It’s both audacious and a fool’s errand for anyone today to predict who will win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. After all, the final primaries will be a year from today.
But we can narrow down the field. Like the NCAA college-basketball tournament, there are Cinderella teams—unexpected teams making it to the Big Dance—as well as highly-touted teams that choke in the first or second rounds.
Rather than try to pick a nominee, it’s safer to guess who is most likely to make the Elite Eight or even the Final Four.
The things to look for include national polling, Iowa and New Hampshire polling, and fundraising. When the second-quarter Federal Election Commission reports come out in July, look at contributions, not total receipts, which include funds transferred from other campaign accounts. Also pay attention to cash on hand and “burn rate,” i.e., how much is the campaign spending as a percentage of contributions during that period.
My new favorite metric is tracking the Google searches for each candidate every week, as a measurement of the ebb and flow of interest. The very able folks at Google’s News Lab assign the number 100 to the candidate who received the most Google searches that week (most recently Joe Biden), then give every other candidate a number representing the number of searches for them scaled against the leading candidate. It is important to remember that a Google search reflects curiosity in, not support for, a particular candidate. But for lesser-known candidates, interest is likely to precede support as a leading indicator. (As of late May, for example, Pete Buttigieg was the only other candidate to rate higher than 50 on Google's index.)
So here is how I see the Elite Eight and Final Four shaping up. In alphabetical order: Biden; Buttigieg; Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke; and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. For the other candidates, breaking through the cacophony of voices is much more difficult with 23 credible candidates running—the largest primary field since at least 1924.
Edging a bit further out on this limb: Who seems to have the best chance of making the Final Four as of today? Biden seems very likely to get there. As the front-runner, he is the piñata at this point, with his rivals and the media alike trying to knock him down. I see Biden akin to a heavily loaded 747 out at Dulles. Every seat is occupied, every square foot of cargo space filled. You wonder whether it will even get off the ground, much less clear the tree line a mile from the end of the runway. But, if it does, there is a pretty decent chance it’ll make it all the way. That is a long way of saying that if the Biden machine gets wobbly, it will probably occur during the first 90 days or so. He entered on April 25, 43 days ago, and no wobbling yet.
The next slot includes a hedge: either Sanders or Warren, but not both. There are enough pure progressives in the party to guarantee one, but not two. While Sanders enjoys about twice the support of Warren (16.7 percent for Sanders in the RealClearPolitics average versus 8.2 percent for Warren), my hunch is that in 2020, wonkiness might edge out anger. Watch closely the primary in New Hampshire, next door to his Vermont and her Massachusetts.
The third slot should go to Harris. Hailing from California, she could win a huge bloc of delegates from her home state. Demographics could help her as well: A quarter of the Democratic primary electorate will be African-American, and women are likely to represent about 60 percent of the Democratic primary vote.
The final, most subjective, slot would be Buttigieg’s. Yes, a 37-year old gay mayor of the 306th largest city in America, seems a stretch. South Bend, Indiana is a bit smaller than Davenport, Iowa, and bit larger than Vista, California.
But the world of American politics has changed. It seemed a bit of a stretch eight or nine years ago to guess that a mixed-race guy with the middle name “Hussein” who announced his candidacy for president just 27 months and seven days after leaving the Illinois state legislature, could be elected. It seemed a bit of a stretch for anyone to have suggested that a reality-TV star would be elected president too.
The job requirements, the credentials needed to get elected president, have changed a lot since the old days, when you had to have put in considerable amount of time as vice president, senator, governor or Supreme Allied Commander of Europe before running for president. As the 2018 midterm elections demonstrated, voters seem to appreciate someone with a compelling personal narrative these days.
To be sure, there are lots of subplots in this storyline. For example, Biden, Booker, and Harris are competing for the largest share of the African-American vote. CNN’s Chris Cillizza (a Cook Political Report alum) made a good point in his column “The Point” this week when he pointed out that Buttigieg and Warren are competing to build coalitions of college-educated white voters.
None of this is to say that Michael Bennet, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, or Tim Ryan can’t get traction and break through. After all, George Mason made the Final Four in 2006. But you probably shouldn’t bet on it.