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What Joe Biden’s campaign means for the future of the Democratic Party

Now the campaign gears up to select a presidential nominee and set a vision for the future of the Democratic Party

Former Vice President Joe Biden leaves a rally organized by UFCW Union members to support Stop and Shop employees on strike throughout the region at the Stop and Shop in Dorchester, Massachusetts, April 18, 2019. Biden announced Thursday that he will seek the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, joining 19 other hopefuls.  (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/ AFP/Getty Images)
Former Vice President Joe Biden leaves a rally organized by UFCW Union members to support Stop and Shop employees on strike throughout the region at the Stop and Shop in Dorchester, Massachusetts, April 18, 2019. Biden announced Thursday that he will seek the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, joining 19 other hopefuls. (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/ AFP/Getty Images)

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s entry into the 2020 presidential campaign, where he will join 19 other Democrats seeking to take on an incumbent President Donald Trump, presumably brings this early part of the campaign season to a close.

By all measures, which at this very early point in the campaign are virtually meaningless, Biden enters the race as the putative front-runner. But the finish line is a long way off and any perceived advantage mined from current punditry, political endorsements or polling snapshots isn’t likely to be the determining factor when, nearly a year from now, primary voters finally have their say. Anyone laying bets today on which hopeful will emerge as the Democratic choice is a risky gambler.

However, Biden’s entry on Thursday does herald the vital issue confronting Democrats until they settle on their next leader. In choosing a presidential nominee, Democrats will decide who and what the party represents.

At this moment, that’s a confounding question. Amid a mad jumble of personalities, policy positions, and political posturing, there are 20 candidates who believe they have the secret sauce to save the nation from four more years of Trumpian wackiness.

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And so, we have the former vice president’s opening gambit. In announcing his campaign, Biden presented himself in a 3 1/2-minute video that, while thin on policy and personal biography, offered voters a broad vision depicting himself as the ideal candidate to beat Trump and healing a politically fractured country.

“We are in the battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden said. “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

But there are numerous other candidates who believe they too can beat Trump. Some are, elbowing against Biden’s claim of being the one true stalwart of centrist Democratic party pragmatism. The steady-handed establishment Democrat is the same persona that Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke are all projecting to Democratic voters.

Meanwhile, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have staked out a more leftist, populist track that’s designed to appeal to younger and less traditional Democratic voters — a constituency which, while traditionally thought of as mercurial in their voting habits, showed potency at the polls during the last midterms cycle.

Then, too, there are the Democrats whose appeal is rooted in the churn of demographic changes engulfing both the Democratic party and the nation. For the first time in U.S. history, the leading personalities in a major-party field includes women, an African American, and a member of the LGBTQ community. Perhaps just as remarkably, so far, it is the political and policy preferences of these candidates that are being robustly discussed, moreso than their personal attributes.

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It’s a wide variety of candidates, each with unique strengths, every one capable of laying claim to some core of passionate supporters. But early polling has hinted at a universal truth: Democrats want a candidate that can beat Trump. For the moment, anyway, all other considerations appear to be secondary.

A Monmouth University poll in February, for example, noted that more than half (56%) of respondents said “electability” is the most important quality they’re going to vote for in the primaries; only one in three (33%) said they would choose a candidate who aligns with their political views. Another poll, released last month by Quinnipiac University, found that the age, race, or gender wasn’t nearly as important to voters as was the candidate’s ability to embody this idea: Here is a contender who can take Trump in an electoral fight.

Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll, said Democratic voters and Democratic leaning-voters were putting policy differences in “a back seat to electability.”

In the meantime, 20 Democratic candidates are raising their hands, waving frantically and shouting “Pick me!”

“The real test will be as the field gets winnowed down, when voters begin to lose their preferred candidates,” Patrick Murray, founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a recent interview with The Hill. “Right now, very few voters feel they have to make that choice.”

The challenge for voters is as varied as the electorate itself. According to the Pew Research Center, Democratic voters are a moving target of social, demographic, and cultural change. In its recently released study of more than 10,000 interviews conducted in 2017 with registered voters and tens of thousands of interviews conducted in previous years, Pew found that fundamental differences in the partisan orientation of different demographic groups continues to exist in U.S. politics, a feature of our society that seems to have widened in recent years.

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“For instance, gender, generational, geographic, and educational divides are now as wide, or wider, than in Pew Research Center surveys going back more than two decades,” the study found.

To take one among several examples in the Pew study, voters in urban counties are long-standing Democratic voters, but are even moreso now than in recent memory. “Today, twice as many urban voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic (62%) as affiliate with the. GOP or lean Republican,” the study noted.

What’s more, the study found, “white registered voters make up a declining share of the Democratic Party,” dropping from 75% in 1997 to a smaller majority (59%) currently. And, nonwhite voters make up about four-in-ten Democratic voters (39%), up from 24% in 1997.

It’s not just race alone; it’s a combination of factors that reflect the shape-shifting quality of our nation. As the Pew report notes:

Combining race and education, Democratic voters are very different today than they were 20 years ago. Today, non-college whites make up a third of all Democratic voters; they constituted a majority of Democrats (56%) in 1997. Since then, the share of white Democrats with at least a four-year degree has increased from 19% to 26%, and the share of nonwhite Democratic college graduates has more than doubled (from 5% to 12%).

The upshot here is that this slate of Democratic hopefuls have to make tough decisions about how best to speak to an electorate that is diverse, multicultural, regionally spread-out, and highly informed about the issues of the day. They can’t assume that a one-size fits all approach to winning exists, either in the nomination contest or the general election.

The GOP has faced its own existential questions of late, and they’ve rendered a crystal clear answer when the party turned to Trump to define its future in 2016 — as well as its unwavering commitment to Trumpism since his White House tenure began. By selecting Trump as their standard bearer, Republicans came out as a party indebted to a racist, misogynistic, dishonest leader. Whether they’re willing to admit it or even like it, by embracing him, they’ve embraced a vision of America that makes space for backward — and let’s face it, white supremacist — ideas.

Now, as the field of candidates for the presidential nominee revs into higher gear, Democrats face a stark choice of their own. And, in doing so, they will define what the party’s core beliefs are and expose its vision of the future to a waiting nation and world.