An Early Look at Democrats’ 2020 Brackets

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.

This story was originally published on on June 9, 2017