic presidential contenders is off to an early and intensive start in 2019, even though the first caucus and primary votes will not come until next February.
But some experts are already predicting that the race for the party nomination could be one of the longest and nastiest in years. Nearly 20 Democrats have jumped into the 2020 election battle so far, and many face the daunting task of trying to boost their name recognition and raise money.
Among the latest Democrats to officially announce a presidential bid was South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“The forces changing our country today are tectonic, forces that helped to explain what made this current presidency even possible,” Buttigieg told supporters at his kickoff event this week in South Bend. “That is why this time it is not just about winning an election. It is about winning an era.”
Buttigieg has risen from relative obscurity to being a contender in recent polls in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Biden leads the pack
The latest Morning Consult survey has former Vice President Joe Biden leading the Democratic pack at 31 percent support, followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at 23 percent, California Sen. Kamala Harris at 9 percent and Buttigieg tied at 7 percent with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Biden has yet to officially announce and is expected to do so in the coming weeks.
Like many of the Democratic contenders already in the race, Harris has focused much of her attention on President Donald Trump.
“We cannot afford to have a president of the United States who stokes the hate and the division. We can’t,” Harris told supporters this month at a rally in Iowa.
Struggling to get noticed
Among those working to gain visibility in the crowded Democratic field are New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Rep. Eric Swalwell and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who officially launched his campaign with a rally in his home state in early April.
“I am running for president to first and foremost try to bring this country back together!” Ryan told supporters.
In addition to Biden, others who may enter the race soon include Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton. Eventually, the number of Democratic contenders could go to 20 or beyond.
Even though Democratic voters have lots of choices, they seem most eager to find someone who can beat Trump, according to pollster John Zogby.
“Whom do they do it with? Do they do it with a progressive candidate or a mainstream candidate? That is one question. Do they do it with an older traditional candidate or a young face?” he asked.
One dynamic expected to play out in the race ahead is the ideological divide within the Democratic Party. A Gallup survey in January found that most Democrats see themselves as liberal. Fifty-one percent in that Gallup Poll chose the liberal label, while 34 percent called themselves moderate and 13 percent said they were conservative.
WATCH: Long, Ugly Battle Likely Ahead for Democratic Candidates
It could get rough
Some experts predict that a large field lacking a clear front-runner is a recipe for a long and potentially nasty campaign.
“I think it will be one of the most negative campaigns we have ever seen in a Democratic primary. We are already seeing this,” said Jim Kessler of Third Way, a center-left public policy group. “Because you have got 15 or 16 candidates out there who feel like, ‘Unless two or three of them [other contenders] are really dragged down, I have absolutely no chance.’ “
In order to set themselves apart, some of the Democratic contenders are less focused on Trump and more interested in bringing lasting change to the country. It’s a theme often sounded by Booker, Warren and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, among others.
“I think Democrats are going to run on inequality and economic growth, and that is what they should be running on because those are the issues really facing the country that have not been dealt with,” said Brookings Institution expert Elaine Kamarck.
The familiar and the new
For the moment, the Democratic primary battle seems to be between some familiar and experienced contenders like Biden and Sanders and a group of younger, dynamic candidates that includes Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke and Booker.
Sanders appears to be having some success building on his failed White House bid in 2016, when he lost out to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after a long and difficult campaign.
Sanders led the Democratic pack in fundraising for the first quarter of 2019, drawing $18 million. Harris was in second place, raising $12 million, followed by O’Rourke, $9.3 million; Buttigieg, $7 million; and Warren, $6 million.
Fundraising numbers are often seen by strategists and analysts as an important indication of a candidate’s strength, especially in a crowded field like the one shaping up for Democrats in 2020.
View from Trump world
Trump’s re-election campaign has also been busy collecting donations, raising $30 million in the first quarter, a notably large sum for an incumbent president this early in an election cycle.
Trump and his Republican allies have already signaled they will try to brand the Democrats as “socialists” and will focus on sweeping plans to expand government health care and tackle climate change that some Democratic candidates have endorsed.
Trump does face a Republican primary challenge from former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.
Weld told CNN on Wednesday that he has a strategy “to win, not just to weaken anybody.” Weld, who has a long record as a moderate in a party that now leans solidly to the right, said his focus will be to defeat Trump in New Hampshire, the state that will hold the first primary next February. Trump won the New Hampshire primary in 2016, a significant moment in his march to the nomination.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Trump predicted that he would likely face either Biden or Sanders as the Democratic nominee in 2020:
“It will be Crazy Bernie Sanders vs. Sleepy Joe Biden as the two finalists to run against maybe the best Economy in the history of our Country (and MANY other great things)!”