The race for the 2020 Democratic nomination began at 11:30 PM, November 8th, 2016 when the networks projected that Donald Trump would carry the state of Florida. Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and New Hampshire were all still too close to call. Hillary Clinton was not going to be President, and one has to wonder what was going through the minds of Democratic governors, senators, congresspersons, and business leaders across America. At first maybe there was anguish over the loss, but there must’ve been a bitter-sweetness to it all. Dozens of Democrats had been sidelined by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and expected to wait until 2024 before looking at the White House. But now President Trump provided them an opportunity that another President Clinton couldn’t have.
A previous article mentioned 44 possible democratic contenders for 2020, but if that number sounds ridiculously large to you, that’s because it is. If you recall in 2016, at one point there were 17 candidates vying for the GOP nomination, but sources listed up to 55 possible candidates. Of course, all of those people didn’t run, but even if they did, just because a candidate runs does not mean they’re likely to secure the nomination. George Pataki, was never going to win the Republican nomination. As for the Democratic side, something tells me people were not exactly fired up about Lincoln Chafee.
In a previous piece we devised a metric for measuring not necessarily who is the Democratic front runner, but who in a vacuum should have a better than average chance of being nominated. Listed below are the seven most likely Democrats to be nominated, not according to any particular poll or bias of mine, but according to their scores. I don’t agree with a few potential candidates who have earned top spots, but I’ll explain their attributes and potential weaknesses nonetheless. You can find my article explaining these scores here.
- Tammy Duckworth (Senator from Illinois 2017-): If Duckworth ran, she’d be an interesting foil. Voters already have a largely negative view of President Trump, but his lowest rated moments were the mocking of a disabled reporter and his attacks on the Khan family. Duckworth is both disabled and a veteran, so assuming Trump is Trump, that could serve as a boon for her potential campaign. Like Barack Obama, Duckworth is a senator from Illinois, and would still be in her first term if she decided to run. Duckworth has relatively few questionable donors, and her largest contributor is EMILY’S List which works to elect pro-choice female candidates. Duckworth is currently rather unknown, but so was Barack Obama at this point in 2005. Her greatest strengths as a candidate are her age (which would provide a stark contrast to the aging Trump) and her confidence but lack of arrogance.
- Keith Ellison (Deputy DNC Chair, Rep from Minnesota 2007-): In theory Keith Ellison could be a tremendous candidate. He is from a swing state (Clinton won Minnesota by less than 2 points), he is fiercely progressive, he’s relatively young, he represents the diversity of the party, and he’s well versed in the issues. But in Trump’s America, and frankly in Obama’s America, I doubt that a Muslim candidate could win the presidency let alone the nomination of a major political party. If Ellison weren’t a Muslim, I think it’s also conceivable that he’d be DNC Chair. However nearly 4 in 10 voters say they couldn’t support a Muslim candidate, it’s unclear if Ellison can overcome that much prejudice. His greatest strengths as a candidate are his progressiveness and age.
- Michelle Obama (Former First Lady of the United States 2009-2017): When I was scoring the candidates, this was very unexpected. I love Mrs. Obama, most Americans do, but I do recall another former first lady’s presidential bid not resulting in a landslide victory. Michelle Obama however has none of the baggage of Hillary Clinton, but she also lacks the political experience. If she ran there’d critics would decry dynasty politics and elitism, and perhaps those critics would be right. That said, Michelle Obama has high name recognition, is reportedly to the left of her husband on most issues, and seems to be more genuine in her emotions than he was capable of being. Mrs. Obama, assuming her potential campaign could survive the first primaries, would likely benefit from high turnout among African-Americans who came out in record numbers for her husband in 2008 (who nearly swept southern black voters). It’s not unreasonable to foresee a scenario where either Mrs. Obama runs for governor of Illinois in 2018, or she starts publicly challenging the President on policy issues and she garners legitimacy among democratic voters. Her greatest strengths are her age and the level of comfort she has in her own skin.
- Elizabeth Warren (Senator from Massachusetts 2013-): If there is one person on this list who could have defeated both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016, it’s Elizabeth Warren. Democrats tried to draft her to run, she refused, and ended up not endorsing Bernie Sanders before Super Tuesday (a move that is still unforgiven by many in progressive circles). I would argue that might’ve irreparably hurt her star power, had it not been for the fact that she’s stayed active in opposing the Trump Administration. The Democratic party doesn’t have a face as of yet, but being shut down by Republicans while trying to read a letter from Coretta Scott King and her being racistly branded as “Pocahontas” by the President, have made her even more of a household name. If Warren runs, she’ll be viewed as the establishment friendly progressive. Which is to say that she Sanders-lite, liberal enough to satisfy most Sanders voters but not a socialist enough to scare away Clinton donors. Her greatest strength is her progressiveness and her psychological fitness.
- Sherrod Brown (Senator from Ohio 2007-): Brown has a net approval rating of 23 points in a state that Hillary Clinton lost by 8 points. Brown was against TPP before it was fashionable, and as early as March 2015 Brown was saying “Why not, at some point Medicare for the whole country? It’s simpler”. Brown is a rust belt progressive with a voice like steel wool and hair like Rand Paul, which might be endearing if not for one thing. Brown is not a young man, he’ll be 67 in 2020, but if the enthusiasm young voters had for Bernie Sanders is any indication, that might not be as much of a disadvantage as it once was. Brown, more than any other candidate, has the potential to win back Obama-Trump converts and perhaps the Bernie or Busters because of his authenticity and his history of fighting for the working class. Brown’s greatest strength is his progressiveness and his abundance of confidence and lack of arrogance.
- Al Franken (Senator from Minnesota 2009-): I want Al Franken to be President, full disclosure. I think he’s underrated and he’d be the best nominee we’ve had since Jimmy Carter, save Barack Obama. Now, Franken has only recently made himself more visible in the Senate with his intense questioning of Trump’s nominees, Jeff Sessions in particular. Franken is progressive, not as much as Elizabeth Warren or Keith Ellison, but nobody will be accusing him of being a “neoliberal shill”. Franken also is very funny, and that is something that Trump lacks and voters want. In my totally biased opinion, the funnier candidate has won in every election since 1992 (Ross Perot was genuinely hilarious). Franken’s greatest strengths are his psychological fitness and his lack of questionable financial ties.
- Kamala Harris (Senator from California 2017-): If I had to guess who will be the next President of the United States, I’d probably pick Kamala Harris and I’d probably be right. Unlike with Rubio, when people draw parallels between her and Barack Obama they actually exist. If I know former Bernie supporters, and I do because I am one, she’s going to run into a lot of trouble for her connection to the establishment donor base and her perceived political opportunism. Harris does have the unfortunate habit of creating a minor political moment and turning it into a desperate fundraising email that same day, so maybe the political opportunism is real but no more extensive than any other democrat. That being said, her greatest strengths other than her age, is that she is progressive.
Some articles have suggested that there are front-runners: Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, and others. But I’m not so sure there is a front runner at the moment, it’s important to remember we are as close to the first debates of 2019 as we were to the debates of 2015. This time last cycle, the conventional wisdom was that Chris Christie and Jeb Bush were the GOP frontrunners. So, with that in mind, take my estimations and of others with a grain of salt.
Notable Absences & Discrepancies
- Bernie Sanders (Senator from Vermont 2007-): Let me briefly address the elephant in the room. Bernie Sanders won 13 million votes in the 2016 primaries after being ridiculed as a fringe candidate, he greatly influenced the platform, he’s maybe the most popular Democrat in America, and I think it’s probable that he would’ve outperformed Hillary Clinton. But Bernie will be nearly 80 by 2020, and say what you will about it being ageist to bring up his age, but voters care. Bernie’s behavior after the New York primary when it was clear he was going to lose, and his commentary on the election didn’t behoove him. So, he’s lost some points in the “Confident but not arrogant” category. I love Bernie and even if he’s right on the issues, he lost the primaries decisively (I know, Hillary had the party establishment behind her) and he shouldn’t presume to be the face of the party. All things considered, I think the window for Bernie to be a viable candidate has passed.
- Joe Biden (Vice President of the United States 2009-2017): Perhaps Joe Biden doesn’t remember his 2008 campaign for President, but I do, it was a spectacular failure. Biden consistently failed to poll outside of the margin of error, he was gaffe prone, and he ended up with an abysmal 1% in Iowa. Biden if he were to run wouldn’t suffer from name recognition or gaffes (we love the gaffes now), but he comes with baggage. Biden has family baggage, his son’s affair with his dead brother’s wife might not play so well. Biden has political baggage, he represents the old Democratic Party of Obama and Clinton, and the new progressives won’t be eager to elevate that after our devastating loss last year. Biden also has financial baggage because he and Hillary have the same questionable donor base and connections to big money. So as much as I love Joe, I don’t know that his potential campaign could withstand media attention and progressive activists.
- Bill DeBlasio: Why does Bill DeBlasio, an older white man, have such a relatively high demographic score? DeBlasio’s wife is a black former lesbian, they have two biracial children, and together they are a perfect representation of the melting pot. Interracial couples are rare in the political world and I think DeBlasio, should he run, would find it easier to make inroads to communities of color.