The 2020 Democratic presidential primary doesn’t officially tip off for another 22 months, but the game-planning is already well underway. We are now, with history as a guide, probably less than a year from the early favorites making their formal declarations.
Handicapping the field this far out requires more than a little guesswork. None of the top “seeds” listed below are a lock to run. There’s at least an even-money chance that the eventual winner doesn’t appear anywhere in these brackets. (For ex.: Would this exercise, in 2014, have included President Donald Trump? Probably not.)
Caveats aside, we’re not just pulling these names out of a hat. Everyone listed below has some combination of pedigree, money, grass-roots support or, at the least, publicly stated interest in a presidential bid. But like with March Madness itself, chance is often the final arbiter of the aspirants’ collective fate. Some of that came into play as we narrowed the field here to only 32 would-be candidates. Oprah Winfrey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are among the notable absentees. California Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, too, couldn’t be blamed for griping over their omissions.
In the end, we split the contest into four “regions”: The Lefties, a pocket of officeholders who tend to come down somewhere on the progressive end of most internal Democratic debates; The Governors, an ideologically diverse group of current and former state leaders with executive experience; The Senators, an ambitious collection of Capitol Hill players and one who narrowly missed out on joining them; and The Wild Cards, a bracket that features allies of former President Barack Obama, a billionaire, a couple of mayors and a pair of congressman.
Let’s break it down…
This one is pretty straightforward. If Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (1) and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (2) decide to run, they would be favorites not only in this bracket, but also among the top choices to win a date with Trump in the general. Sanders gets the nod over Warren – for now – because of his 2016 experience and the depth of his national organization.
The other six in the bracket are the names most often mentioned by progressive activists when they’re asked (by us, at least) who they’d coalesce around if Sanders and Warren weren’t options. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s seed (6) is lower because of what could be a tough re-election contest this year. Nina Turner (8), a former Ohio state senator, is currently the president of Our Revolution, the political group that emerged from Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (4) and Keith Ellison of Minnesota (3) are popular with the Berniecrat grass roots and could be tempted into running if Sanders stands down. Meanwhile, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (7), a member of the House progressive caucus, is retiring but could be open to pursuing something loftier. His cred on immigration issues, and intense advocacy for DACA recipients, could make the longtime Chicago-based congressman a tricky opponent for more cautious candidates.
Then there’s New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (5). He’s clearly eyeballing higher office and has some legit progressive accomplishments in his back pocket. But his rhetorical war of attrition with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (see below) is tiring and probably undermines his agenda and standing with national Democrats.
Presidential prognosticators love a popular governor, especially one who’s been able to defy the political leanings of their state. Hence, a high seed for Montana’s Steve Bullock (2), who has won three straight elections, first to become attorney general, then become and remain governor, in an otherwise pretty red state. (Caution here: He’s the second straight Montana Democrat to win consecutive gubernatorial terms.)
On the flip side, there’s Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee (3). Still mostly unknown nationally, his state has become a liberal stronghold and his dressing down of Trump during a recent White House visit will please liberals. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (7) is a good bet to be re-elected this fall and has a place in history as the first governor to sign an automatic “motor voter” bill into law. California’s Jerry Brown (8) is a lion, though seemingly in winter, but one to watch as his term winds down.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (4) is another Western stalwart, and an interesting character, while former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (6) is expected to consider another kick at the can. New York’s Cuomo (5) can be a divisive figure – a moderate with some big liberal achievements and about as many controversies in his way. (Google: “New York IDC” for a taste.)
Which brings us to the top seed, none other than recently departed Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (1). “The Macker” has, for better or worse, a Bidenesque way with words and access to a wealthy network of donors. That might not be enough to generate the enthusiasm needed to win in Iowa or New Hampshire, but if he runs and survives the early states, it’s easy to imagine Clinton loyalists funneling their support (and cash) his way.
Yes, yes, we know that former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (7) is not a member of the US Senate. But he came really close. In a red state. So he was granted an exemption. Ironically, if he does run, not having amassed a voting record in Washington could boost his appeal across party sects.
Now for the heavy hitters. California Sen. Kamala Harris (1) will have resources to match anyone in the game and a record that, if messaged nimbly, could keep her in liberals’ hearts but also give comfort to moderates anxious over the party’s leftward shift. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (2) and Cory Booker of New Jersey (3) are also popular and politically savvy, and like Harris, susceptible to attacks from the left. But for their purposes here, the bigger challenge might be in securing support from their local establishments, which overlap a bit in the tri-state area.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (4), Chris Murphy of Connecticut (5) and Jeff Merkley of Oregon (6) are all liberals in good standing with Democratic voters and viable options if they can break through in such a crowded field. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island (8) distinguished himself during Trump Cabinet confirmation hearings and, well, with a name like that…
To note: Harris, Booker, Whitehouse, Merkley and Gillibrand, who helped write it, all backed Sanders’ “Medicare-for-all” bill last year, which could soften skeptical progressive diehards. (Warren did, too, but her bona fides there are why she’s in a different bracket.)
If we were seeding this 1 to 32, former Vice President Joe Biden (1) would probably – at this date and time – be the overall top seed. Polls show him with the best chance of beating Trump – even though it’s so early as to render them near meaningless – and he has a unique personal quality and history that allow him to speak both to white working class voters and the more liberal Obama coalition. But his long record cuts both ways. Biden’s votes on the 1994 crime bill and bank-friendly legislation will be a problem if the nomination comes down to him and a more progressive candidate.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (2) could also eat into Biden’s share of the Obama coalition. Patrick is a very popular guy in Obamaworld but his decision to spend the last few years coining it at Bain Capital is a major headwind.
After those two, you have the billionaire Tom Steyer (4), who’s launched and backstopped an assortment of liberal causes, and another Californian in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (5), an ambitious figure also doing his best to establish a profile in early voting states. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (6), whose speech last May after the city removed four Confederate monuments put him on everyone’s radar, is quickly becoming a national figure, something Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts (7) is working toward himself.
Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (3), an Obama administration veteran who was among the favorites to become Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, has been refreshingly transparent about his interest in running. Though not as open as the underdog Rep. John Delaney of Maryland (8), the first Democrat to enter the race – in July 2017.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly identify Jason Kander’s former position. He was Missouri’s secretary of state.