The first 2020 Democratic Presidential debate is less than three months away and we have at least 20 candidates who want to take the stage. What do they need to participate in this first debate? According to the Democrat National Committee, candidates can qualify by meeting one of the two following sets of criteria:

Polling method: Register 1% or more support in three polls (which may be national polls, or polls in either Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada) which are publicly released between January 1, 2019, and 14 days prior to the date of the Organization Debate.

Grassroots Fundraising Method: Candidates may qualify for the debate by demonstrating that the campaign has received donations from at least 65,000 unique donors and a minimum of 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 U.S. states.

Currently, there are 18 candidates who have declared which sets up a crowded night for the first debate in Colorado in June with 1A occurring on June 26th and 1B occurring on June 27th. Debates 2A and 2B will occur on July 30th and 31st.

With this in mind, let’s take the top six hopefuls with +6% in the RealClear Politics polling data and briefly show where the stand on key Democratic issues.

Top 6 Candidates and poll numbers:

Biden 29.3%
Sanders 23.0%
Harris 8.3%
Buttigieg 7.5%
Warren 6.5%
O’Rourke 6.3%

Policy issues

Supports Medicare for all:

Biden ?
Sanders Yes
Harris Yes
Buttigieg Yes
Warren Yes
O’Rourke ?

Supports New Green Deal

Biden ?
Sanders Yes
Harris Yes
Buttigieg Yes
Warren Yes
O’Rourke Yes

Supports Reparations

Biden ?
Sanders Yes
Harris Yes
Buttigieg Yes
Warren Yes
O’Rourke Yes

Supports Free College or Student Loan Reductions

Biden Yes
Sanders Yes
Harris Yes
Buttigieg Yes
Warren Yes
O’Rourke Yes

Supports Raising Taxes on Upper Income Earners

Biden ?
Sanders Yes
Harris Yes
Buttigieg Yes
Warren Yes
O’Rourke Yes

Supports Raising Taxes on Corporations

Biden Yes
Sanders Yes
Harris Yes
Buttigieg Yes
Warren Yes
O’Rourke Yes

Supports Universal Child Care

Biden ?
Sanders Yes
Harris Yes
Buttigieg Yes
Warren Yes
O’Rourke Yes

(In fairness to Joe Biden, he did just enter the race and we should learn more about his positions soon.)

The big takeaway here: the top six candidates have similar views on almost every issue. While this may appear to show party unity, there are three big risks for the candidates. The first is whether they can differentiate themselves from the other 18 candidates. As a reminder of what can happen, try to remember how disjointed and dysfunctional the 2016 Republican Presidential debates were. How quickly they moved away from policy towards things like hand size and how someone paid for college. This is what we can likely expect as Democratic candidates attempt to separate themselves from the pack.

The second big risk is that the size of the field and the lack of policy diversity will drive the candidates to a strategy that can backfire: ad homenim attacks. Personal attacks on each other or “going negative” is the easiest path to follow when there are few policy differences.

Joe Biden is an early example. When Biden just was considering entering the 2020 campaign, there were attacks over making women uncomfortable with his hands-on approach (Lucy Flores), and questions over his age and money he has taken in from big banks. However, the attack emblematic of the degree and extent of where this will go is the criticism of Biden’s comment that US Vice President Mike Pence is a “decent guy.” He was immediately pilloried by the liberal left in his party (See Cynthia Nixon Tweet) and needed to provide a non-apology apology. Without sounding naive, it appears one cannot separate the person and the politics especially when you are providing a non-negative view of an individual. We can expect this type of campaigning to aggressively ramp up leading up to the first debate.

The third big risk for Democratic candidates is appealing too strongly to the left base of the party. This could allow President Trump to win the election by simply appearing to be closer to the middle. On this theme, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi must decide whether to begin impeachment hearings on President Trump. The Democratic candidates will likely need to take a stand on whether they support impeachment. If the proceedings go the way of the Clinton impeachment, President Trump will be strengthened and every Democratic candidate who favored impeachment will be weakened in the general election.

For most Americans, the 2020 US Presidential race appears far away and it’s unlikely they will be interested until the Iowa Caucuses in January of 2020. Don’t be fooled. This race is now. And Democratic candidates have 3 big risks that can derail their campaigns before they can reach the first debate.