by Tony Wyman
As of 7 February, there were 517 people and one pig who have filed as candidates for president with the Federal Election Commision. Assuming that Refino Pig doesn’t unseat President Trump during the Republican primaries, who are the top candidates with the best chance of being president in 2020?
National Compass will rank the top 10 candidates and list some others to keep an eye upon over the next 632 days before the election is held 3 November 2020. We will update the rankings as more candidates announce and drop out. And, we will try to separate those making a serious shot at the Oval Office from those trying to elevate their name recognition in the hopes of either getting a real shot in 2024 or being appointed to a more prominent position should a candidate from their party win the presidency next year.
Before we get to the rankings, it is important to make a couple of points. First, the volatile nature of the Trump presidency and the ongoing investigations into Mr. Trump’s campaign and the actions of his children and closest aides could dramatically change things well before the 2020 campaign is in full-swing. An indictment of a Trump child, revelations the president, himself, is under criminal investigation, or evidence that he colluded with Russians working for Vladimir Putin could change the dynamics of the race as much as could Mr. Mueller completely exonerating the president of any wrongdoing.
Second, the new wave of young, exciting, largely female and very progressive women elected by Democrat voters in key states will, undoubtedly, change the way independent and center-right Republicans see the possible risk of electing a Democrat president in 2020. If the new progressives in the Democrat House push the party and Speaker Nancy Pelosi far left, the likelihood of that influencing moderate voters in 2020 could be greater than can be reliably predicted today. Will moderates who otherwise wouldn’t vote to re-elect Mr. Trump cast their ballot for him as a counterweight against economic and social policies that they see as too progressive or will they welcome the changes as necessary corrections following nearly four years of pro-corporate tax and budgetary policies that they see as having benefited the boardroom at the expense of the breakroom?
Third, who will run in key races in the six states that are likely to decide the 2020 presidential campaign? Three states – Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Michigan (16) and Pennsylvania (20) – went for Mr. Trump in 2016 that nearly all pundits thought would go for Hillary Clinton. The Democrats won each of those state’s gubernatorial elections in 2018. Had Mrs. Clinton done as well in 2016 as her party’s candidates for governor did in 2018, she would be up for re-election next year.
In 2020, of those three critical states, only Michigan’s Democrat U.S. Senator Gary Peters is up for re-election to a second term. He won an easy election in 2014 against Republican Terri Lynn Land, spending his first term in office as a, frankly, nondescript loyal Democrat, voting with the party the vast majority of times. While the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, as well as the UAW and United Steelworkers will help drive votes his way, it is unlikely Sen. Peters’ campaign will have either the drama of a close contest or the sex appeal of a dynamic and exciting candidate needed to drive voter turnout up to the benefit of other Democrats, like the one running for president, on the November ballot.
Fourth, races in North Carolina and Arizona, both states Mr. Trump won narrowly in 2016 and will have to win again in 2020, have statewide races that will drive voters to the polls. Martha McSally, who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by the death of Sen. John McCain, will to run in a special election if she wishes to retain the seat until the regular 2022 race. She was defeated in 2018 in a close race by progressive Kyrsten Sinema, so Democrats will see the special election as a opportunity to pick up another Senate seat in the pivotal state of Arizona.
In North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis will run for re-election in a state that went to Mr. Trump in 2016 by more than 3% points and where House races went solidly to each incumbent running. The 9th District race, however, remains a controversial toss-up between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan MacCready after allegations of voter fraud benefitting Mr. Harris surfaced. The 9th was, prior to 2018, a solidly Republican district, going to the GOP candidate, Robert Pittenger in 2016 by more than 16% points and essentially uncontested in 2014.
The Democrat governor, Roy Cooper, who won in 2016 over Republican incumbent Pat McCrory by less than 11,000 votes, will face a slate of Republicans eager to retake the seat in what the Charlotte Observer is calling “a hot election year” in the state. If a contested Senate race and an equally exciting gubernatorial race drive voter turnout up in North Carolina, it is likely the Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 2,460,206 to 1,983,083, will benefit and the state’s 15 electoral votes will go to their candidate.
Top 20 Rankings
All that said, here’s our top 20 rankings for candidates running or expected to run for president in 2020.
Number 1 – Donald Trump
NeverTrump and establishment Republicans haven’t made much progress reducing Mr. Trump’s popularity within the party during his two years in office. And even though his net approval (the percentage of voters who approve minus the percentage who disapprove) was six percentage points lower in January 2019 than it was in January 2017, GOP support for Mr. Trump remains consistently fairly high, especially for a candidate who seems incapable of getting himself, his family and his closest and most loyal supporters out of the spotlight of controversy.
While it isn’t likely Mr. Trump will gain support from independents and Democrats who didn’t vote for him in 2016, it seems unlikely he will lose much more over the next several months as media attention starts to focus more on the policies of Democrats wanting their shot at unseating the Republican president.
Two-term Democrat mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle recently, said, “Nearly four years ago, when Trump announced his candidacy for president, I said he had a winning hand. He still does.” That winning hand, according to Mayor Brown, is for Mr. Trump to “…turn the light back on Democrats and force us to defend our progressive wing’s ‘socialist’ positions like health care for all, housing for all and guaranteed income.”
And, that is precisely what Mr. Trump will do. He’s terrible at enunciating his own policies, many of which are incoherent, simplistic and little more than campaign slogans, but Mr. Trump is a genius when it comes to, as Mr. Brown put it, “…defend(ing) his relationship with himself.” How will Mr. Trump defend his presidency? Simply by exaggerating the danger posed by a progressive-leaning Democrat Party, one that is forced to move more-and-more left to appease the party’s powerful activist wing. If the Democrats are unable to tame their left wing, like the GOP was unable to control the Tea Party, the party is likely to nominate a candidate the Trump campaign will be able to easily paint as a socialist threat to American capitalism and freedom.
The president announced how he intends to win in 2020 during his State of the Union address. “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control,” he said during his speech. “We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
This will be the message, repeated endlessly, over the next 632 days by Mr. Trump until election day. The U.S. stands with Venezuela against its socialist dictator. The greatest threat to America isn’t Russia, but socialist China. Democrat calls for higher taxes, Medicare for all, higher minimum wages, are all examples of the “socialism” Mr. Trump will warn voters against during the campaign. And, if the Democrats fall prey to that strategy, they will lose in 2020. As Mr. Brown said, “We know we can win California and New York. The question is: Can we win the states we lost in 2016 or do we preach to the choir in an empty church?”
Number 2 – Joe Biden
With Mr. Trump’s strategy in mind, the best Democrat opponent, the one with the best chance to win, is former Vice-president Joe Biden. Not only does the 76-year-old represent a link to the more moderate wing of the Democrat Party, he also has an unbeatable personal narrative that would be hard, if not impossible, for Mr. Trump to attack. A father who lost a beloved son and a first wife, but who, despite the personal tragedy, remained in loyal service to his country, is a tough story to attack, especially for a man whose personal and marital history is as checkered as Mr. Trump’s.
With 45 years of experience in governing, starting with his election to the New Castle County Council in 1970, thirty-six years on the United States Senate, and ending with two terms as Vice-president of the United States, few candidates can match Mr. Biden’s record of public service, especially in foreign affairs. And while he is prone to gaffes unlike most politicians with his level of experience, Mr. Biden is also capable of demonstrating a history of working with Republicans to pass effective policy and to get things done in a divided government that will appeal to moderate voters of both parties and to the independents who are likely to decide this coming election.
Number 3 – Kamala Harris
If the 2018 elections told us anything about the changing demographic of our elections it is the gender gap is huge and growing bigger. The gap between how women voted in House races compared to how men voted climbed from zero in 2004 (both men and women voted for Democrats by a margin of +6) to 23% points in 2018 (men voted +4 Republican while women voted +19 Democrat).
No one is better positioned to take advantage of that gap that Sen. Harris. The reason why is she stands, as The Rolling Stone put it, “astride the tectonic plates of the Democratic Party — an establishment politician who has adopted a platform responsive to the passion of the grassroots, including a Green New Deal.”
Sen. Harris is able to appeal to more traditional Democrats, those who would support Joe Biden, for example, while also being a natural ally of the progressive wing now in love with freshman House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The freshman senator was, after all, the left’s darling before the rise of the New York congresswoman, despite Sen. Harris’ history of being, as critics labeled her, a “tough on crime Democrat.”
While some my see contradictions in her history as a tough prosecutor and her legislative record as a social progressive, others, especially moderates, may see her positions as more of a balancing act, one carefully managed by a candidate capable of seeing the complexities in modern American society. How Sen. Harris manages this may well determine her success as a candidate.
Number 4 – Sherrod Brown
There may be no more critical state in 2020 than Ohio and the state’s well-liked senior senator is a lock to win the state’s 18 electoral votes against any Democrat opponent. He proved he has the popularity to back his claim “I will beat Trump in Ohio” during the 2018 election when he got more votes than any other candidate for statewide office – nearly as many as Hillary Clinton got in 2016 during a presidential election – and beat a popular Republican opponent in a state that went heavily for Mr. Trump just two years earlier.
His biggest negative is he isn’t well known outside of Ohio and doesn’t have the striking good looks and charisma of a Beto O’rourke or a Cory Booker. What he does have, however, is critical appeal to midwest liberals in the Rust Belt who want a traditional Democrat with a blue collar, pro-labor, anti-free trade appeal to union voters that can win back Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Number 5 – Michael Bloomberg
He hasn’t said he’s running yet, but there isn’t anyone in New York politics who believes Mayor Bloomberg wouldn’t love to be the man who unseats Donald Trump. “I don’t hate Trump; I hate what he’s doing,” Mr. Bloomberg told the Sunday Times in September last year. Later in 2018, in a scathing editorial the billionaire published in his own news outlet, Mr. Bloomberg called the president “recklessly emotional and senselessly chaotic,” blasted his obsession with building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico as “…not a good idea” and saying shutting down the government is “…a dumb way to pursue it” and concluded his oped with “Unless something changes — unless, in particular, Republicans in Congress start showing some spine — two more years might be enough to test whether we can sustain Trump’s model of bad government. This past week, we got a glimpse of what the beginning of the collapse may look like — and what it may ultimately cost us.”
Although he is a strong anti-gun advocate, co-chairing the nonprofit advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety and a proponent of a green energy plan that is “bold and ambitious and, most importantly, achievable,” Mayor Bloomberg is an economic and tax moderate, warning that Elizabeth Warren’s approach to taxation risks turning the country into “Venezuela” and that Medicare for all would “bankrupt us for a very long time.” While these thoughts wouldn’t appeal to the party’s left base, it would work against President Trump’s general election strategy to portray the Democrats as “socialists.”
Number 6 – Beto O’Rourke
Despite losing a tight race against Texas incumbent senator Ted Cruz, perhaps the only Republican hated more by Democrats than Donald Trump, former representative Beto O’Rourke made a huge splash in 2018, big enough that many political handicappers have him in the top three candidates for president in the Democrat Party.
Kiplinger admits the three-term congressman didn’t even make their list of serious candidates in August 2018, but “after his high-profile attempt to unseat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz garnered him national headlines and the adoration of Democrats across the country” the publication listed him at number 3 in their most recent ranking.
I think third is a bit much for Mr. O’Rourke, but having witnessed his campaign from my home in Texas, I can attest to his charisma and ability to communicate an effective message of positivity, hope and compassion to a diverse audience of liberal and moderate voters. And his ability to raise money – perhaps enhanced greatly by liberal donor’s distaste for Sen. Cruz – certainly propels Mr. O’Rourke ahead of others.
Number 7 – Bernie Sanders
The organization and donor base that should have propelled Sen. Sanders to the Democratic nomination in 2016 is still in existence and just as committed to the Vermont progressive. Unlike other Democrats considering running, he won’t have to introduce himself to voters in Iowa and Oregon and towns in far-flung places across the country.
But, he will have to explain to voters why his time hasn’t passed. And that will be a tough thing to do. And the audience he has to win back is the 12% of Sanders voters who, after Secretary Clinton won the Democratic Party nomination, defected and voted for Mr. Trump. If Sen. Sanders can persuade those blue collar Democrat defectors to come back to his populist, progressive message and reject President Trump’s populist, nationalist alternative, Sen. Sanders will climb up this list. If not, he’ll drop off fast.
Number 8 – Amy Klobuchar
The Washington Post‘s Ranking Committee listed Amy Klobuchar second on their list of leading Democratic candidates for president, ahead of Joe Biden and everyone else other than Sen. Harris, up five spots from their previous rankings, despite allegations reported in the press the senator has a history of abusing her staff.
The Minnesotan, who formally entered the race today, has a personality described as “no nonsense” and “pragmatic” that writers have described as standing “in utter contrast to Trump’s bluster and bravado.” Those characteristics would certainly help her in a race against the president, but her record in the Senate after 12 years doesn’t contain a whole lot of dramatic, signature pieces of legislation that will excite voters to rally to her cause.
What did garner the senator some positive attention was the way she conducted herself during the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Maintaining her calm and professional bearing despite Mr. Kavanaugh’s belligerent and, in the eyes of some, disqualifying conduct, Sen. Klobuchar gained fans and, ironically, an apology from the judge.
Number 9 – Corey Booker
No other candidate for president can truthfully claim to have saved a neighbor from a burning building or rescuing a freezing dog and bringing it back to life, but Corey Booker can claim both when he was serving as mayor of Newark, New Jersey. The seven years Mr. Booker spent revitalizing one of the nation’s most troubled cities contributed to his image as one of the Senate’s most liberal members, but one whose beliefs are grounded in the real, day-to-day experiences he had trying to make real change happen in a violent, drug- and gang-infested city.
Early comparisons to President Obama were common when the former Stanford football player and Rhodes scholar first appeared on the political stage in 2006, when then Sen. Obama was gaining national attention as an upcoming political star in the Democratic Party. Sen. Booker’s rise hasn’t been as meteoric, but, at just 49-years-old, he still has youth and energy attracting voters to his cause.
Number 10 – Julian Castro
One of the short-listers to be Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential candidate in 2016, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro could be the perfect candidate to oppose President Trump and his anti-Hispanic immigrant campaign message. The only Latino of note currently considering the race, Secretary Castro has a great personal story about how his grandmother came to America 100 years ago as an orphaned little girl and made a home here.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Mr. Castro was asked what would have happened to her if America’s immigration policies were what they are today back then. “It’s an important question for a lot of us whose families made that journey,” he replied. “Whether they were coming from Mexico, or from Ireland, or from Germany, or anywhere, it’s worth stopping and thinking for a moment about where you and I would be if we had an administration that was as hell-bent on keeping certain people out in the same way with the same cruelty 100 years ago.”
If Mr. Castro runs on a pro-immigration agenda, one that reminds voters America is a nation of immigrants, he could garner support from Hispanic voters in critical states who could provide momentum to his campaign, especially in states like Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, California and his home state of Texas.
The Rest of the Rest
It is still early in the race, so here’s a quick look at the next 10 candidates who might be there at the finish, but who are not ready for the top ten, yet.
Number 11 – Elizabeth Warren – While she can still get press attention and raise money, it just feels like Sen. Warren’s time has passed. And early polls are discouraging. In one, she came in behind President Trump with Democrats.
Number 12 – Kirsten Gillibrand – Her prominence in the #MeToo movement is a plus, but she was once a conservative blue dog member of the House with an anti-immigrant history that will resound more with MAGA than likely liberal primary voters.
Number 13 – Howard Schultz – If there was a time when voters were less interested in diluting opposition to a sitting president than now, I can’t think of when that was. But, Mr. Schultz offers voters another inexperienced, billionaire businessman for president, just in case that’s what they are after. Which they aren’t.
Number 14 – Jay Inslee – The governor of Washington has all but declared. While he isn’t well known outside of his state, he has a great track record of having presided over an economic boom that has brought reduced state college tuition, investments in education and discussion about a “public option” in the state’s health care system.
Number 15 – Terry McAuliffe – The former Virginia governor’s resume is better than anyone’s but Joe Biden’s, but his history with the Clinton’s could serve to do more damage than good.
Number 16 – Tim Ryan – The representative of industrial Youngstown, Ohio knows the key to winning back the White House in 2020 includes getting the support of disaffected blue collar voters who left the party in 2016 to vote for Mr. Trump. Unlike more idealistic candidates, Rep. Ryan speaks the language of factory and farm hands.
Number 17 – Steve Bullock – Not many outside Montana have heard of the moderate governor, but this chairman of the Governor’s Association comes from Flyover Country and has the sort of personality and politics that strategists think could be highly effective against Mr. Trump in 2020. Having won re-election in 2016 in a state that went heavily for President Trump, Mr. Bullock outpolled Hillary Clinton by 80,000 votes.
Number 18 – Tulsi Gabbard – A war vet and a freshman member of the House, the 37-year-old Hindu already is seeing her campaign fall on hard times. Not only has her first campaign manager already quit, she stepped in a pile of bad publicity by saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not “the enemy of the United States.” What she meant was he isn’t our enemy because he doesn’t pose a direct threat to the nation, but making such a remark shows Ms. Gabbard isn’t yet ready for a major national campaign.
Number 19 – Eric Garcetti – Another sitting mayor, this one of Los Angeles, is considering entering the race. Of Mexican descent, Mayor Garcetti would be the first mayor nominated by a major party for president since DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York City, lost to James Madison in 1812.
Number 20 – Pete Buttigieg – Another 37-year-old, the South Bend, Indiana mayor is the only openly gay candidate considering running for president. While being mayor of a small city in Indiana might not propel Mr. Buttigieg into the political limelight, the story of how he led it in an economic revival from when he was first elected in his late-20s just might.