A year out from next year's presidential election the process of choosing a democratic candidate to take on Mr Trump – who will almost certainly be rubber-stamped as the Republican nominee at the party's convention next August in Charlotte – is entering a new phase.
As the top candidates gathered in Iowa this weekend for a series of marquee events that traditionally mark the beginning of the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses in February, the race has suddenly got interesting.
A record number of candidates – 24 at its peak – are competing to become the Democrats’ nominee. But the sprawling field is narrowing. Two polls suggest that the race is dividing into two tiers, with four candidates separating themselves from the pack.
A New York Times/Siena College poll taken in Iowa – the first state to pick its candidate – shows former vice-president Joe Biden, senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg well ahead. Worryingly for Biden – still the front runner in national polls – Buttigieg is in third place in Iowa, leap-frogging Biden who now ranks fourth.
A Washington Post/ABC poll on Sunday also contains unsettling news for the former vice-president.
The poll – conducted nationally rather than among Iowans – still has Biden ahead with 28 per cent of the vote. Elizabeth Warren is polling at 23 per cent, Sanders at 17 per cent, while Buttigieg is at 9 per cent. But while the poll is a reminder that nationally Biden remains Democratic primary voters’ top choice, it shows that Warren’s support has almost doubled since July, while Buttigieg has gained five points since September. In an ominous sign for Sanders, who suffered a heart attack last month, more than four in 10 Democrats say he is not in good enough health to serve as president.
Though the primary race has no one standout candidate, the emergence of a top-tier in the field is discouraging news for the array of candidates who have failed to break through. On Friday, former congressman Beto O'Rourke withdrew his candidacy. The 47-year-old Texan was once seen as a possible front runner following his impressive though ultimately unsuccessful Senate race against Ted Cruz last year, but he failed to garner sufficient fundraising or national support in the presidential race. Similarly, Kamala Harris, the California senator whose questioning of Biden was the standout moment of the first Democratic debate, has struggled to emerge from low single digits in the polls. Her campaign announced it was laying off staff in New Hampshire in order to focus on Iowa, as she battles for survival. Other strong performers in the lower tier, such as Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Julian Castro have qualified for the next presidential debate, but it remains difficult to see how they chart a path to victory.
As a young gay man who is a military veteran and practising Christian, Buttigieg is a candidate who defies categorisation
The clutch of candidates at the top opens up questions for the Democratic party about the its identity and future.
Most glaringly, the top three candidates are all septuagenarians – Sanders is 78, Joe Biden will be 77 this month, while Elizabeth Warren is 70 – hardly representative of the Democratic voter.
First woman president
Similarly, all four candidates are white. The fact that Warren would be the first woman president if elected, and Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay nominee, is some comfort for Democrats who believe that the party needs to reflect the diversity of its members.
The surprise trend in recent weeks has been the ascent of Buttigieg. The 37-year-old mayor has never held state or national office, but has seen a slow and steady rise in the polls, particularly in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, boosted by strong fundraising. As a young gay man who is a military veteran and practising Christian, Buttigieg is a candidate who defies categorisation and could appeal to those looking for generational change as well as swing Republican voters attracted to his folksy, midwestern style.
As he has tacked more to the centre politically since entering the race, he presents a threat to Biden, as he positions himself as a centrist alternative to the former vice-president. Like Biden he eschews the Medicare for All healthcare policy embraced by Sanders and Warren, promising voters that they can keep their private health insurance.
Biden, however, still commands the lead in most national polls, consistently viewed by Democratic voters as the candidate best placed to beat Trump in swing-states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He also has formidable support within the African-American community, in contrast to Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg who are struggling to expand their base outside white voters.
Biden’s campaign privately concede that he is unlikely to win Iowa, and even New Hampshire, but contend that the former vice-president is almost certainly in place to win South Carolina, Nevada, and most of the primaries that take place on Super Tuesday, securing enough delegates to win the nomination. The former vice-president is also likely to pick-up key endorsements from the black community in the coming months if Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, the only two African-Americans in the race, bow out.
But even if Biden plays the long game, a candidate who captures the public imagination next February when Iowa and New Hampshire vote could seize the momentum and the media narrative.
Suzanne Lynch is Washington Correspondent