It's a crowded field of presidential hopefuls, but get to know the five who are pulling ahead so far

By Rachel DeSantis
August 23, 2019 04:00 PM
Clockwise from top left: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris
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The 2020 Democratic National Convention is still nearly a year away, with nearly two dozen candidates still vying for voters, fundraising dollars and media attention against President Donald Trump.

But a small group stands out in the crowded field, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who remains the likeliest person to face Trump in the 2020 election.

Among other prominent names such as Sen. Cory Booker and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Biden and four other candidates have pulled ahead thanks to their polling averages and the millions of dollars they’ve raised. Here’s what you need to know about them.

RELATED: Meet the 2020 Presidential Candidates

Joe Biden
Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU

Joe Biden

  • National polling average as of this writing: 28.8 percent, according to RealClear Politics
  • Fundraising in the second quarter of 2019: $21.5 million

The vice president under Barack Obama, Biden emerged early as the presumed frontrunner in the race to the White House — and that’s where he’s stayed since launching his campaign in April.

The 76-year-old has been a major figure in the Democratic party for decades, serving as a senator from Delaware from the early ‘70s until 2009, when he left to be Obama’s second-in-command. During his time in Congress, Biden served on both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Biden has said his priorities as president would be rebuilding the middle class, tackling climate change, reforming the criminal justice system and protecting the Affordable Care Act, a signature achievement in Obama’s White House.

RELATED: Joe Biden’s Son Hunter and Hunter’s New Wife Joined the Family to Support Former VP at Democratic Debate

He has not been without controversy, given his long political career; in recent months he’s issued apologies for both how he handled Anita Hill’s sexual misconduct testimony against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas while on the Senate Judiciary Committee and for working with segregationists decades ago.

He also denied claims in April that he’d acted inappropriately toward former Nevada politician Lucy Flores, who said Biden touched her shoulder and kissed the back of her neck without consent in 2014. However, he later acknowledged he had made multiple women “uncomfortable” and said he would be “more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.”

Biden’s personal life has seen its share of tragedy and triumph. A 1972 car accident killed wife Neilia and their daughter, Naomi, though sons Beau and Hunter survived. Biden married his second wife, Jill, in 1977, but lost Beau to brain cancer at age 46 in 2015. (Beau’s widow, Hallie, went on to date Hunter, though the couple later split and Hunter recently married Melissa Cohen.)

Bernie Sanders
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Bernie Sanders

  • National polling average as of this writing: 16 percent
  • Fundraising in the second quarter of 2019: $18 million

Sanders, a senator from Vermont since 2007, surprised many with his seemingly quixotic 2016 run for president — which then came closer than many predicted to besting Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

A democratic socialist born and raised in New York City, Sanders, 77, has long championed progressive policies that he’s helped push into the mainstream, such as “Medicare-for-all,” a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public universities, community colleges and trade schools, criminal justice reform and a broad push to address climate change.

RELATED: Feeling the Bern: Cardi B Sits Down with Bernie Sanders to Chat About the ‘Future of America’

With Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also running for president, Sanders is no longer the only leading progressive in the race, as the two are tackling many of same big issues. (Warren previously called for free tuition at two- and four-year public colleges, though her plan was subject to income, while Sanders’ has no eligibility limitations.)

Polling shows that, like Biden, Sanders faces voter concerns about his age.

Sanders, who would become the first Jewish president should he be elected, has been married to wife Jane O’Meara since 1988 and considers her three children his own. He also has a son, Levi, who last year made an unsuccessful congressional run, as well as seven grandchildren.

Elizabeth Warren
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Elizabeth Warren

  • National polling average as of this writing: 15.4 percent
  • Fundraising in the second quarter of 2019: $19.1 million

In 2013, Warren became the first woman to ever be elected to the Senate from Massachusetts, a victory after she served as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel during the 2008 financial crisis known as the Great Recession. She also helped launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

A former Harvard University law school professor who specializes in bankruptcy law, and who has been noted for the breadth and detail of her suggested policies, the 70-year-old Oklahoma native supports progressive issues such as student loan debt cancelation and, like Sanders, government-backed universal health care via “Medicare-for-all.”

She’s condemned policies described as privileging the wealthy and has proposed a wealth tax on the 75,000 richest people in the country in order to pay for some of her other proposals, including her student loan plan.

RELATED: Elizabeth Warren Turns Down a Fox News Town Hall, Labeling the Network ‘Hate-for-Profit Machine’

A favorite target of Trump’s, who insults her as “Pocahontas,” Warren continues to grapple with controversy because she identified herself as Native American in the ’80s and ’90s. Last year Warren attempted to prove she indeed had Cherokee Nation ties with a DNA test — and though it confirmed she likely did have indigenous blood, she was criticized by prominent members of Cherokee Nation.

“Using a DNA test to claim any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation is appropriate and wrong,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said.

“I am sorry for harm I have caused,” Warren said at a Native American forum earlier this month, according to the New York Times. “I have listened and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together.”

She has been married to husband Bruce Mann for 38 years and has a son, daughter, and three grandchildren.

Kamala Harris
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Kamala Harris

  • National polling average as of this writing: 7.4 percent
  • Fundraising in the second quarter of 2019: Approximately $12 million

Harris has a long history as a prosecutor, having served as the district attorney of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011 and the attorney general of California from 2011 to 17, after which she was elected senator.

Hers is a broadly Democratic platform, including raising minimum wage and teacher pay, combatting climate change, gun violence prevention, student debt relief and criminal justice reform.

Her stance on healthcare has wavered, however, as she said during a debate in June that she agreed with a Medicare-for-all plan but later walked that back, saying she misheard the question and actually did not support abolishing private health insurance. Her website, however, says she supports Medicare-for-all that allows “a choice between” private and public plans.

Given her criminal justice background, Harris is seen by some analysts as a coalition-builder: more centrist than Sanders or Warren, with a pugnacity to square off against Trump. Still, that same work has made her a target of criticism that she is punitive and out of step with Democratic voters. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, another candidate for the Democratic nomination, slammed Harris during the most recent round of debates.

RELATED: Voting May Be Months Away, but Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren Are Seeing Polling Boosts Now

Gabbard contended that Harris “kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep [the] cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”

Harris responded that she “did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done.”

She’s also faced scrutiny for refusing to seek the death penalty against a man convicted of shooting a San Francisco police officer, then later defending California’s use of capital punishment.

Harris married husband Doug Emhoff in 2014 and has two step-children.

Pete Buttigieg
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Pete Buttigieg

  • National polling average as of this writing: 5 percent
  • Fundraising in the second quarter of 2019: Raised $24.8 million

A military veteran more commonly known as “Mayor Pete,” Buttigieg would be the first openly gay president if elected.

Thanks in part to his rhetorical style and striking personal story, the 37 year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, went from essentially unknown to serious contender in only a few months. His platform — sometimes criticized as too light on specifics — includes support for universal health care and a system he calls “Medicare for All Who Want It,” debt-free college for lower-income families, support for the “Green New Deal” to address climate change and universal background checks during gun purchases.

RELATED: It’s ‘Almost Certain’ We’ve Had Gay Presidents Before, Pete Buttigieg Says — but Who?

Buttigieg served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and was deployed to Afghanistan, earning a Joint Service Commendation Medal for his counterterrorism work.

Married to husband Chasten last year, Buttigieg speaks seven foreign languages and would be the youngest U.S. president ever if elected.

Who Else to Keep Your Eye On

Even as the list of candidates leaving the race grows longer and longer, many remain in the running alongside the five above — hoping their campaign skills will capture a larger share of voter interest.

Among those who could break out are former Rep. O’Rourke and Sen. Booker (currently polling at 3 and 2.2 percent, respectively).

O’Rourke built his national profile with an almost successful campaign against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, coming within a few points of beating Cruz thanks in part of a groundswell of voter support across the state. O’Rourke has been an outspoken critic of President Trump’s racially inflammatory and at times racist behavior.

Booker, a longtime New Jersey politician, announced his candidacy in February with an explicit call for unity, saying, “We’ve got to begin to see each other with a far more courageous empathy to understand that we have one destiny in America.”

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