The First 2020 Democratic Power Ranking: Part IV

This campaign season I’m comparing each Power Ranking “tier” to a type of solar orbiting body. For my first Power Rankings of the 2020 cycle, we’ve so far done three 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. It would shock me if any of these candidates became the nominee.
20. Marianne Williamson
19. Andrew Yang
18. John Delaney
17. Eric Swalwell
16. Steve Bullock
15. John Hickenlooper
14. Jay Inslee

Tier 3: Known Dwarf Planets — Candidates with long but not impossible odds. It would surprise but not shock me if any of these candidates became the nominee.
13. Tulsi Gabbard
12. Julian Castro
11. Pete Buttigieg
10. Kirsten Gillibrand
9. Michael Bloomberg

Now it’s time to get into the top two tiers, both of which include “major planets,” though they’re subdivided. Both tiers have at least one candidate that hasn’t declared, but I expect them to, unlike Michael Bloomberg, who I did not expect to declare but had to entertain the possibility that he might run… until he decided not to after I had written up his ranking. (No, I’m not bitter. Why do you ask?) Unless any of the following announce they are not running, I think they have higher upside than any of the declared dwarf planets. The remaining tiers are:

  • Tier 2: Rocky planets — I would not be surprised if any of these candidates won the nomination, but I wouldn’t consider them among the co-favorites.
  • Tier 1: Gas Giants — The titans! The co-favorites.

Tier 2: Major “Rocky” Planets

8. Sherrod Brown, Senator from Ohio (2007-): I feel great about a Sherrod Brown 2020 candidacy. If he declares, I’d move him up at least a couple spots, and I could even be talked into the top 5. I’m just not sure he’s running.

My thesis on Brown, first teased in a footnote a few weeks ago, is that he’s the ultimate “consensus candidate” in this field. Consider what he has going for him:

1. As a popular Senator from increasingly red Ohio, he not only puts this crucial battleground state back in play for the Democratic Party, but his style of passionately pro-union politics appeals to working class voters in states that are around Ohio, most notably Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, states President Trump won by less than one percent. His economic populism can win back Trump voters, and if the 2020 Democratic nominee can hold Hillary Clinton’s 2016 states and add three more from that group of four, Democrats will win the White House. Brown might be — no, I’ll say it — Brown is best equipped to deliver those states. I still think “Who can beat Trump?” will be the greatest motivating factor among Democratic voters in the primary, and Brown acquits himself as well as anyone in that category.

2. And yet, he’s also not seen as a candidate that compromises the progressive cause. While it’s true he hasn’t leaned so far left as to endorse Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, he already positioned himself as a progressive, as The Wall Street Journal phrases, “before it was cool.” And if a conservative publication doesn’t convince you, perhaps The Nation will; it notes Brown’s “long track record of defending workers and fighting Wall Street and corporate power.”

As evidence, consider the following chart from ProgressivePunch.org, which keeps track of Congressional votes on 14 key issues important to the progressive cause (aid to less advantaged, corporate subsidies, environment, health care, etc.). Here I’ve sorted by all votes over a Senator’s career, and look where Sherrod Brown ranks.

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Ahead of Bernie Sanders. (And that would hold true if we also did just “Crucial Votes.”)

What’s particularly notable is the “State Tilt” category. Of the top 17 Senators in “lifetime” progressive votes, 15 are in “Strongly Democratic” states. Only Tom Udall is in a “Leaning Dem” state, and no “swing” state senators appear. In the middle of all that blue is Senator Brown sticking out like a sore thumb in a red state. In fact, of the top 37 Senators in that ranking, only Brown comes from a state that tilts Republican. In other words, he’s finding a way to be a successful Democrat in Republican country — precisely the kind of politician the Democrats should be nominating.

3. And that sets up the third point: he should be acceptable to most progressives — though it remains to be seen if someone who breaks with Bernie Sanders and/or AOC is pure enough to pass the “Lefty Litmus” (TM) —  and yet mainstream, moderate, establishment Democrats also love him. Unlike Sanders, he’s been a loyal Democrat for his entire political career.

As evidence of that, let’s take another look at FiveThirtyEight’s graphic — first shown in Part II of my Power Rankings — about which candidate early-state Democratic activists are considering:

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Brown ranks third, and he’s gaining even though he hasn’t declared. Unlike Brown, other big names who haven’t declared yet — chiefly Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, and Beto O’Rourke — have gone backwards as others declare and pick up momentum. Yet, Brown is quite popular among these activists. He is, in fact, the only undeclared candidate in February’s top five. Color me impressed.

Plus, at “just” 66 years old, he’s practically a spring chicken compared to Sanders (77), Biden (76), Trump (73 in three months), and Elizabeth Warren (70 in three months). So why is this perfect consensus candidate just the eighth most likely candidate? I think he’s waiting on Biden’s decision for as long as possible — though he might enter soon because he can’t wait much longer. I also think he feels a lot of pressure to stay in the Senate and hold an Ohio seat for the Democratic Party. If he leaves, Republicans will surely take his spot, first when the Republican governor appoints his replacement and then after when there’s an election. (And on the personal front, there are some walked-back spousal abuse accusations from his ex-wife that might be redeployed in the era of #MeToo, which is something to keep an eye on.)

Again, if Brown declared, he’ll leap past at least the next two candidates, but I’m not sure he’ll declare.

7. Amy Klobuchar, Senator from Minnesota (2007-): Like Brown, Klobuchar has great appeal to the broad swath of America that largely gave up on the Democratic Party. And better yet — she’s a woman appealing to a Democratic electorate that was nearly three-fifth female in 2016.

The crossover appeal is undeniable. She ran up huge numbers in her three Senate elections despite Trump nearly winning Minnesota in 2016. In 2018, on her way to her 24-point state-wide victory, she won 40 percent of the 3000 Minnesota precincts won by Trump two years earlier — twice the amount the Democratic candidate for governor won on the same day. The Minnesota Tribune relayed her surprising success not just in urban areas typically won by a Democrat, but also in Republican-leaning suburban and rural counties. She ostensibly gives the party a great chance to again be competitive with moderates and the Midwest.

On the other hand, her political base is the Midwest, which lacks delegates. At the Democratic National Convention, state delegation size depends on several factors, including the state’s population, the number of elected Democrats in the state, and party loyalty in presidential elections. Midwest and more moderate Democratic states — which are typically smaller, with fewer elected Democrats, and with rarer blue results in presidential elections — fair poorly in all three of these categories. She’ll get dwarfed by candidates who can run up the score in California, Florida, and across the liberal northeast.

If she wins Iowa — and I’d rank her among the three or four most likely candidates to do so — she can make a run to the final three overall. All her eggs, however, will be in the Hawkeye basket. Sanders and Warren will deny her New Hampshire, Brown and O’Rourke will play will in Nevada, Harris and Booker are great for South Carolina, and Biden can be competitive across all the early states. Then it’s Super Tuesday, the day where earlier primary winners, nationally embraced politicians, and candidates from the big states and cities carry the day. If Iowa doesn’t come through for her, it’s over.

6. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ (2006-2013); Senator from New Jersey (2013-):

Look again at the early-state activist chart. Sitting at number two is… Cory Booker! What’s more — since December he’s gained consideration while category-leading Harris has fallen back a bit. As a result, Harris’s 16-point lead over Booker eroded to just 6. What will two more months bring?

Cory Booker is winning people over, including important Democrats. In a primary shaping up to be marked by political fisticuffs, his message is relentlessly positive, preaching, “We need a revival of civic grace. We need to reignite a more courageous empathy.” True to form, he’s less aggressive than other candidates when discussing President Trump.

It seems to be working. This week, FiveThirtyEight noted how almost all Democrats like him as they learn about him:

“Booker’s announcement was effective at boosting his favorable rating. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll of registered voters conducted a few days before his Feb. 1 announcement, his net favorability rating was +26. In a follow-up poll conducted Feb. 1-2, his net favorability rating was up to +38. The share of Democrats with an opinion of Booker increased by the same amount as his net favorability rating — suggesting that those who formed an opinion of him during that span formed a positive one.”

I actually think Klobuchar has a higher chance to become a delegate winner, as a decent finish in Iowa should translate to delegate gains across the Midwest even if she can’t win. In contrast, Booker’s greatest chance at delegates comes from New Jersey, which is one of the last states to vote. He can do well in the early South Carolina Primary and in other heavily African-American southern contests, but not if Kamala Harris doesn’t totally drown him out, a very real possibility.

However, this Power Ranking is ordered by likelihood of winning the nomination, and I think Booker’s attitude has a chance to catch fire at some point, especially if enough Democrats get convinced that the best way to beat Trump is to turn Booker into Obama 2.0. (I can his energetic positivity playing very well in the debates, for example.) So while I think Klobuchar has a better shot at a top-five finish, I also think Booker has a better shot to become a national sensation and win the primary.

5. Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts (2013-): As the dust from the 2016 settled, we generally knew who the big names would be for 2020: Biden, Bloomberg, Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren. (Beto O’Rourke was a late addition after his 2018 run for the Senate.) Though March 2019 is far too early to elevate or lower any of these candidates’ chances too much — what you thought of their chances a year ago should be pretty close to what you think today — it does feel like Warren’s start has been the most sluggish.

I would have placed her into the top tier coming out of 2016, but now she’s on the outside looking in. In the 19 national polls charted by Real Clear Politics since October, she has not once registered double-digits, and she sometimes finishes out of the top five. Perhaps worse, in next-door New Hampshire, home of the first primary and a state through which her path to the nomination runs, she’s floundering. Look at Granite State polls over the last 18 months:

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In the five polls from October 2017 through August 2018, she scored double-digit support each time. She won one of them, and she was in the top three all fives times. But in the three polls since? Single-digits and fourth place every time. And she’s still fading.

But again — it’s early. On the opposite side of the spectrum from Booker is Warren. Instead of “Hope and Change 2.0,” Democrats frustrated at President Trump may decide they want a “fighter,” and Warren embodies that. Though her approach rubs many the wrong way and invites unfavorable comparisons to Hillary Clinton, no one can say she’s not loud and proud on the dinner-table issues that matter to her, even if it makes her sound nasty. Come debates, there’s still a chance this approach connects.

Also, like Brown, she might turn out to be the consensus candidate. Bernie Sanders supporters are again likely to threaten not supporting anyone who doesn’t pass the Lefty Litmus (TM), meaning their potential candidates dwindles to Sanders, Gabbard, Warren, and perhaps one of the smaller names if they really lean into the modern leftist movement. Meanwhile, establishment Democrats are generally more open to candidates across the board, but they don’t care for disloyal Sanders and Gabbard.

That leaves Warren, the fifth most likely 2020 Democratic nominee.


Oh man, two-thousand words for just Part IV! Aren’t you glad this wasn’t one big post?

Next: Part V — the conclusion to the first 2020 Power Rankings. We’ll look at the field’s “gas giants” — AKA the co-favorites for the Democratic nomination.

Let’s finish the week strong!

4 thoughts on “The First 2020 Democratic Power Ranking: Part IV

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