(Editor’s note: This past week I ran the following as a five-part series to make it a more manageable read. However, I’ll likely want to reference them all together in future Power Rankings and posts, so here I’m combining and streamlining. If you’ve already read all five parts, feel free to close out this window now.)
(Editor’s note #2: I’m leaving in Bloomberg and Brown because you can’t stop me. But, for the record, without them Inslee and Buttigieg move into the top ten, but neither are major planets — Inslee is fundraising well and no longer has to compete with Bloomberg as the Climate Change Guy, while Buttigieg benefits from the lack of Brown in the Midwest. The top seven stay unchanged, though Klobuchar, also benefiting from a Brownless primary, might soon threaten Booker and Warren’s top-six spots.)
The Democratic Primary’s “Super Tuesday” will be held on March 3, 2020. In the largest single-day delegate allocation of the primary, at least ten states will go to the polls, including delegate-rich California and Texas. I expect, therefore, that on March 4 we’ll know who the Democratic nominee is likely to be.
This prognostication is based on recent history in both major parties. In the 16 primaries dating back eight elections (through the 1988 cycle, which is about when “Super Tuesday” started becoming a thing), the candidate who won more states and more delegates on Super Tuesday either obtained or retained the primary lead — and never gave it up on their way to the nomination. Take a look:
Every single Super Tuesday winner became their party’s nominee. This sample convinces me that one year from today, we’ll know who’s on the way to winning the 2020 Democratic Primary.
The question, of course, is who will it be? One year before we know the answer sounds like a perfect time to have my first “Democratic Power Rankings” of the election cycle. And we’re going to go DEEP into it.
I’ll break the candidates into five tiers, and they’ll align with my planetary classifications explained here. We’ll have:
- Tier 5: Small Solar System Bodies (SSSBs) — These are candidates almost totally unknown outside of their families and small circles of supporters. Not only do they have no chance, but most voters will never hear their name.
- Tier 4: Unknown Dwarf Planets — Our solar system likely has many dwarf planets, though only five are confirmed. Candidates here have either not declared or they have but are likely to stay non-contenders. Some are respected, even state-wide elected officials, but they top out at a two or three percent chance to win the nomination, either because I’m skeptical of their upside or they might not even enter the race.
- Tier 3: Known Dwarf Planets — These are official candidates but long shots. If I squint enough, I can see their almost impossible path to victory.
- Tier 2: Rocky Planets — For the first time I’m further dividing the “major planets” into the smaller rocky ones and the massive gaseous giants. In the rocky tier we get into the most serious candidates, all of whom I can see with a realistic path to the nomination. Still, due to the size of the field, they all have under a 10 percent chance to win the primary.
- Tier 1: Gas Giants — In my estimation, these are the co-favorites.
Finally, I’ll only be including candidates that have officially declared or are I think are likely to run. Other big names — Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Mark Cuban come to mind — can be added at a later ranking if necessary, as can more moderately sized names — Erik Holder, Terry McCauliffe, Jeff Merkley, and others.
I’ll want to take my time with the first ranking, as it it’ll form a firm foundation on top of which I can build future, shorter rankings that can reference the original. Since this pre-amble has gone on long enough, today I’ll only list…
Tier 5: Small Solar System Bodies (SSSBs)
As of February 25, 559 people have filed the required papers with the Federal Election Committee to be official presidential candidates, and 192 of them are Democrats. They are almost all irrelevant in the quest for the presidency. The most high profile of the SSSBs are:
- Michael E. Arth: a 2018 Florida gubernatorial candidate, he won 0.35% of the vote
- Harry Braun: a two-time nominee for Congress like 30 years ago
- Ken Nwadike Jr.: the Free Hugs Guy
- Robby Wells: former head coach of Savannah State University’s football team
I’ve already said too much about them.
Tier 4: Unknown Dwarf Planets
We’re into the top 20. Time to start ranking…
20. Marianne Williamson, California best-selling author and spiritual teacher: I’ve seen a modicum of love for her online. She’s right on the cusp of SSSB status, but if she’s good enough to be Oprah’s spiritual adviser, maybe she can be one for the country.
19. Andrew Yang, New York entrepreneur: He filed his papers back on November 6, 2017 — three years before the next general election. That’s allowed him to raise, as of the last FEC public disclosure (which was before nearly every person on this list declared), the third most money of any candidate. His $660,000 trailed only President Trump and the next name on this list.
18. John Delaney, former Congressman from Maryland (2013-2019): Delaney declared even earlier than Yang — all the way back in June of 2017. He has since raised nearly 6 million dollars in 18 months, an impressive number… until Bernie Sanders beat it in under 24 hours.
17. Eric Swalwell, Congressman from California (2013-): Though he has yet to officially declare, he’s included on this list because he looks like likely to run after spending time in New Hampshire. He’s a young (38), bright guy with a smart grasp of social media, but I don’t see a path for a relatively obscure and inexperienced California Congressman in this election. He’s got a future in the party, though, and he would likely eye Kamala Harris or Diane Feinstein’s Senate seat if they leave the chamber.
16. Steve Bullock, Governor of Montana (2013-)
15. John Hickenlooper, former Governor of Colorado (2011-2019): Hickenlooper gets the edge because he just officially declared his candidacy, but I lump them in together as moderate Midwestern governors who hope their relative centrism convinces Democrats to vote for someone who can win Trump voters. The party is simply not moving that way, though, and without more name recognition (Joe Biden), widespread party backing (Sherrod Brown), or a fresh look (Amy Klobuchar), that’ll turn out to be a hopeless pitch.
14. Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington (2013-): It’s a decent Democratic résumé: he’s the governor of a progressive state, the governor behind Washington v. Trump, an advocate for urgent action on climate change, and he was the 2018 chair of the Democratic Governor’s Association when the party picked up seven gubernatorial seats. Helping him get ranked at the top of this tier, he just became an official candidate on Friday and has since raised a cool million dollars. However, his delegate base — Washington, Oregon, Idaho — is relatively weak and, importantly, probably late on the primary calendar. Plus, he’s an old white guy in a young, mostly female, and heavily minority party. Unlike Michael Bloomberg, he can’t self-fund a hundred million dollars, while unlike Bernie Sanders, he has no national name recognition, and unlike Joe Biden, he has no case as a particularly strong general election candidate compared to the field. Those are the ways an old white guy can still be the nominee of such a diverse party.
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 Mayor 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.
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.
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 about which candidate early-state Democratic activists are considering:
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:
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.
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 from earlier. Take another look at FiveThirtyEight’s tabulation of who “early-state activitists” were considering throwing their support behind:
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 also 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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
#BetoORourke 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:
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.