Published January 29, 2019
The race for the Democratic 2020 Presidential nomination has already started in earnest. Several Democrats have either announced or formed exploratory committees, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, and many more are expected to do so in the next few weeks. It’s much too early to say who has the best chance, but the field so far seems to be breaking into four tiers.
Tier 1 candidates are those with large name identification and a proven track record of raising money. Only three names fit those descriptions: former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Warren. Biden and Sanders normally come in first or second in the few polls taken to date, with Warren often in third or fourth.
Recent history should warn us about early advantages, however. Polls taken at this stage of the 2008 race uniformly showed Hillary Clinton well in front and Barack Obama barely ahead of Senator John Edwards. Bernie Sanders received only around 4 percent in national polls in January 2015. And the leader in national polls as late as April 2003 was Joseph Lieberman.
That track record means that Tier 2 candidates have a decent shot. They have some degree of national name identification and have generated some buzz in the political press. I’d place six candidates in this group: Senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar; former congressman Robert “Beto” O’Rourke; and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Each has advantages and disadvantages. Harris and Booker have used their senatorial positions to garner national attention as each caters to the angry Democratic “Resistance.” Harris, in particular, has received much favorable attention since she announced her candidacy last week and is on the verge of breaking into the top tier. Gillibrand is one of the craftiest, calculating pols around and has been long angling for this chance. Klobuchar is gaining ground as the choice of the party’s “Cuomo voter,” the mildly liberal person who wants to win rather than make a statement. O’Rourke raised more than $70 million in his failed Senate campaign against Ted Cruz and now often runs third or fourth in national polls. And Bloomberg used his billions to good effect in the midterms, spending heavily in key races on candidates who support his signature issue, gun control.
Tier 3 candidates are those who have generated some attention and have a different story to tell than the more prominent contenders. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has been winning statewide elections in a key swing state for decades and has long courted the crucial working-class “Obama-Trump” voter. Former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary Julian Castro is the only Latino to announce so far, an important characteristic in a party where Hispanics make up the fastest-growing voter segment. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper comes from the Rocky Mountain West, another fast-growing part of the Democratic electorate.
As many as 15 candidates may make up the rest of the pack. They run the gamut from businessmen (Andrew Yang) to former or current members of Congress (John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jeff Merkley) and others (Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, Washington governor Jay Inslee). None has the sort of personal story, signature issue, or rabid support among a significant group that normally presages a candidate coming from the back of the pack to contend, like former Vermont governor Howard Dean did in 2004. Rather, they look more like, respectively, run-of-the-mill officeholders who have always wanted to run for higher office; politicians using their race to get some exposure (and perhaps a better job); and those who are just plain clueless.
Some wonder whether an out-of-left-field personality could overpower the field, as Donald Trump did in 2016 to the Republicans. That’s unlikely in the Democratic Party because of how it selects delegates. The GOP operates on a winner-take-all or winner-take-most delegate formula, which allowed Trump to win large numbers of delegates with mere pluralities of the vote. The GOP also had few uncommitted delegates who could rally behind a more conventional candidate on the convention floor.
Democrats, on the other hand, award delegates by a strictly proportional method; candidates get delegates only in proportion to the share of the vote they garner. Democrats also set aside nearly 20 percent of their delegates for unpledged officeholders and party bigwigs—the so-called superdelegates. While they can no longer cast votes on the first ballot, they would represent the deciding votes in the event of a first-ballot deadlock—and they would likely back a candidate with more institutional history with the party. These complications are likely why Starbucks founder Howard Schultz has announced that he will avoid the Democratic primary system and instead run as an independent presidential candidate.
Party primary campaigns are the closest thing that politics has to reality television. Start with lots of unfamiliar people; have them travel to strange locations and tackle tasks and challenges they’ve never mastered before; then, state by state, watch as losers get voted off the show, until finally only one person is left standing. Though it hardly seems possible, the whole dizzying process is about to start again.