The First 2020 Democratic Power Ranking: Part V–The Giants!

We made it! Part V — the conclusion. Finally.

This campaign season I’m comparing each “tier” to a type of solar orbiting body. For my first Power Rankings of the 2020 cycle, we’ve so far done four 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. Jay Inslee
15. Steve Bullock
14. John Hickenlooper

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

Tier 2: Rocky Major Planets — Realistic nominees. I would not be surprised if any of them won the nomination.
8. Sherrod Brown
7. Amy Klobuchar
6. Cory Booker
5. Elizabeth Warren

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The co-favorites for the 2020 Democratic nomination…


Tier 1: The Gas Giants

4. Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont (1837-): The more time goes by, the more I like his chances to be the Democratic nominee. At first, I reacted like many others. There was the instinctual reaction: “Wayyy too old.” But there was also a more logical one. Back in January, I wrote that his greatest 2016 advantage was his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who “was the most disliked Democratic nominee in polling history . . . [and] Sanders was a natural alternative,” but that this time, “There is no singular opponent against which he can rally all said opponent’s detractors.”

It really felt like he squeezed every last vote he could possibly get, yet he still came up short. Now, with so many more candidates to choose from, he surely would come up short again, particularly with bad feelings from Clinton supporters who list Sanders among the reasons why she lost in the general election. Current polling sustains this belief: though he won 43 percent of the 2016 Democratic Primary vote, national 2020 surveys usually chart him at under 20 percent support, meaning he’s been abandoned by half his supports who now search for greener, younger pastures.

But now I’m not too sure. I till no new soil when identifying the striking similarities between the Sanders and Trump campaigns — similarities that existed four years ago as they do now. What’s most relevant is that the structure of the 2020 Democratic Primary is shaping up to mirror the 2016 Republican race. Both are overcrowded, which means both lend themselves to being dominated by a candidate with a zealous base of support that donate money, volunteer, and blanket the internet with memes. These bases will vote. And even before the voting, they’ll consistently respond to polls supporting their candidate, which then shows their candidate at or near the top of polls, which then attracts more support from theretofore undecideds.

In short, we can write off Sanders just like we wrote off Trump. We kept saying that eventually enough Republican candidates would drop out and rally around one person to defeat Trump. It never happened. Once his poll numbers lasted into the primary season and he started winning contests, it was over.

Still, while I’d say Sanders has the best chance to finish top three in delegates, I rank him fourth overall in a ranking of who will win. In many ways, he has inherited Clinton’s biggest problem — many people have already made up their mind about him, and he rubs a lot of them the wrong way. I think Democrats will be worried about nominating someone who will be 79 on election day, who hasn’t been a Democrat except for when he runs for presidential elections, and who can easily be labeled a socialist — a term still feared by most of America. Sanders and AOC progressives remind us that all their positions, like Medicare-For-All, cheap college tuition, and the abolition of cow farts, are actually supported by a majority of Americans. However, give Republican political strategists and media a few months and they can make just about anything unpopular. Socialism will be easy. Turn on conservative radio and TV — it’s all they’re talking about already.

3. Kamala Harris, Attorney General of California (2011-2017); Senator from California (2017-): Behind only Sanders, Harris ranks second on my unofficial, “Who has the best chance to finish in the top three?” list. And yet, she ranks third on my official “Who has the best chance to be the nominee?” list. What gives?

Let’s start with the reasons why the oddsmakers list her as the favorite — usually at or close to 3/1.

In the 2016 Democratic Primary, the electorate was nearly 60 percent female and about a quarter black. African-American women in particular are a strengthening constituency, with DNC Chair Tom Perez calling them the “backbone” of the Democratic Party. These are groups that have lately controlled Democratic elections. In the 2008 Democratic Primary, Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton due to unprecedented and intense support from black voters. Eight years later, that constituency flipped to Hillary Clinton and she therefore dispatched the Sanders challenge. Then, in 2018, we saw the power of the highly motivated women’s vote in determining the fate of the House of Representatives. Many of them are still angry at the 2016 result, hold sexism from Sanders and Trump supporters responsible, and are out for revenge. Kamala Harris is the only candidate with a head start connecting to both these groups.

Let’s also consider a couple of the charts I brandished in earlier parts of this ranking. First, let’s recall FiveThirtyEight’s tabulation of who “early-state activitists” were considering throwing their support behind:

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Harris led the category in December, and she leads the category now. No one else is even being considered by a majority of these important activists.

And yet, it’s not as if these party die-hards are taken with a level of Democratic traditionalism that would simultaneously alienate the rising left. Let’s consider that chart from ProgressivePunch.org, which ranked just how progressive Congressmen and women are on 14 different issues of the progressive cause. It defaults to a ranking of how frequently they vote progressively on “crucial votes” across their Senatorial career. Look who’s at the top:

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By the numbers, Kamala Harris places ahead of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Thus, Harris ranks at the top of the pack in consideration from party loyalists and she has a record that the far left can support.

And I haven’t even gotten to what I think is her greatest advantage in this race. We always have to remember that the race to the nomination boils down to a delegate chase, and this year we have a colossally important change to the primary calendar that will benefit her. Harris’s home state of California has moved up its primary date by three months. Traditionally in June, as it was last cycle, California had been one of the last states to vote in the primary. Next year, however, its primary will be held in the first week of March — tied with about ten or so Super Tuesday states — the first primary day after the four early states scattered throughout February. The reasoning behind the push explains why it will help her so much: California wants to have more say over the nominee. Its June primary date had turned the state into a rubber stamp of whichever candidate was on his or her way to winning the nomination. Many Californians felt shortchanged, particularly since its enormous number of diverse Democrats should have more weight than tiny, lily white Iowa and New Hampshire. An early March primary will give it a chance to throw its weight around.

Relevantly, its delegation is considerably larger than all others, much in thanks to there being so many Democrats in the state. In 2016, it sent 475 pledged delegates to the convention, while second place New York sat just 247. Third and fourth place Texas (233) and Florida (214) sat less than half the number of California’s delegates. Therefore, if Harris is competitive after the four February states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina), she can expect to have a huge delegate haul that day and vault into the delegate lead. Then, just as other candidates are dropping out, this momentum will make her look like a strong alternative when voters are looking for a new candidate to back. Hence: the oddsmakers love her, and I think she’s a top-three contender.

So why won’t she win? Why do I disagree with the oddsmakers on her status as favorite?

Let’s methodically disassemble her ostensible advantages.

  1. Her lead in “consideration from early-state activists” has narrowed. As the field grows, their interest in her has fallen. The only other candidates to experience a drop in interest are candidates that haven’t declared yet. For them it’s understandable, since antsy activists want to get going, but not for Harris, who has not only declared but is considered the favorite. Just about every other declared candidate has seen their numbers rise since they declared. Why is Harris cooling? It’s a troubling question.
  2. My sense is that the progressive base of the party is not falling for her category-leading performance on ProgressivePunch.org. She is just barely two years into her first term in the U.S. Senate. All her Senate votes have come in the context of a stronger-than-ever progressive movement and a President whose unpopularity makes it easy for Democratic Senators to vote the other way. More experienced Senators have had longer to cast non-progressive votes, including during times where the political climate was less hospitable to liberals. Instead, I see progressive voters more focused on her time as a prosecutor, when she took a less-than-progressive approach to her prosecutions.
  3. She’s not as popular in California as one might assume. Sure, the state voted to send her to the U.S. Senate in 2016, but, in their eyes at least, she hasn’t exactly validated their decision. An October 2018 poll from Morning Consult found that she had just 44 percent approval in the state compared to 30 percent disapproval, a middling split of +14. Last month, a Quinnipiac survey reported that only 40 percent of Californians thought she would make a good president, with 38 percent disagreeing — a basically even split. And in California polls, Joe Biden has actually performed better than Harris in hypothetical matchups with Trump. Again — that’s in California, her home state.

Her built-in demographic advantages are difficult to dispute, as she’s quite clearly a woman and an African American one at that, but whether that’s enough to overcome some electability concerns is another question. Harris’s strength in California might be her greatest asset in a primary, but we already know the state will be colored blue in the general. Her ability to win back Trump voters in the industrial “rust belt” of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin — the most obvious path to victory for the Democratic nominee — will be called into question.

Ultimately, her candidacy certainly appears potent, but she might be more of a paper tiger. We can’t forget that at this point in 2015, oddsmakers saw Jeb Bush and Scott Walker as the most likely nominees, but those candidacies barely got off the ground.

The party, either through polls or perception, will see one someone else as most capable of winning a general election against President Trump. That person will either be Beto O’Rourke or Joe Biden. While I don’t see a way both of them can win as many delegates as Sanders and Harris, the primary will have room for one of them to to achieve escape velocity and pull away from the pack after Super Tuesday.

The second most likely Democratic nominee in 2020 is…

2. Beto O’Rourke, Congressman from Texas (2013-2019); Texas Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate (2018): Oh, how quickly people have forgotten about the wonder that was the Beto O’Rourke Campaign! I can understand why — as other candidates jump in the race and take over the discussion, many people have either lost track of a lowly Texas Congressman, or have determined that a losing Senate candidate couldn’t possibly win a national election, or that his weird, “funky” period of drifting reflection after his loss shows he’s lost his appetite for politics and/or campaigning. And maybe he has.

But if he hasn’t lost that appetite, watch out for Beto 2020. I will not let recency bias affect my ranking. I still remember Midterm Election Night, when I tweeted, “With the right bookie, you can get at about 25/1 odds to win the 2020 presidential election. As I write this sentence, that’s a very, very smart bet.”

My tweet of course affected the betting markets. By November 13, his longest odds had already moved to just 12/1. That’s when I first declared him one of the two most likely nominees, and his odds on most sites are now in the single digits.

But yes, since his loss, he stepped away. He had his weird midlife crisis. As over a dozen other major candidates jumped into the race, we still haven’t heard his decision. So he became yesterday’s news.

Just don’t forget that…

  • He almost won a state-wide Texas race as a Democrat. Texas hasn’t voted Democrat for a statewide office since 1994 — the longest stretch in the country.
  • He raised more money, most of which was from small contributions, than any other Senate candidate — ever. (Rick Scott raised more but he used $63 million of his own money to win his Florida Senate campaign.) Many of these donors are likely willing to donate again right out of the gate if he were to run.
  • Polling wise he’s not doing that great, usually placing around fifth place with only a handful of points, but much of that has to do with being less known than the other candidates. A recent Monmouth poll asked Democrats about the many candidates’ favorability, and Beto had the second best favorable to unfavorable ratio. Forty-three percent viewed him favorably compared to only eight percent unfavorably. FiveThirtyEight helpfully put this into a chart for us:

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We should conclude that as more people learn about him in a campaign, his overall numbers will match that of the leaders.

  • Meanwhile, it seems that, even more than the entrenched, establishment-y Cory Booker (Booker leads the field in early endorsements), who has the aesthetics down, it’s O’Rourke who’s reminding people of 2008 Obama. Both are elected officials but still relatively new to the national stage, which gave them some “outsider” street cred. Both relied on grassroots fundraising to take on bigger-name opponents. Both gave articulate and hopeful (and often vague) speeches that inspired a broad coalition of followers. Obama Administration aides certainly see the comparison. The former President himself agrees. There was the much-discussed “Obama-O’Rourke Summit” in December, where the two men met in private to discuss 2020. Then, O’Rourke began fielding calls from top Obama operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s right — he fielded calls from them.
  • And always remember the appeal he’ll bring to voters desperate to win: he almost won Texas! Imagine what he could do in actual swing states.

This is all my roundabout way of saying: just wait until Beto O’Rourke jumps into this race. He can transform it. If he were a stock, I’d say buy buy buy before it’s too pricey.

And yet, I still feel the party’s most likely nominee is…

1. Joe Biden, 47th Vice President of the United States (2009-2017): Or, perhaps, I should say “least unlikely” nominee. He’s certainly more likely to lose than win, but he’s less likely to lose than anyone else.

Though Biden has stayed the favorite in my sidebar’s odds, he has fallen from 4/1 to 5/1. Truth be told, his hesitation to enter the race worries me. There’s something about this race that hasn’t quite convinced him it’s worth ruining his legacy for a roll of the dice to become president. He’s generally well-liked — certainly across the party, and there’s even a modicum of toleration from Republicans — but if he becomes a candidate again, we can expect remarks about his age, his many gaffes, his handsy nature in photo ops, his regret over his treatment of Anita Hill, and, what we’ll hear most vocally: his lack of credentials in the progressive movement. The attack dogs are going to go hard at the man from Scranton.

But if he enters the race, he’ll say, “let ’em.” He’s ready for the brawl. I think my earlier speculation that Sanders might emulate Trump’s 2016 campaign — the early polling leader accumulates support largely as a result of that early polling lead — can apply to Biden as well. After all, it’s him, not Sanders, who leads every national poll, both high profile Iowa polls, and he even goes toe-to-toe with Sanders in his New Hampshire backyard. Moreover, Biden is in even better position than Trump was in the first half of 2015, because Trump’s favorability/unfavorability split was still well under water in the party. Biden’s favorability numbers, as seen above in FiveThirtyEight’s graphic of the Morning Consult poll, lead the Democratic pack. He’s the most well-known and the most well-liked candidate. That’s a great combination for an election.

That’s but one of three notable strengths that will carry him to the nomination. The second is that he inherits the legacy of Barack Obama, who’s even more popular among Democrats than Trump is among Republicans, and that’s saying something. In 2017, after the former President left office, Gallup found Obama had 97 percent approval from Democrats. Last year, Pew reported that a majority of Democrats thought he was the best president of their lifetime, and another fifth, for a total of 71 percent, thought he was in the top two. Obama can’t run again, but his loyal VP is the candidate most able to ride those extraordinary coattails.

Finally, perhaps only Sherrod Brown could have rivaled Biden’s case for electability — and now Brown isn’t running. We see poll after poll that shows Biden does best in hypothetical head-to-heads. Public Policy Polling, for example, found every major candidate bests President Trump in such a category, but Biden performed the best: 53-41. Optimus, meanwhile, surveyed how the race might be shaken up if center-left Howard Schulz entered the race as an independent; it measured only four Democrats in such a race, but Biden was the only one of the four to hold a lead over the President.

Still, we didn’t need those polls to to know that Biden appeals to those “lunch-pail” old school Democrats across the industrial rust belt that defected to Trump in 2016. Even Beto O’Rourke’s success in Texas doesn’t necessarily translate to success in those crucial states that Trump won by less than a percent: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which in concert flipped the election. We can see O’Rourke run up the score with coastal Democrats and millennials across the country in areas where Democrats already succeed, but it’s unlikely O’Rourke even flips his home state. Biden almost certainly flips his Pennsylvania home away from home, while Michigan and Wisconsin are probably close behind.

All this information will be extremely compelling to Democratic voters on the fence, and he’s already up in the polls. Therefore, Joe Biden is the least unlikely Democratic nominee in 2020.


Phew, that was a lot of politics this week! My guess is you need a break from it. On Sunday I’ll run this thing as one massive column, but on Monday I’ll debut the eighth most influential figure in Western history.

Have a great weekend!

9 thoughts on “The First 2020 Democratic Power Ranking: Part V–The Giants!

  1. In regards to Kamala not being as popular in California, I think that is an important point. I’ve seen mentioned a few times that her strategy would be to basically ignore the early states and focus just on California and run up the score there. To me, that is a losing strategy and would doom her campaign. Here is how I see it would play out:
    Biden and Sanders both have clear leads in the polls for Iowa and New Hampshire respectively (granted Harris and 2nd and 3rd) making them favorites to win and I think they are both likely to be in the top 3 for both states (and I don’t think either will falter that far barring something crazy). I think the best case scenario is no other candidate that makes a run in either state and she finishes 3rd in both. In the past primaries with more than 3 candidates (’16, ’12, and ’08 GOP & ’04 Dem), all had at least 4 podium finishers. Now we head to Nevada and South Carolina in which she has advantages over Biden and Sanders in. The problem I see is that both are on Saturdays and SC is just 4 days before Super Tuesday meaning a win in either will not translate to a lot of momentum because other than readers of this site, there aren’t going to be many people staying up late on a Saturday waiting for the Greenville County returns to come in. People will not notice this results as much. If she commits a lot of time to winning either of those, it opens up California for someone to ride the momentum of a win in the first two states and skip over NV and SC and upset in California (I see this as a great strategy for Biden- Win Iowa, strong 2nd in NH and fly right to CA to try and win there). Conversely if she stays home to try to shore up California and lets someone else win those states, she comes into Super Tuesday with no momentum and minimal delegates and I don’t think a win in only California will save her as someone else will likely cover their delegate loss in CA with an early state wins + Texas and other Super Tuesday Wins. At this point, if delegate counts are similar would you rather be the candidate with a home state win or someone with wins in 7 or 8 states?
    This lets try and survive until we have a favorable state hasn’t worked. Think Florida for Rubio, Jeb! (in 2016), or Rudy Guliani in 2008. Newt had a similar strategy in 2012 with South Carolina which he won, but then never came within 15 percentage points of winning again. I know all of these examples are GOP, but I think if you are going to win the nomination, you cannot wait until your home state to show you can win. The race has passed you by if you wait for that.

    Also, do you have any thoughts on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio? He is in South Carolina this weekend. As someone who pays close attention to NYC politics, I hope he runs. It will be the presidential campaign version of a NASCAR crash

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    1. Your general premise is spot on–>Don’t wait to win your home state and think it’ll be a spring board. Candidates suffer too much from the coverage of all their losses in the meantime. That being said, we’ve never seen California, the motherlode of delegates on either side, be that eggs-in-one-basket state. If she wins it going away, she’d have an enormous delegate lead. It’s just that the rest of the country might not care and still look to Biden and Sanders, the candidates who have the most national appeal right now. For that reason, I just see an easier path for them. If Klobuchar wins winnable Iowa, she could absolutely be vaulted into a nomination. Warren HAS to finish in the top two in New Hampshire. Booker HAS to finish top two in South Carolina. Their margin for error is slim. Biden and Sanders can lose Iowa and be very much alive, so they’re under no such pressure. (Sanders of course has to win New Hampshire, and he will.) Beto I expect will join them with national appeal once his campaign gets going.

      As for DeBlasio, I’m sure you’d love nothing more than to merge your two favorite pastimes–politics and racing–but I don’t see him jumping into this thing.

      Like

  2. Happy to see Beto in the mix. Too many sources put a premium on gender, race, experience etc. there is a lot be said for youth, charm, vigor and. ( sound the music) PERSONALITY

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