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May the Odds Be Ever in Their Favor

The 2020 Democratic Power Rankings start here.
January 22, 2019
May the Odds Be Ever in Their Favor
(Photo illustration by Hannah Yoest / photo credits: GettyImages)

The 2020 Democratic primaries promise to be, I don’t know, what’s the best metaphor? Thunderdome? Game of Thrones? Battle Royale? Maybe. But I’m thinking the better analogy might be The Hunger Games.

Because at this point we’ve got a Democratic pol popping up every 48 hours shouting, “I volunteer as tribute!”

Let’s start ranking the field, as they stand right now.

(1) Bernie Sanders. There’s a reason people are trying hard to push him out of the race before he gets into it, based on the thinnest pretexts. Some of the guys who worked on his campaign were jerks to women? No kidding. Next thing you know it’ll turn out that a lot of his campaign workers drank too much and that the atmosphere wasn’t very professional.

That’s what campaigns are. Working a campaign is like running away to join the circus. There’s a reason most normal, well-adjusted people don’t do it more than once.

All of that said: Sanders is where the Democratic party is on economics and foreign policy. The challengers closest to his lane are Beto (who might not run) and Warren (who is not a giant ball of charisma). He has a fundraising machine pre-built. And his weakness with African-American voters lessens as the field expands.

If Bernie runs, he’s a tough out.

(2) Kamala Harris. On paper, she’s the candidate with the biggest growth potential. She’s smart and tough-minded. She’s a grown-up. African-American women and white suburban women may see themselves in her more than they do with Gillibrand and Warren. The candidate closest to her lane is Amy Klobuchar whose run bears an uncanny (and unfortunate for her) resemblance to T-Paw 2012.

But as of right now, Harris is nothing but potential. There is no product differentiation. There is not an obvious rationale for running other that she would like to be president. There is not a ton of electricity or media savvy. That dance-dance revolution AOC homage she did was . . . not good.

At this point, allow me to offer a piece of advice to all political candidates, everywhere: Be who you are. A strong candidate should have a clear understanding of what they are offering the voters and just go with it.

Always remember: Authenticity is charismatic.

(3) Beto O’Rourke. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe Beto is the real deal?

Not that he’s a heavyweight or should be president. I just mean that in a gigantic field crowded with people like Sherrod Brown and Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, maybe Beto’s rock-star thing could work.

The big post-2016 question is: Does celebrity status now trump everything else in electoral politics? If Beto runs, his candidacy will test that proposition. That stupid dentist Instagram that everyone goofs on? He sucked up all of the oxygen in the room for two days with it. Laugh all you want—that’s worth a lot.

All of this, however, depends on Bernie’s status. I basically agree with Jonathan Chait’s assessment that there isn’t room in the field for both of them.

(4) Elizabeth Warren. Part of me thinks Warren should be higher up just because she’s actually in the race already and is a good fit for where the party is ideologically.

Another part of me holds to the maxim that history offers its great challenges only once. If you miss your window, that’s that. I firmly believe that if Hillary Clinton had run for president in 2004, she would have beaten George W. Bush. And that if Elizabeth Warren had run in 2016, she would have beaten Hillary Clinton.

The big negative for Warren, really, is that her political instincts are awfully close to the Mendoza Line.

(5) Michael Bloomberg. Would he really run in 2020? If so, as a Democrat, or a Republican? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, but Matt Continetti makes a convincing case: “He doesn’t mesh with the Democratic party we see every day in the national media, but he’s intelligent, shrewd, and willing to spend more money than Croesus on securing the nomination and defeating Trump. Only a fool would dismiss him.”

(6) Sherrod Brown. I like to picture him as the Terminator, offering his hand to scared Democrats and saying, “Come with me, if you want to live.” Everything about him is tailor-made to beat Trump. He’s from Ohio! He does the dignity-of-work and blue-collar thing! He’s not a commie!

But I can’t picture Democrats pulling the trigger on an old-ish establishment white guy who’s not . . .

(7) Joe Biden. He’s the other Trump Buster. And had he been the nominee in 2016, he would have gone through Trump like a hot knife through butter.

(I keep wondering when Democrats will finally get around to being pissed at Obama for pushing Biden not to run against HRC. Obama deserves as much credit for the Trump presidency as anyone whose name doesn’t rhyme with Minton. Yet somehow he always skates on his share of the culpability.)

Biden would be pretty formidable, if he still has his fastball. The big questions would be whether or not he can credibly keep up with the bidding on the left. Because he is not where the intersectional center of the party is right now.

(8) Kirsten Gillibrand. Is she robotic in the Rubio sense of the word? Oh yes. Is she an authentic progressive? Absolutely not.

But never underestimate the power of sheer determination. And Gillibrand has been single-mindedly moving toward this presidential campaign for at least a decade. I don’t know how she would break through. Maybe it’ll be by declaring war on Bernie before he even gets in. I wouldn’t bet against her.

(9) Amy Klobuchar. In what was either an op-sec mistake, a failed viral campaign, or a genuine bid to become chancellor of Austria, someone left Klobuchar for President graphic design comps in a coffee shop in Washington. Klobuchar said it wasn’t hers, but rather the work of a “very enthusiastic supporter.”

I mean no disrespect here: Klobuchar seems like a serious person and the kind of candidate most Americans would want as the standard-bearer for one of our major political parties. Her politics are not my politics, but suspect she’d be a competent president.

But does she strike you as a political figure who inspires that kind of passion?

(10) Cory Booker. If he’s really dating Rosario Dawson (one of the great actresses and all-around coolest people on the planet), then he’s already won, hasn’t he?

But a lot of things outside his control would have to break right for him to have a pathway to the nomination.

(11) Tulsi Gabbard / Julian Castro. Let’s have some #RealTalk: These two are running for veep, not the big chair.

(12) The X-Men. This field is going to keep expanding. Donald Trump is, electorally speaking, the weakest incumbent president in modern times. And weakness is a provocation. Plenty of people we can think of are going to take a good long look at running. And I suspect that some people we’d never think of are going to take looks, too.

I don’t know if it’s Oprah or Mark Cuban or Michael Avenatti or Michelle Obama. (And I will bet you hard currency that at some point we’re going to have a Michelle for President boomlet.) But I will be surprised if someone doesn’t come out of left field to make a serious challenge for the nomination. And this field is weak enough and segmented enough, that they may have a real shot at winning it.

And if you think that sounds unlikely, well, just take a look at who’s sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue today.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.