Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) raise their hands during the Democratic Presidential Debate in Houston, Texas on 12 September 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

US 2020 Election Explainer

The US and Americas Programme at Chatham House will be engaging in a yearlong focus on the US 2020 elections. This is the first in an intended series of pieces that will look closely at the dynamics of the race and the key policy issue areas that will be shaped by the outcome of these pivotal elections.


  • Quick take
  • 30 Jan 2020
  • 6 min read


What's at stake

The United States will hold a pivotal set of elections in 2020 that will have implications for US domestic and foreign policy in the years ahead, including around economic and trade policy, national security, multinational engagement and human rights.

At the executive level, President Donald Trump seeks re-election for another four year-term. On the Democratic side, the field remains relatively wide with the first set of primaries to identify the eventual presidential nominee to be held in February.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg sit atop polling averages for the Democratic nomination.

In congress, each of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs, with 218 seats needed for a party majority. In the Senate 35 of the 100 seats (including 23 seats currently held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats) will be contested.

After regaining the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections, Democrats will hope to retain their House majority and retake control of the Senate. Republicans, for their part, will hope to secure a stronger majority in the Senate and regain a majority in the House of Representatives.

Key policy areas

Domestic policy

Trump edition

  • Tax cuts
  • Deregulation
  • Immigration
  • Economic record
  • Oil and gas exploration

Trump will be keen to tout the policy promises kept on the campaign trail. These include the 2017 tax overhaul, deregulation (including environmental deregulations) and efforts to enforce and tighten immigration laws. Trump will also highlight US domestic economic expansion during his administration as well as record-low unemployment rates and wage growth across certain income brackets. 

Democrat edition

  • Healthcare
  • Income inequality
  • Wealth tax
  • Tax rollbacks
  • Climate change including the Green New Deal
  • Welfare programmes
  • Voting rights
  • Gun control

The Democratic party continues to face internal divisions between the more leftist progressive wing (represented by Sanders, Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and the centrist moderate faction (represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presidential candidates Biden, Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota)).

On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates have devoted a great deal of attention to healthcare, which they view as key to their 2018 mid-term election gains. Next in line in priority for Democrats is income inequality and proposals to address economic disparities such as the wealth tax or corporate and individual tax rollbacks. The climate crisis and a proposed Green New Deal are another policy area gaining ground amongst Democratic candidates as are the future of welfare programmes such as social security and education subsidies. Democratic candidates are united in their drive to see Trump voted out of office, and have also been vocal in their support for his impeachment.

Foreign policy

On foreign policy, US competition with a rising China has dominated the headlines. US role in the Middle East including US presence in Iraq, its relationship with Iran and the future of the Iran Nuclear Deal are all centre stage. A key discussion point is also US engagement in endless wars including Afghanistan, which both Democrats and Trump oppose. Candidates on the Democratic side have also voiced concern over the future of US relations with long-standing allies including in Europe and engagement with multinational organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As on domestic policy issues, Trump will promote the promises he has kept on foreign policy. These include withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiating the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), enforcing US trade laws to address harmful trade practices, imposing steel and aluminum tariffs globally, negotiating a phase-one trade deal with China and releasing a Middle East peace plan.  

Key dates to watch

  • 3 February – Iowa caucus
  • 11 February – New Hampshire primary
  • 22 February – Nevada caucus
  • 29 February – South Carolina primary
  • 3 March – Super Tuesday (including California, Colorado, Texas, Virginia)
  • 13-16 July – Democratic Convention (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
  • 24-27 August – Republican Convention (Charlotte, North Carolina)
  • 29 September – First Presidential Debate
  • 15 October – Second Presidential Debate
  • 22 October – Third Presidential Debate
  • 3 November – 2020 Elections