(CN) – Most Democrats agree on the big issues that need solving: health care, climate change and defeating President Donald Trump. But they remain divided on progressive policies needed to get there.
Twenty candidates will hash it out on the debate stage Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit, Michigan, but the campaign trail ahead is every bit as bumpy as Interstate 50 with voters and candidates alike buckling up for the long haul.
“I don’t think it’s fair to whittle the race down to anybody right now, given where we are in the cycle,” said Walter Ludwig, consultant and founder of Indigo Strategies in Washington.
Even though he didn’t enter into the race until April, former Vice President Joe Biden has remained the top pick for most Democrats since January, with 33% of voters in a July 23 Morning Consult poll backing him.
With five decades in politics, Biden’s resume has garnered both criticism and support of his ability to lead the country as president.
“You have people who are judging him now on the crime bill, but you have to go back and look at what things were like at that time,” said Tracy Haverstick, a retiree in Pacific, Missouri. Haverstick ventured onto social media to start the Facebook group “Joe Biden for President,” which currently has more than 1,000 members.
With a multitude of health issues, Haverstick said she is grateful the Affordable Care Act mandates private insurers cover pre-existing conditions. She said Biden continues to support the health care plan her union negotiated on her behalf.
“I’m terrified with this Medicare for All,” Haverstick said. “Don’t get me wrong, I care about other people, I do, but I think there has to be a way forward where you don’t take health care away from all these union workers that spent decades earning these things.”
Miami-based journalist Grant Stern likens Joe Biden to Coca-Cola. On a blind taste test, voters might prefer the policies of other candidates, but they’re apt to choose the Biden brand when they see it.
Stern wrote “Meet the Candidates” voting guides for eight Democratic candidates running for president, including Biden.
“People like the branding, the memory of Joe Biden being there for so long,” Stern said. “The fact that he is still around fighting it out today endears him to people.”
But progressive baby boomer and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts challenges the centrist voice of the Silent Generation.
“Warren really defines almost a whole career in opposition to Joe Biden,” Stern said, citing the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Bill, which Biden backed and Warren opposed from 1995 until it passed 10 years later.
Colorado activist and mom Laila Saad sees hope and strength in Warren.
“There are a lot of people sick of seeing Democrats not take a hard line on Medicare for All,” Saad said. “The big moment of the [June 26 debate] for Elizabeth Warren was her unequivocally saying she was for eliminating private insurance, saying she was actually for Medicare for All and not Medicare for some.”
Many polls have Warren tied for third with U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California, with national voter support ranging from 12 to 14%.
Saad campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, and though many of the Vermont senator’s progressive promises are similar to Warren’s, she finds reassurance in Warren’s mantra of “I have a plan for that.”
Colorado overwhelming supported Sanders in the 2016 primary with nearly 60% of the vote. The state later backed Clinton, marking the fourth time it’s voted blue in the last 10 election cycles.
This time around, Saad is speaking out against the rhetoric of “Bernie or Bust.”
“You let the Democrats decide, and when the Democrats decide, you back that nomination,” Saad said.
Seen as an instigator by some and a revolutionary by others, Sanders’ demand for universal health care is now central to the 2020 debates. Sanders’ 2016 campaign changed what people expect from politics, with a majority of the 2020 candidates rejecting – or downplaying – the role of corporate donations in their campaigns and growing – or projecting – a grassroots base of supporters.
When he announced his candidacy in February, Sanders quickly became the party’s front-runner, dropping to second place only when Biden joined in April. For the duration of his 2020 campaign, Sanders has held a steady 20% pulse in the polls.
“There is a lot of the people who supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and are still supporting him now, but he’s not really showing much ability to grow beyond that,” said Dr. Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. “A lot of the people who are not yet in his camp actually seem fairly hostile to the idea of him as the nominee.”
Rather than look to randomized polls, Masket measures the pulse of the Democratic Party through its most active members. Masket’s analysis clusters Biden behind Harris and Warren in terms of support, and brings New Jersey Senator Cory Booker closer to the front.
Masket attributed Sanders’ stunted growth to his antagonism of the party establishment.
“For people who have been actively working in the party for many years, they take that personally,” Masket said.
Other former Sanders supporters point to the party’s inability to realize his vision.
Erin Fox, a political consultant in Lansing, Michigan, said that after Sanders conceded to Clinton in 2016 he “pulled over on the side of the road and I typed in the search for my state Green Party and I joined.”
Fox is now helping the Green Party vet its own 2020 presidential nominees.
“A lot of folks understand that changing the party leader between a different Democrat or a different Republican doesn’t really have a dramatic effect on their lives. They realize that their problems are systemic and changing the face of the politician is cosmetic,” Fox said.
While national Democrats talk progressivism, the Green New Deal, and universal health care, Fox said the Green Party championed these ideas first.
“Unfortunately, the Democrats just don’t deliver,” Fox said. “That makes me, as a voter, distrustful of promises to fix the system moving forward and I think that we need to get some folks in there who are going to be committed to universal health care.”
Michigan went with Trump in 2016 by just 10,000 votes, breaking a six-election-long blue streak.
True progressivism, Fox said, is not likely to be found on the debate stage.
“Progressivism is being able to put partisanship aside to be able to work together on positive things that we can find consensus on to make progress for people,” he said. “I view it as a way of thinking.”
More Americans are nevertheless engaged in the process than in previous elections.
A July 18 Pew Poll reported 66% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans are following the 2020 candidates closely. In 2011, Democratic interest dropped as low as 35% in 2011 and rose to just 55% in 2015.
While candidates coming together only to disagree might not look like the picture of progress, it is exactly what democracy demands.