This campaign season I’m comparing each Power Ranking “tier” of candidates to a type of solar orbiting body. For my first Power Rankings of the 2020 cycle, we’ve so far done two tiers:
Tier 5: Small Solar System Bodies — Insignificant Candidates
No one of note resides here.
Tier 4: Unknown Dwarf Planets — Undeclared candidates who probably can’t win, or declared major candidates with almost impossibly long odds.
20. Marianne Williamson
19. Andrew Yang
18. John Delaney
17. Eric Swalwell
16. Steve Bullock
15. John Hickenlooper
14. Jay Inslee
Now it’s time for…
Tier 3: Known Dwarf Planets
Starting with the candidates below, this list moves from “it would absolutely shock me if that candidate won the nomination” to “I would be surprised, but I wouldn’t be shocked.” If Hickenlooper or Inslee become the nominee, I’m shocked. If the next few candidates do, I’m merely surprised. (In contrast, if any of the later “major planets” were nominated, I wouldn’t even be surprised.) With one exception, each of these candidates have officially jumped into the race.
Since these candidates have at least an outside shot at the nomination (and a few have a decent shot at a VP shortlist), I’ll start to write a bit more on each candidate, starting with…
13. Tulsi Gabbard, Congresswoman from Hawaii (2013-): Ever since she resigned her 2016 Vice Chairmanship of the DNC to support Bernie Sanders, who she thought was treated unfairly in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, she has become a progressive darling. Therefore, this low ranking might break the hearts of some enamored progressives — though more likely it’ll just draw their ire, a surplus resource of theirs. But don’t worry, Tulsiholics, I have good news. I don’t rank her low because of her youth (37) or her past controversial comments on homosexuality (which might still sporadically haunt her campaign). No, I rank her low because everyone who loves Gabbard loves Bernie Sanders even more. He’s almost always going to be their first choice, and Gabbard will at best be their second. She therefore can’t gain traction unless he’s out of the race, and he’ll certainly remain in the race past the early states, at which point Gabbard will be gone.
To illustrate the point of her impossible upward climb, consider FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of which candidates the important “early state state activists” are considering supporting (I’ll reference this chart again, so get a good look):
Gabbard finds herself near the bottom, even after she was one of the first to declare her candidacy. Now, I’m sure if Bernie Sanders were to leave the race, her numbers would climb rapidly — but he’s not, so they won’t.
On the other hand, she’s probably the best-looking presidential candidate since John C. Calhoun, so she’s got that going for her.
12. Julian Castro, former Mayor of Houston (2009-2014) and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (2014-2017):
I wrote about Castro a bit at the beginning of the year, noting he was once seen as an up-and-coming Democrat who could be to Latinos what Obama was to African Americans — a young, galvanizing figure that rallies an entire demographic to his cause. Since he left HUD, however, his trajectory has plateaued. He stood still while others in the party moved past as the new next big things. Latinos alone won’t be able to save him; the party is about one-eighth Hispanic, which is a decent chunk but a far cry from African Americans, who make up more than a fifth.
And call me crazy, but I still don’t think the name “Castro” looks good on a presidential bumper sticker.
11. Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana (2012-): Buttigieg, in the above activist-consideration chart, went from 0 to 17 percent within a month of his announcement, a number that doubles Gabbard’s and matches the more nationally known Castro’s. I wrote about the relatively obscure Buttigieg when he entered the race. As just a mayor with a tough last name to spell and pronounce, it’s easy to write him off, but I actually think he has sneaky upside. (In other words, if candidates were a stock, he’s the best “buy low” option.) He has the gift of eloquently walking listeners through both a big-picture vision and granular problem-solving. This skill made him a surprising dark horse candidate at 2017’s campaign for Democratic National Committee chair. He delivered impressive forum performances against the nationally known candidates and received his fair share of endorsements before ultimately withdrawing so he didn’t play spoiler.
In this crowded field, the debates will be the easiest way for any candidate to earn new attention and financial support from Democrats across the country. Buttigieg has proven he can shine in such a medium. Assuming he can meet the debates’ low threshold to qualify, I think we see a bit of a post-debate polling rally for him this summer.
All three of the above names — Castro, Gabbard, and Buttigieg — might make attractive VP choices. Castro could help diversify the ticket of a white nominee and turn out a record number of Latino voters, while Gabbard would make sense for a male nominee seen as too establishment. Buttigieg, though he’s a young, articulate Midwestern mayor that might be seen as a nice pairing to a nominee perceived as too liberal or coastal, is probably a scary option due his sexuality. Though being gay wouldn’t get in the way of Democrats supporting him for president, I do think it’s a variable the party wouldn’t want to worry about in a winnable general election.
10. Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator from New York (2009-): In our top 10 we’re starting to get into the big names in the Democratic Party. I stand by my piece on Gillibrand after her entrance into the race.
While she excites few constituencies or powerful interests, she also alienates few constituencies and powerful interests. For the moment, she is decidedly inoffensive to most Democrats. Perhaps it’s because she’s deftly played the part of chameleon, evolving on some issues when it suits her.
Nonetheless, in this surely crowded primary, I don’t think inoffensiveness is particularly helpful.
It remains to be seen if it’s more advantageous in the 2020 Democratic Primary to have a solid base of support with a lot of opposition or no base of support with limited opposition. Gillibrand is most certainly in that latter group. Unfortunately for her, the 2016 Republican Primary is our closest analogy to this crowded race, a contest won by someone who was seen as having a passionate base but little room to grow. And yet, he grew.
Gillibrand also makes sense as a VP candidate if the presidential nominee is male. An inoffensive, loyal Senator might be just what the doctor ordered, like a female Tim Kaine. You know, because Tim Kaine worked out really well.
9. Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City (2002-2013): I get the impression he’s waiting on Joe Biden’s decision. If Biden runs, Bloomberg won’t, and then the Major will be off this list altogether. If Biden doesn’t run, Bloomberg will, and he’ll move into major planet status. He’s a unique candidate — and in a crowded field, being unique can be extremely helpful.
As the only billionaire in the race, he has the ability to entirely self-fund his campaign, and he can make the argument that only he has the financial success to neutralize a common argument of his party’s Republican opponent. A philanthropist, Bloomberg also led the liberal charge against climate change and for gun control (before those were central planks of modern Democratic policy) not only by trying to move the debate on those issues but also by pouring money into organizations that shared his vision. And yet, as mayor he was officially a Republican then Independent. Though his slide later settled on the Democratic Party, his background shows the ability to understand the other side. Yet, he’s clearly now party-loyal; he spent about $112 million dollars on Democratic candidates in 2018, an amount that earns a certain degree of loyalty. Thus, Bloomberg, like Biden, can have one foot in a circle marked Loyal Democrat, but his other in one labeled Crossover Potential.
Still, even if Biden doesn’t run, I don’t see Bloomberg with more than the eighth best chance to win the nomination. I reached out to a former high-ranking New York City employee under Bloomberg, one who liked working for him and was proud of what his boss accomplished as Mayor. He said, “I don’t think he’d be a bad president” but “I wouldn’t be voting for him in a primary with more inspirational leaders.”
And there it. Regularly cited as the greatest weakness of Biden and Sanders, Bloomberg, as my source described, is “an old, white man with old, white man solutions.” At 77, he’s five months younger than Sanders and nine months older than Biden. While no person should be ruled out as a result of their sex or age, the modern Democratic Party seems to be giving up on the old regime who handed us our modern problems and now claims they can solve them.
The key difference between Bloomberg and the other two men, however, is that Biden and Sanders are already nationally known and popular names. Bloomberg, who usually polls at two percent, has too much work to do to win over skeptical Democratic voters.
All right, that’s it for the dwarf planets. Because I’m approaching 1,500 words, let’s call that Part III. I hope you’ll come back for Part IV, where we get to the “major” planets. Just like there are eight major planets in our solar system, I see eight candidates with realistic paths to the Democratic nomination. Tomorrow you’ll start to see who they are.