Although the first Democratic primary debate is still two months away and the Iowa caucus nearly a year off, the main outlines of the Democratic party’s field are slowly coming into view. These periods in American politics — after the dust settles from the last election, but before primaries are held to determine which candidates will represent the major parties in the next one — are traditionally known as “invisible primaries.”
During the invisible primary, a large field of dozens of candidates is gradually winnowed down to a small handful of major contenders, measured by their ability to raise funds, poll highly in early voting states, and gain a large platform in national media.
And while there is yet time for the landscape to change, three candidates have consistently outperformed along these three axes: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Vice-President Joe Biden of Delaware, and Congressman Robert ‘Beto’ O’Rourke of Texas. Each of the three carries a different foreign policy profile, and their rise or fall in the coming contest will determine the direction of a Democratic-run government’s take on global affairs.
Bernie Sanders: Frontrunner of the Left
Senator Sanders has, by two key measures, already established himself as the potential frontrunner for the Democratic nomination: He has the largest proven national base of any Democrat to run for national office in the recent past and has raised more small-dollar donations than all of his top rivals combined.
Over the course of the 2016 Democratic primary, 13 million primary voters cast their ballots for Sanders, giving him 43 percent of the total. This represented a formidable achievement, given Sanders’ extremely low name-recognition at the beginning of the primary and Hillary Clinton’s 40-point advantage in most polls. Among living Democrats, only Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have won more votes nationwide — and neither will compete in 2020.
Sanders’ fundraising prowess is more pronounced still. In the 2016 Democratic primary, he raised nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. When he announced his candidacy last month, he raised nearly six million in one day — four times that of his nearest rival, Senator Kamala Harris. By the end of the first quarter, he appears to have increased the total haul to somehwere between 18 and 24 million dollars — greater than all his nearest competitors combined.
Should Sanders ultimately secure the nomination, he would represent one of the most left-leaning major-party presidential candidates in American history. He has proposed deep cuts to US military spending, criticized U.S. alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and called for an end, — — and introduced a bill to end — U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. His principal foreign policy adviser, progressive activist Matt Duss, is well known for supporting U.S. rapprochement with Iran and expressing hostility to its traditional allies in the region.
Joe Biden: Custodian of the Obama Legacy
While Sanders has shown his most potent strength in fundraising, so far he has lagged in national polls behind former Vice President Joe Biden. According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Biden leads Sanders by roughly seven points among Democrats nationally. Crucially, he also leads in the first state to vote on presidential candidates, Iowa — albeit by a more volatile margin. Biden is also well regarded with the broader public, with a net 24 percent favorability rating, significantly higher than Bernie Sanders’ net 15 percent.
Despite these advantages, Biden has been slow to formally announce his candidacy. He is reportedly seeking to secure commitments from major Democratic donors to offset Sanders’ strong showing. “It’s a priority,” according to one Biden ally, familiar with the former vice president’s planning. “If you don't have a good second quarter showing, that could be problematic.” It remains an open question whether Biden can gain enough support among the donor class to offset Sanders’ decisive advantage among small-dollar donors.
Biden has also struggled to win the support of progressive activists who have moved further to the left in recent years. His voting record on crime, abortion, and the Iraq war have been deeply troubling to certain progressives, who believe he is “out of step” with the party’s leftward turn. This has been aggravated by two recent allegations that Biden behaved inappropriately towards women at public events, prompting speculation of a #MeToo-style counter-campaign with negative implications for his candidacy.
Should Biden overcome these challenges and win the nomination, his foreign policy would likely represent a return to the Obama foreign policy. He vigorously supported the Iran deal, and slammed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, saying that "all it will likely accomplish is to put Iran back on the path to a nuclear weapon with no clear diplomatic way out."
Beto O’Rourke: Media Darling, Foreign Policy Unknown
The third Democrat to emerge so far as a top-tier candidate is former Texas congressman Robert O’Rourke, widely known by his nickname ‘Beto’. At 47, Beto first emerged on the national stage by running a competitive race against Senator Ted Cruz in Texas, a seat long assumed to be out of Democratic reach. Although ultimately unsuccessful, he came within the points in a deep Republican state, the closest a Democrat had managed in forty years.
Beto has also cultivated a strong following among the national media and small-dollar donors. His 2018 campaign in Texas drew more attention than any other candidate and raised an unprecedented $80 million, largely from small-dollar donors. When he announced his candidacy for President in March, he raised $6.1 million within 24 hours — even more than erstwhile frontrunner Bernie Sanders.
Of the three presumptive leaders in the Democratic field, Beto remains the most difficult to assess as a national contender and foreign policy thinker. His congressional record on foreign policy is thin, and his public statements have been limited to issues on which there exist either national or Democratic party consensus. For example, he has praised the two-state solution two the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (which most Americans support) but denounced transferring the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (which most Democrats opposed) as “provocative.” He offered rhetorical support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, saying that “without firing a single shot, without sacrificing the life of a single U.S. service member, it was able to stop the country of Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.”
Still, these are relatively thin reeds on which to base a foreign policy doctrine. At this relatively early stage in the Democratic contest, observers can be reliably sure of only one guiding principle among the Democrats vying for office: Whatever President Trump supports, they are likely to oppose.