We’re only 140 days into a new presidential administration and yet there is already a stream of articles speculating about the contest for the 2020 Democratic nomination. There is a side of me that believes it is much too soon to start talking about that, but this conversation is already taking place and in fact is getting fairly loud. I guess there must not be much other news happening, right?
A few caveats are in order: First, think about the unexpectedly stiff fight that Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton last year, not to mention the Republican side eschewing its tradition of nominating a conventional candidate who seemed next in line. Based on what happened last year, why not prepare ourselves to be consistently surprised? There is no reason to believe that the traditional patterns so ignored in 2016 will suddenly reappear.
Last year, 17 reasonably well-known Republicans sought the GOP presidential nomination, and it would not at all be surprising to see that number or even more Democrats at least start out running next time. The Democratic nomination would certainly seem to be of great value; the race will likely be more wide open than normal, and nothing like 2016, when Clinton seemed to be the prohibitive favorite, with only Sanders and Martin O’Malley daring to jump in.
It makes sense to organize prospective Democratic contenders into three categories: establishment, center-left politicians; more ideological, liberal, or populist politicians; and nonpoliticians. Before 2016, it was not necessary to have the third category. Think of each of these categories as tournament brackets, a competition for the pool of voters that each of these groups represent or appeal to.
Different elections reflect different divisions and contours. The 2016 Democratic race came down to Clinton as the less liberal and more establishment insider candidate, and Bernie Sanders as the liberal populist, running as an outsider. In the GOP presidential race, it came down to John Kasich from the establishment bracket, Ted Cruz for the conservative bracket, and Donald Trump for the outsider bracket. The only catch was that there really wasn’t a path in 2016 for Kasich or any other establishment politician to get to the finals, so it just came down to Cruz and Trump. That fight ultimately was settled in the April 26 “Acela Primary” in five states, where the real-estate mogul effectively secured the nomination. But the fact was that the establishment types were competing with each other, not with Trump or Cruz. The 2008 Democratic contest, meanwhile, was more generational, with Barack Obama as the youthful and aspirational candidate, Clinton as the more experienced and Washington-oriented one.
Putting together a list of potential contenders for a race three years out is obviously highly speculative; over half of those listed below will ultimately not run, and some of those who have been mentioned in various news articles or in political circles are unrealistic or even ridiculous. But four years ago, not many people would have taken either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders seriously either. I can think of some Democrats who have very good reasons not to run and probably won’t, whether it is that they have small children or would seem to have limited fundraising potential, but this list is intended to be very inclusive.
So first looking at the more establishment-oriented, left-of-center possible candidates: This group starts with former Vice President Joe Biden, who will be 77 at the time of the 2020 election, along with Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Mark Warner of Virginia. Establishment-oriented governors mentioned include: Steve Bullock of Montana, Andrew Cuomo of New York, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jay Inslee of Washington, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, along with former Maryland Gov. O’Malley. From the House, names include Reps. John Delaney of Maryland, and Joe Kennedy and Seth Moulton, both of Massachusetts. Rounding out the more establishment-oriented mentionables are former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. This is the bracket that has historically produced most Democratic nominees and could plausibly be said to be focused on courting the votes that Hillary Clinton captured in the 2016 Democratic contest.
Then there are the more ideological, either conventionally liberal or more populist candidates, aiming for voters who supported Sanders last time. They would include Sanders himself, who will be 79 in 2020, and his Senate colleagues Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
Then there are the nonpoliticians like Mark Cuban (billionaire, Shark Tank show participant), actor and former wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz. After 2016, and given the public perception of Washington and politicians on both left and right, we can’t dismiss someone who has never been in government before, especially if they have some name recognition and personal financial resources.
The sheer size and uncertainty of this field underscores just how wide open the Democratic nomination is and how many different directions the party could choose to go.