Off to the Races

An Early Look at Democrats’ 2020 Brackets

Could a nonpolitician outflank a liberal or moderate officeholder for the party nod?

Mark Cuban speaks with former President Clinton before the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Sept. 26, 2016.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 8, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

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