There’s nothing that gets people talking more than ranked lists. That’s especially true in politics, and double especially true when the subject is the 2020 presidential race.
So, when Chris Cillizza and Harry Enten ranked the 10 Democrats most likely – as of right now – to wind up as the Democratic nominee against President Donald Trump in 2020, we expected a lot of reaction – and boy did we get it!
To sift through the biggest swings and misses, snubs and savvy selections, we convened a Slack chat with CNN colleague-slash-2020 expert Caroline Kenny to talk about our rankings. Our conversation – lightly edited to correct Chris’ terrible typing – is below.
Chris Cillizza: Hello Harry! Hello Caroline!
Harry Enten: Good Shabbos to all!
Caroline Kenny: Hi to all!
Chris: We are gathered here to talk 2020. It’s only 827 days until the 2020 election!
Harry: Chris I know you’re excited, but it is still 837 days away :disappointed:.
Chris: DANG IT! 837. Stupid fat fingers of mine!
So. Harry and I wrote this piece ranking the top 10 2020 Democrats right now. We got a ton of feedback on the piece. And if I had to summarize the two biggest critiques, they would be: 1) Why is Bernie Sanders so low (No. 5) and 2) Why is Joe Biden so high (No. 1)?
Harry, can you take the Sanders question? And Caroline (our Biden reporter), can you tackle the second?
Also, I am listening to the “Hamilton” soundtrack right now. Me and the wife went to see the show last night.
The King’s parts rock.
Harry: I’ve never seen Hamilton.
Chris: Wow. I thought I was the last one.
Harry: I love Alex Hamilton though. Good guy. Smart guy.
So first of all, being No. 5 is still pretty darn high! But I think people think, “Oh, Bernie was No. 2 last time and he’s very popular,” so therefore he should be high up. I would warn people, however, about next-in-line status. Remember Rick Santorum? He came in second in 2012 and fell absolutely flat in 2016. The problem was the competition changed. In 2016, Sanders was really the only alternative to Clinton. (Martin O’Malley ran in one caucus.) This time around Sanders is going to have tons of competition. Look at his polling right now. He is scoring about 25 points to 30 points lower than he did in 2016. As to the other point about popularity, it’s true: He is popular. But plenty of other pols are also really popular among Democrats and this is a primary, not general election.
Chris: To summarize Harry on Bernie: “Game done changed.”
Harry: Funniest thing: I once did the weather for Playbill.com, but I dislike Broadway.
Chris: OK, Caroline. Now, Biden. Make the case for why he’s the frontrunner.
Caroline: I think Biden is seen as someone who people really want to run for president, but they don’t know if he’ll follow through with it this time since his public responses to those who ask have been vague and careful. He continues to say that he knows he has to make a decision after the midterms, sometime in early 2019, and I think other potential 2020 contenders want to hear what he has to say as well before making their own decision. But – Biden has a lot to offer that others may not bring to the table. Over the past year, he’s campaigned for a number of successful Democrats who have won – Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, Rep. Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, Gov. Ralph Northam in Virginia. He’s seen as a Democrat who could appeal to people in the South and the Rust Belt who were upset with the status quo in 2016 who voted for Trump. And that’s how Democrats might be able to win against Trump, by bringing their people back to the party.
Chris: And as Harry and I noted, he’s the poll frontrunner – national and early states – and that has, historically, proven to be a good indicator of who is there at the end.
Plus, if the 2020 general is really about who can win Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, then Biden looks like the best bet at the moment.
Harry: Yep. The leader at this point in nomination processes without an incumbent has gone on to win half the time. Far from perfect, but heck, 50% in a field of 200 ain’t bad.
Caroline: I just don’t see a lot of people in those Midwest states that went for Trump venturing that far to the left to support a Bernie Sanders-type candidate. So Biden appeals to those middle-of-the-road voters.
He’s also been promoting a platform of bipartisanship, hosting events with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and honoring his friend, Sen. John McCain.
Chris: Yup. The problem for Democrats looking to the general is this: The base of the party wants LIBERALS big time. It’s why people like Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris (and Elizabeth Warren) have been moving hard left. Abolish ICE!!!
Harry: I think there’s a very interesting question as to whether Trump won because he was seen as more moderate than Clinton or because he was seen as an outsider. The former makes you think a lefty cannot win. The latter suggests ideology may not matter as much as is the conventional wisdom.
I know this will sound crazy, but I think Sanders isn’t a terrible general election candidate. He may actually be a good one. I think his biggest problem is the primary.
Chris: Sanders would sure like to test that theory, Harry
Let’s talk about the people we left off the top 10. Who should have made it and didn’t? Give me one name – each of you – and tell me why. I’ve got my own dark horse once you guys throw yours out.
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Caroline: I think Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has been making some interesting moves pointing to a potential run.
He’s been traveling to early primary states, collaborating with his fellow mayors across the country, and making a case that Washington really needs “outsiders,” AKA people not serving in Congress.
Harry: Deval Patrick.
Chris: And why…
Harry: The Bain stuff (i.e. he work at the financial firm Bain in a Democratic Party that is skeptical of such an association) kept him off the list originally, but I think you could make the argument that an Obama-type figure is the only one who could unite the party. Patrick’s 2006 run for governor was seen as a test case for Obama 2008. The same soaring rhetoric. Obama was even accused of plagiarizing Patrick.
Chris: Agreed. Give me Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy. I don’t know that he does it – some of the buzz around him has faded – but he has a very liberal record in the Senate, a signature issue (gun control) and he is a former campaign operative in his own right, so he knows how campaigns work.
Harry: That’s a good one Christoph! I also like Garcetti. I got at least one email with both Patrick and Garcetti of people who missed the initial list.
Caroline: Murphy is definitely someone to keep an eye on. He knows what he’s talking about and makes very deliberate moves.
Chris: Let’s take a step back from individual candidates and talk about the broader fight within the party that 2020 might settle.
I wrote my newsletter about the 5 hard questions that face Democrats. One of them is whether they want to nominate their own version of Trump or the opposite of Trump. What say you two on that question?
Harry: I’ll let Caroline take first crack.
Caroline: I think an argument can be made for both. Some may think only a Trump-like figure (Oprah? The Rock?) can take him on in 2020 and that this may turn into the “new normal.” But Democrats across the country may see what is happening in this political climate under Trump and think a moderate Democrat may have a moment in 2020 to unite the party and bring the group back to its center, as opposed to it separating into more liberal vs more traditional factions.
Chris: I’ll add one note: The rankings by Harry and I have 10 politicians and zero non-politicians.
No Cuban. No Oprah. No Rock. No Howard Schultz. No Bloomberg.
Caroline: The thing is we never know! Did any of us have Donald Trump on a top 10 list back in 2014 thinking about 2016?
Harry: Google my name and Trump. The answer is no. Not even close.
Chris: I wouldn’t have had him in a top 100 list.
Harry: Anyway, children are supposed to be better forms of their parents. That is, they take the best from each and try to rid themselves of the worst qualities. Democrats should try and find someone who is Trump-like in some ways and unlike Trump in others. Perhaps someone who is populist but doesn’t yearn to divide as he does. Or maybe it’s someone who is as seen as moderate as Trump, but isn’t a populist? I know that sounds like double talk, though I truly believe the primary will sort that out. On the Democratic side with proportional delegate allocation, someone is going to need to appeal to a lot of Democratic voters to win.
Chris: Broadest appeal? I think Biden. Yes, people will say he isn’t liberal enough. That he’s too establishment. That he’s too old. But, who else out there can appeal to as broad a spectrum of Democratic voters as Biden?
Caroline: I think you have people like Patrick and Eric Holder who can appeal to those longing for the Obama era, and there’s also a case to be made for the governors like John Hickenlooper and Steve Bullock, who have a ton of governing experience.
Harry: Right, like maybe the answer to an outsider is one like Hickenlooper. Someone who has governing experience, but isn’t part of Washington.
Chris: I got an interesting DM from a smart Dem operative this morning on Bullock. Here’s the case that he is more liberal than people think: First Gov to do EO to block anti-net neutrality
Banned dark $ in MT elections after Citizens United and did new EO
Passed EITC, equal pay.
Said in April wouldn’t send Ntl Guard to border.
Led effort as private citizen to get min wage ballot passed.
Which is interesting….!
Harry: Net neutrality is a great issue to be liberal on. Most people have little clue what it is, though the base sure does. It can allow you to have liberal affinity without seeming far-left.
Caroline: Readers were surprised by your inclusion of Bullock, but I think he’s a dark horse that stands a good shot at appealing to a wide base once he becomes more of a household name.
Chris: Also, before we end: Can we talk Sherrod Brown? Harry and I think there is A LOT of potential there…
Caroline: I’ve been following news surrounding Sherrod Brown for a while, and people always say he’s in the midst of a competitive reelection for his Senate seat, why would he do any better running for president? But he, too, is a Democrat who wavers between appearing moderate and liberal and would strike a similar chord as Biden, someone with experience who can break through the Rust Belt and Midwest voting bloc to bring in Democratic votes.
Harry: How do you beat a populist who appealed to Midwest voters? Run one of your own.
Chris: Right. 2018 election is a problem in terms of planning for 2020. But, I DO think Brown has an appealing record and personal style.
Harry: The gravely voice. It sounds authentic as heck. (Note: As someone who has a unique-sounding voice, I’m a little biased.)
Chris: OK. One last last thing (I promise): One of the big takeaways from the 2018 primary season is that women are running and winning. A lot. To both of you: How much carryover will that have in 2020?
Harry: There’s a reason we have 3 women in the top 4.
Caroline: I think it’s something a lot of Democratic voters are looking for and wanting in 2020. They almost had it in 2016, and they’re seeing it happen in 2018.
Chris: We talked about the idea of a contrast between Trump and the Democratic nominee in terms of political experience (or a lack thereof). But what about the idea of a gender contrast with Trump – particularly given his repeated comments and actions that seem to denigrate and degrade women? It feels as though “The Resistance” has been fueled by women up in arms that Trump is president. It feels to me like a candidate like Warren, Harris or Gillibrand who could harness that energy would be in prime position.
OK. Good talks. Leave me with a surprising last thought.
Harry: I’ll leave you with two. One: agreed with the idea that contrast could be ideological, personality or gender among others. Two: I don’t think this is surprising, but I think this field is going to start and then winnow fairly quickly. There won’t be 10 viable folks running in Iowa. Maybe 7 or 8.
Caroline: I think Biden will continue to be the frontrunner so long as everyone else who may run remains just as vague about their plans as he is. He’s got the broadest appeal, a wealth of experience, and the respect of many. I believe that if he declares that he’s running, some of these names we’ve discussed will bow out and let this be Biden’s shot. But if he opts out, I think we can see a super competitive primary with candidates coming from all branches of the party to see who can come out on top.
Chris: Here’s my last thought: People should announce sooner rather than later after the 2018 election. Remember how everyone mocked Ted Cruz for how early he got in in 2016? Well, turned out Cruz knew what he was doing - -building a really good organization that pushed him to the top tier….
Chris: OK. Let’s do this again soon. Let’s not throw away our shot.