(This is the second edition of our monthly power rankings of Democrats most likely to get their party’s presidential nomination in 2020.)
Because Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump, a lot of attention has been paid to his hostile takeover of the Republican Party – and how he continues to consolidate that power.
What that focus on how Trump killed the old – and by that we mean the 2012 – version of the Republican Party misses is how much the Democratic Party has evolved – and is evolving – in its own way.
Like Republicans, that change sped up – rapidly – in 2016. It was led by an unlikely figure – Democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. To say Sanders was lightly regarded when he started running against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to do a disservice to the term “lightly regarded.”
But what Sanders understood was that the Democratic Party of 2016 wasn’t the “Third Way,” centrism-over-all Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and the mid-1990s. The Democratic base had moved to the left on virtually every issue – pushed that way by the financial collapse of the late 2000s and ready to be mobilized on behalf of a candidate who embraced things like radical campaign finance reform, single-payer health care insurance and unapologetic tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans.
Sanders didn’t win. But he awoke something in Democrats. And, when Hillary Clinton lost the general election to Donald Trump, Sanders’ message and stock gained further prominence. Voters wanted someone who said what they meant and meant what they said.
In the wake of that 2016 loss, candidates inspired by his unapologetic liberalism – if not his weak affiliation with the Democratic Party – began recruiting themselves into races. While the upset primary victory of fellow Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York drew the most attention, other progressives such as Ilhan Omar and Jahana Hayes have won primaries too. (One notable exception: The Midwest, where establishment Democrats in a number of high-profile primaries beat back Sanders-inspired – and endorsed – candidates.)
The last two years have proven – beyond any reasonable debate – that the progressive end of the party is growing. Whether that growth is enough to produce a nominee from that end of the party remains a question.
What’s interesting to contemplate is that while Sanders may be the founder of the (r)evolution within the Democratic Party, he may well watch politicians who are later-arrivers to his brand of liberalism pass him by in the fight for the party nod come 2020. Sanders, who will be 79 on Election Day 2020, may struggle to argue that he is the “new” face that many Democrats want.
The point: Even if Sanders doesn’t improve on his 2016 showing (assuming he runs in 2020), he will have had a profound impact on the future course of the Democratic Party. Without further ado, here are our new rankings of the 10 Democrats most likely to wind up as the nominee against Trump. (For last month’s ratings, click here.)
ADDED from last month: Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
DROPPED from last month: Eric Holder, Sherrod Brown, Mitch Landrieu
10. Steve Bullock: The Montana governor is, without question, the least well-known candidate on our list – for the second straight month. And his profile – a moderate, pragmatic problem-solver – might not play well in a Democratic Party that seems to want politicians willing to throw a punch or 10. But Bullock is the most aggressive candidate this side of Garcetti (and, of course, longshot Rep. John Delaney, who has already announced his bid) in terms of positioning himself for a run. And even we were somewhat taken aback by what a positive response our inclusion of Bullock last month got from smart Democratic insiders. (Previous ranking: 7)
9. Amy Klobuchar: There’s a lot to like about Klobuchar, who debuts on the list at number nine. You want someone who is a proven winner in the Upper Midwest? She’s well on her way to winning a third term in the Senate from Minnesota. (Note: Minnesota’s proximity to Iowa could also help launch her in the first-in-the-nation contest.) You want someone from a law-and-order background to beat back Trump’s rhetoric on crime? Klobuchar’s a former prosecutor. She’s also a she, which can only help given the primary electorate’s voting patterns in 2018. Klobuchar has two obvious flaws. One, she may be too moderate for the base. Two, she hails from a very white state and lacks the long-term connection with black voters. (Previous ranking: Unranked)
8. Eric Garcetti: We’re convinced that in a field as large as 2020 is likely to be that a mayor – particularly of a major metropolis – has a chance to be a bit of a dark horse. Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles takes New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s place in this month’s rankings because he is, at the moment, generating far more buzz for his potential candidacy than Landrieu. That’s the result of Garcetti’s aggressiveness when it comes to the possibility of running; he’s made no secret he’s interested and has already raised $100,000 for the South Carolina Democratic Party with plans to do the same for the state parties in New Hampshire and Iowa. Although Garcetti is far from a household name nationally just yet, his profile – he’s young (47), of both Jewish and Mexican heritage and a West Coaster – could be appealing to a Democratic electorate looking for something different. (Previous ranking: Unranked)
7. Cory Booker: It’s difficult to run for president and not have your heart in it. That would never be a question with Booker. He clearly loves the limelight. Booker also recognizes that the Democratic Party has moved to the left, which would at least partially explain why he has such a liberal voting record. And if you’re looking for a politician who is liberal and black (and could appeal to both those groups) like a certain first-term senator named Obama, then Booker (who is serving his first full term) is better positioned than most. Booker has a few issues. His oratory can strike some as inauthentic. And while Obama was able to placate the progressive base, Booker’s ties to Wall Street may prevent that. (Previous ranking: 8)
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6. Deval Patrick: We left the former Massachusetts governor off our last list because, well, we weren’t sure he was serious about actually running. We’ve been convinced otherwise since. For example: A former Massachusetts governor doesn’t go to Texas in the sweltering heat of late July to campaign for Democratic candidates if he is perfectly content in the private sector. While it’s unlikely that there will be any single “Obama” candidate – given that the former President has ties to so many people in the potential field – there’s little question that Patrick is closely aligned with many Obama insiders and some of the major donors that helped finance the former President’s bids. Plus, being an African-American two-term governor of one of the most liberal states in the country isn’t a bad place to start from in the modern Democratic presidential primary electorate. (Previous ranking: Unranked)
5. Bernie Sanders: Perhaps no pick generated as much controversy last month as placing Vermont’s junior senator at number five. Some wanted him higher because he retains high favorable ratings nationally and came in second to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Both are fair points, and why he’s so high up on the list. Sanders’ problem is he’s trailing Biden, has many of Biden’s flaws (old, white and male) and carries a huge additional one: Sanders is not a Democrat. Even after winning the Democratic nomination for Senate in 2018, he declined the nomination and forged ahead with his independent bid. Most of the people who vote in Democratic primaries are Democrats. (Previous ranking: 5)
4. Kirsten Gillibrand: No one’s ranking this side of Bernie Sanders got a bigger reaction from people last month than the New York senator’s. Lots and lots of people think we have her ranked too high for, among other reasons, the fact that her conservative record as a House member suggests her liberal turn is easily caricatured as entirely political. Maybe! But the 2018 primary season so far has taught us that the Democratic Party wants to elect liberal women. And Gillibrand will have the record (in the Senate) and the money to make that case. (Previous ranking: 4)
3. Kamala Harris: Harris carries obvious advantages that few other Democrats can claim. We saw how Trump leveraged the media to his advantage in 2016, and Harris hails from the state with the second-largest media market in the country (Los Angeles). Being an Indian-American and African-American woman will help her draw a sharp contrast with a white male Republican who made his bones in reactionary politics. Harris is also very liberal in a party that is becoming more liberal, but has ties to the establishment. The latter may hurt her, though so far the establishment is doing about as well in 2018 primaries as it did in 2016. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Elizabeth Warren: “We believe that in America every family deserves a fighting chance, and we’re ready to fight as hard as it takes, as long as it takes, to deliver on that promise,” the Massachusetts senator said earlier this month. “I get it. It won’t be easy. We’re going to have to fight uphill. But me? I’m going up that hill. And I hope you are, too.” That speech was to the liberal Netroots Nation annual convention, but it could easily double as a piece of Warren’s 2020 announcement/stump speech. That sort of leaning-in rhetoric coupled with the fact that two of Warren’s aides have recently signed on to senior positions in the New Hampshire Democratic Party make it pretty easy to connect the dots: She’s running. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. Joe Biden: The former vice president retains the top ranking on our list. Yes, his age (75) and the fact that he’s a white man have their disadvantages in a Democratic Party that is getting younger, more diverse and is nominating more women every cycle. Biden, though, continues to have clear advantages: he was the vice president to President Barack Obama, who remains the closest thing the party has to a leader. And Biden himself is very popular. He also currently ahead of his nearest competitor by about 10 points in primary polls. Even at this point, polls have forecasted the nominee since 1972 about half the time when no incumbent was running for a major party nomination. (Previous ranking: 1)