Planets, Dwarf Planets, and the 2020 Presidential Candidates… So Far

It’s my oldest son’s fourth birthday tomorrow. It’s a great age, and he’s curious about so many things. People sometimes ask what he’s most interested in. Is it dinosaurs? Trucks? Superheroes? Each of those have phased in and out, but their transience contrasts with his greatest passion. For nearly half his life, all other interests have orbited around one: the solar system.

While stoking this interest, it quickly became clear that merely knowing the eight planets and their attributes was too easy for him.[1] We’ve therefore recently transitioned to learning about the smaller “dwarf planets.”[2] In the process of researching them, I learned that in 2006 the astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) also created a classification even more minor than dwarfs called small solar system bodies, or SSSBs, of which there are millions. There had been competing classifications for the increasingly numerous planetary bodies we were finding beyond Pluto, but the IAU’s codification cleared up much of the confusion.

Now, considering the many candidates that are and will be running for president in the 2020 election, we could use some of that helpful codification. Therefore, let’s have some fun and apply astronomers’ planetary classification system to presidential candidates. Here are the three categories:

  • Planets: these are your actual contenders. In the solar system, full-fledged planets are A) in direct orbit of the sun, B) massive enough for its gravity to compress it into something close to spherical, and C) it has cleared the neighborhood of other material around its orbit, whatever that means. Our solar system has eight such bodies, from Mercury to Neptune. I think the 2020 presidential race will have about twice that number of major candidates who can actually win the race.
  • Dwarf planets: Dwarf planets meet the first two criteria (A and B) but not the third (C). The IAU has confirmed five such bodies: Ceres (the largest asteroid), Pluto (the APPROPRIATELY demoted planet), Haumea (the most weirdly shaped planet, dwarf or otherwise), Makemake (pronounced machy-machy, good enough to make it my son’s favorite), and Eris (the furthest confirmed dwarf planet and the most massive). Many more may exist, which is a reason we had to demote Pluto or fear someday having hundreds of “planets.” The 2020 presidential race will have a bunch of these; they’ll be recognizable names with either wealth or political experience, but none of these dwarfs really have a shot.[3]
  • SSSBs: These little guys don’t meet requirements B or C. All they do is stably orbit the sun, which frankly doesn’t seem all that hard. There are an unknown amount, since astronomers have yet to agree on a lower threshold to reach SSSB status. In other words, perhaps every speck of dust circling the sun is an SSSB. Similarly, just about anyone can file their candidacy for the presidency, and 99.9 percent of them are astronomically minor.

As 2019 evolves, so will the 2020 presidential field. Perhaps I’ll post about some of the official declarations when they happen, and perhaps I’ll classify each contender into one of these groups. But until then, let’s first take stock of who has already declared. We’ll start with the tiny…

SSSB Candidates

Believe it or not, as of January 11, 446 people have filed official papers declaring themselves as 2020 presidential candidates. Think that’s a lot? By the end of the 2016 cycle, 1,777 people had filed.

However, just like almost all of the solar system’s bodies don’t qualify as even a dwarf planet, the same can be said of almost all of these candidates. Of the 446 to declare so far, all but the handful listed below are SSSBs.

Dwarf Candidates

Though I don’t expect any will be a major factor, a few declared candidates warrant some attention as actual public figures that are pretty well known:

More will follow (most imminently Washington Governor Jay Inslee). Of the three, Delaney is the most mainstream, Yang the nerdiest, and Ojeda the feistiest.

Ojeda’s an interesting one. In addition to being a state senator, he’s a retired Army major, a Democratic Trump voter in 2016, and in 2018 he lost a race for Congress. However, that loss shows his appeal. Trump carried the heavily Republican district by 40 points in 2016, but Ojeda lost it by just 12 in 2018. Similarly, Trump won Ojeda’s state senate district by 59, but Ojeda won it by 18, an absurd 77-point party discrepancy. Ojeda’s case is that he is best qualified to win over middle of the road (sometimes called “Obama/Trump”) voters. Of course, nothing about the modern Democratic Party suggests they’ll tack back toward the center, so a dwarf he remains. Not that I’ll tell him that to his face. Did I mention he’s ex-Army?

Planetary Candidates

In just the last few days, a couple major candidates on the Democratic side have officially announced their candidacy (with top-tier candidate Kamala Harris on deck). Another has formed the ever-lame “exploratory committee,” which is mostly just a way to get the first of two cracks at “X is running for president!” buzz. These three major candidates are:

  • Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama (TX)
  • Tulsi Gabbard, a combat veteran turned U.S. Congresswoman (HI)
  • Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator (MA)

Castro, though just 44, somehow feels like yesterday’s news. An electric, up-and-coming Democrat, I slotted him at #5 in Hillary Clinton’s “Veepstakes” column.[4] Now, however, with an overcrowded presidential field looming, he doesn’t feel as special. I see him with 20/1 odds to win the nomination but with major upside if he can catch fire. His youth, energy, and charisma could make him the Latino Obama. As perhaps the only major Latino candidate, he could perhaps rally the sizable demographic. (The party is about one-eighth Hispanic, a not insignificant fraction in a crowded field of candidates.)

Speaking of youth, Gabbard is just 37(!) years of age, which makes her just two years older than the suddenly embarrassed author of this website. If elected president, she’d be our first president to be under 40. (Our youngest president, Theodore Roosevelt, was a month shy of his 43rd birthday when he took over for the assassinated William McKinley.) Other “firsts” would include her being the first non-Christian president (she’s Hindu) and the first Samoan American (she’s Samoan American). Aesthetics aside, we can expect her to be most popular with millennials and the far left. Her most high-profile moment in politics came in 2016 when she resigned her Vice Chairmanship of the DNC to support Bernie Sanders, who she thought was treated unfairly in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. I’ve had her at 15/1 to win the nomination since I revealed the odds in November, and I’ll keep her there for the moment.

Finally, Warren is the biggest name of this trio, and I’ll talk much more about her in later columns. I see her as the fourth or fifth most likely nominee, with odds of about 10/1 to win the nomination. She does have a sizable liability for the nomination, though. Bernie Sanders supporters will defend his progressive corner with their lives, and the two will split the far left — and New Hampshire.[5] For either to win, they need the other to drop out, and that will just increase the animosity between the two groups as they insist it should be the other to withdraw. It’s far too early for that now, but when New Hampshire draws near I expect that to manifest.

Of course, the Democrats aren’t the only major party who have to nominate someone. Their counterparts in the GOP will also have a primary, though I don’t expect it will be competitive. Here’s a list of major candidates who have declared:

  1. Donald Trump, President of the United States (NY)

And that’s it. As far as his planetary classification, he’s frankly way past a planet at this point. More analogous to the sun, he’s enormous, yellowish-orange, spews weird stuff in every direction, and it seems like our entire lives revolve around him. To compete, Democrats will need someone with Jovian mass. (Or should I say… Joevian?)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like one last chat about dwarf planets with a curious three-year-old.


[1]Watch your back, Neil deGrasse Tyson!

[2]I knew Pluto was one, and for some reason I thought there were three total — a fact I initially taught him incorrectly. Apparently, there are five dwarf planets, and the other two besides Pluto I thought I knew (Sedna and Goblin) weren’t even dwarf planets at all! Some father I am.

[3]To be fair, I likely would have categorized Trump in this category in January 2015.

[4]I had Tim Kaine #1! Nailed it.

[5]Sanders is certainly further to the left, however. That’s a fact both groups will probably point to as reasons to support their own candidate.


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