Politics

Here's a look back at the historic 2020 Democratic primary race

Key Points
  • The 2020 Democratic primary season featured one of the largest fields ever, with 28 serious contenders competing to take on President Donald Trump in the November general election.
  • The group included a record number of women — six — as well as the first openly gay major candidate and two billionaires.
  • The following are some of the key moments that highlighted the unprecedented primary season. 
A lawn sign that reads "Any Functioning Adult 2020" is staked outside of a home in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 25, 2020.
Stephen Maturen | AFP | Getty Images

The 2020 Democratic primary season featured one of the largest fields ever, with 28 serious contenders competing to take on President Donald Trump in the November general election. The group included a record number of women — six — as well as the first openly gay major candidate and two billionaires.

It was a battle of gender, race and age with a range of ideas that pitted progressive agendas and democratic socialism against the moderate establishment.

Candidates who qualified participated in 11 debates that provided some heated exchanges on topics such health care, gun control, climate change, immigration reform, race relations, universal basic income, and a wealth tax. Candidates also had to navigate their campaigns amidst an historic impeachment battle that sidelined four senators still in the race during the trial. 

The coronavirus pandemic across the U.S. forced the last two candidates standing, Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78, and former Vice President Joe Biden, 79, to cancel rallies and move their campaigns online for the safety and health of their supporters, and to comply with stay-at-home and social distancing orders. 

After more than a year of campaigning, Sanders announced he was ending his bid for the nomination on Wednesday, effectively leaving Biden as the apparent nominee.

The following are some of the key moments that highlighted the unprecedented primary season. 

High hopes 

Dozens of candidates entered — but only one could win. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke all launched campaigns with high expectations from pundits and supporters. 

Senator Amy Klobuchar waves to the crowd with her husband John Bessler and daughter Abigail Bessler after announcing her candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in Minneapolis, Minnesota, February 10, 2019.
Eric Miller | Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke visits with voters on his first day of campaigning for the 2020 nomination at the home of Randy Naber March 14, 2019 in Muscatine, Iowa.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images
Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, gestures while speaking during an event to launch presidential campaign in Oakland, California, U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Surrounded by her family, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announces that she will run for president in 2020 outside the Country View Diner, January 16, 2019 in Troy, New York.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and 2020 presidential candidate, greets supporters as he arrives to speak during a campaign event on April 13, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez | Getty Images

A historic kiss

Among candidates thought to face longer odds: Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay major Democratic presidential candidate, launched his campaign with a historic kiss with husband Chasten. Buttigieg, then mayor of South Bend, Indiana, went on to become a top contender.

South Bend's Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten Buttigieg kiss as they attend a rally to announce Pete Buttigieg's 2020 Democratic presidential candidacy in South Bend, Indiana, U.S., April 14, 2019.
John Gress | Reuters

Pete struggles with black voters

Buttigieg faced scrutiny over his record on race back home. The criticism grew after CNBC first reported on Buttigieg's record in April 2019

Democratic presidential candidate, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg listens to the Sunday service at the Kenneth Moore Transformation Center, October 27, 2019 in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford | Getty Images

Feel the Bern 2.0

Sanders, who essentially never stopped campaigning for president after his failed 2016 bid, surprised pundits with the success of his 2020 operation. Sanders outdid the rest of the field in raising money via small dollar donations. His "Medicare for All" health-care proposal became one of the top issues during the primary. 

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) jokes around as he speaks during a campaign rally at Bonanza High School on February 14, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images

The first debate - Night 1

The first debates had a total of 20 candidates that qualified. The record-breaking number of debate participants was broken into groups of 10 over two nights. 

Democratic presidential candidates New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (L-R), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), former housing secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and former Maryland congressman John Delaney look on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Kamala Harris attacks Joe Biden

The first major shakeup of the race came after Harris attacked on Biden over busing and his past work with segregationist senators. The move propelled her into second place in national polling averages, though the California lawmaker failed to maintain her momentum. 

Sen. Kamala Harris (R) (D-CA) attacks former Vice President Joe Biden (L) speak as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) looks on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren surges

Biden faced his next major threat from Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Warren rose to first place in national polling averages for a brief period in early October on the strength of her populist appeal and well-organized campaign operation. The Massachusetts progressive, who made waves going after billionaires and promoting her numerous plans, lost steam after she released a complicated plan to pay for "Medicare for All." She did not gain it back.  

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks as she visits a picket line of striking teachers in Chicago, October 22, 2019.
Joshua Lott | Reuters

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorses 2020 democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders 

Health troubles looked likely to doom Sanders's bid. After suffering a heart attack that knocked him off the trail, Sanders re-emerged at a rally in New York with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez that reinvigorated his bid. "I am back," he told supporters.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorses 2020 democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a Bernie Sanders campaign rally in Queensbridge Park on October 19, 2019 in Queens, New York City.
Bauzen | GC Images | Getty Images

Some cuteness was seen on the campaign trail

2020 Democratic candidate for President Senator Elizabeth Warren does a pinky swear with a little girl while walking through the Iowa voters at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa on Saturday August, 10, 2019.
Melina Mara | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Seven month old Emerson Buckman grabs the nose of Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg during a canvassing launch event on February 03, 2020 in West Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa holds its first in the nation caucuses this evening.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

Iowa caucuses fiasco

The first voting of the primary came more than a year after campaigning began in earnest — and did not go as planned. Tech troubles doomed Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses. Buttigieg and Sanders both vied for the lead in the state, but NBC News did not call a winner amid irregularities in the data. The fiasco of the Iowas Caucus resulted in the resignation of Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.

Participants gather for their preferred democratic presidential candidate during the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus at the Drake University Knapp Center arena in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Officials from the 68th caucus precinct overlook the results of the first referendum count during a caucus event on February 3, 2020 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, United States.
Tom Brenner | Getty Images
Supporters of democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wait for results to come in at his caucus night watch party on February 03, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, speaks during a news conference in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. Iowa Democrats will finally release most of the much-delayed results from their troubled caucuses by 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, hoping to salvage the process after a disastrous night cast doubts on its key role in the presidential nominating process.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Universal basic income candidate Andrew Yang drops out

Andrew Yang brought something different to the 2020 race. While the businessman never sustained a polling average above 5%, his pitch for a universal basic income brought the proposal into the national dialog. Yang attracted a large, engaged online following, and became known for his quirky merchandise, including "MATH" hats. 

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang is interviewed outside of Hopkinton Town Hall following a campaign event on February 9, 2020 in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.
Scott Eisen | Getty Images

Trump's impeachment trial sidelines senators running in the democratic primary

Democratic senators were forced off the campaign trail by a historic impeachment trial in the Senate. Trump, impeached on charges that he coerced the government of Ukraine to open up investigations into Biden's family, denied the allegations and was ultimately acquitted. 

Combination showing Democratic Primary candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Michael Bennet and Sen. Cory Booker who all were sidelined from campaigning during President Trumps impeachment trial.
Getty Images

Billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg enters the race

The former mayor of New York spent nearly a billion dollars on his presidential campaign — but, in the end, failed to gain traction. He left the race shortly after Super Tuesday. 

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during a press conference to discuss his Democratic presidential run on November 25, 2019, in Norfolk, Virginia.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren's heated exchange with Bernie Sanders as Tom Steyer looks on

A rift developed between fellow progressives Warren and Sanders after Warren claimed that Sanders told her during a private meeting that he did not believe a woman could beat Trump in 2020. The topic came up during the Democratic debate in January, after which Warren refused to shake Sanders's hand. Billionaire candidate Tom Steyer found himself in the middle of things. 

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as billionaire activist Tom Steyer listens after the seventh Democratic 2020 presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

The field narrows

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Amy Klobuchar take the stage for the tenth Democratic 2020 presidential debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., February 25, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders become the frontrunners

Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) share a moment during the Democratic presidential primary debate in the Sullivan Arena at St. Anselm College on February 07, 2020 in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Tulsi Gabbard sticks with flailing campaign

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was the last candidate standing besides Sanders and Biden when she left the race in March, endorsing the former vice president. She garnered just two delegates out of the nearly 2,000 needed to win. 

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) holds a Town Hall meeting on Super Tuesday Primary night on March 3, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

James Clyburn, D-S.C, endorses Joe Biden in South Carolina giving his campaign a much needed boost 

The most influential politician in South Carolina, Majority Whip James Clyburn, lent his support to Biden just ahead of the state's primary. The endorsement helped Biden carry the state — his first win in three presidential runs — which proved to be pivotal for his remarkable turnaround. 

James Clyburn, D-S.C. introduces Democratic nomination hopeful Joe Biden at University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Jeremy Hogan | Barcroft Media | Getty Images

Biden picks up more endorsements as candidates drop out

Following his victory in South Carolina, Biden racked up endorsements from vanquished rivals O'Rourke, Klobuchar and Buttigieg, sending him to victory on Super Tuesday, and fueling his momentum. 

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks into the microphone as his former rival for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Amy Klobuchar, endorses him during a campaign event in Dallas, Texas, U.S., March 2, 2020.
Eric Thayer | Reuters
Former 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke endorses former Vice President and Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden for president at a campaign event at Gilley's in Dallas, Texas, U.S., March 2, 2020.
Eric Thayer | Reuters

Jill Biden acts as security protecting her husband from protesters

Former Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, right, watches as his wife Jill Biden, center, blocks a protester from arriving on stage during an primary night rally in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Coronavirus forces campaigns to go virtual

Biden and Sanders started to move their campaigns online in March over coronavirus concerns, as the toll of the pandemic in the U.S. became undeniable. COVID-19 would reshape campaigns, fundraising, debates and elections. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a virtual press briefing on a laptop computer in this arranged photograph in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, March 25, 2020.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders social distance in one-on-one debate amidst coronavirus pandemic

Democratic presidential hopefuls former US vice president Joe Biden (L) and Senator Bernie Sanders (R) greet each other with an elbow bump as they arrive for the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

Wisconsin goes to the polls despite the coronavirus pandemic

Elections Chief Inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in full hazmat gear as the Wisconsin primary kicks off despite the coronavirus pandemics on April 7, 2020.
Derek R. Henkle | AFP | Getty Images

Bernie Sanders ends his campaign but vows to press his social democratic agenda

On Wednesday, Sanders officially suspended his campaign. "I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win and which would interfere with the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour," Sanders said in live-streamed remarks from Vermont. "Let us go forward together, the struggle continues," he said.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont and former 2020 presidential candidate, speaks during a livestream event on a laptop computer in this arranged photograph in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Joe Biden becomes the apparent Democratic nominee

With Sanders out, the head-to-head battle between Biden and Trump — long expected — began at last

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks on stage after declaring victory in the South Carolina presidential primary on February 29, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images