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How Seth Moulton Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

Monday morning, Seth Moulton, the 40-year-old congressman from Massachusetts, officially announced he is running for president on “Good Morning America.” While Moulton might not yet be a household name, he fits neatly into a certain mold of 2020 candidate — the young, ambitious U.S. representatives who feel their time has come. Like Tim Ryan, he has criticized Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership of the party; like Eric Swalwell, he toppled an incumbent to win his seat the first time; and like Tulsi Gabbard, he served in the military. But though he has little to lose by running, Moulton, like his colleagues, will have to overcome history — not to mention several better-known candidates — to win the nomination.

From ABC News:

Rep. Seth Moulton announces his 2020 presidential run on ‘Good Morning America’

One thing Moulton has in his favor is an impressive résumé. A Marine Corps veteran with three Harvard degrees, Moulton served four tours in Iraq and won two medals for valor that he kept under wraps until the Boston Globe broke the story just before he was elected to Congress in 2014. Earlier that year, he had mounted a successful primary challenge against nine-term Rep. John Tierney, who enjoyed the support of major figures like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren even though a few years before he had weathered a scandal arising from his wife’s involvement in an offshore gambling ring. Moulton’s internal polling found him starting from 54 points behind the incumbent, but he saturated the airwaves with TV ads and Tierney failed to take the threat seriously until it was too late; Moulton won by 10 points. He has now represented the posh suburban Massachusetts 6th District for four years, meaning he enters his presidential campaign with plenty of experience appealing to wealthy and well-educated voters. However, he has not yet shown he can woo nonwhite voters, who are approximately two-fifths of the national Democratic primary electorate but just 12 percent of his district’s citizen voting-age population, according to a Daily Kos calculation. And Moulton’s worst performance in the 2014 primary came in the city of Lynn — the only majority-minority community in the district.

But Moulton has several assets that could make him a serious contender. He has reportedly already retained a team of several campaign staffers and advisers, and he has been working with prominent Democratic polling firm The Mellman Group. He is a strong fundraiser, having raised $10.9 million over the last three election cycles between his campaign and his political action committee, including at least $1.6 million before the 2014 primary. His PAC was active in 2018 and helped to elect other Democratic veterans and “next generation leaders,” with Moulton campaigning for candidates in 16 states. Twenty-one of the PAC’s endorsees won seats in Congress, with several sharing Moulton’s moderate politics and even his opposition to Pelosi becoming speaker. None of the Democratic Party operatives we’re tracking have endorsed him yet, but given how many new members of Congress owe their seats at least in part to his PAC, he may pick some up soon.

It’s also hard to ever totally rule out a presidential candidate from Massachusetts; the fact that 84 percent of New Hampshire residents live in the Boston media market, according to Daily Kos, means Bay Staters have a built-in head start in the first-in-the-nation primary state. A Massachusetts politician has won the New Hampshire primary four times since 1988; three of those times, the victory propelled him all the way to the nomination. It looks like Moulton is also planning to use the primary as a springboard; this week, he will make his ninth visit to the Granite State.

But Moulton also has plenty of liabilities. One is that he is neither “establishment” nor “progressive” at a time when it sometimes feels like those are the only two wings of the party. He has argued for years that the party needs a “new generation of leaders,” and in December he and others who had opposed Pelosi’s reascension to the House speaker role struck a deal to limit Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn — all in their 70s — to a maximum of four more years in their posts. But the public — not to mention the party — may not appreciate his antagonism of the first female speaker. Pelosi’s image has improved since the 2018 election; in a recent YouGov poll, 70 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of her.

Moulton was also more conservative than 79 percent of House Democrats in the 115th Congress, according to his DW-Nominate score, which measures politicians on a scale from -1 (most liberal) to 1 (most conservative) based on their congressional voting record. His -0.299 score puts him close to fellow presidential candidates former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (-0.304), Gabbard (-0.279) and former Rep. John Delaney (-0.276).

Something else that may estrange Moulton from the party’s left flank is how he sings the praises of working with Republicans; he touts his record as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress. Despite being on the moderate end of the spectrum, however, he does vote against President Trump’s positions in Congress more often than the partisanship of his district would lead us to expect.

So Moulton remains, at best, a dark horse for the nomination. He gets almost no support in the few polls that have bothered to ask about him. According to Monmouth University, 56 percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers have never heard of him; only Wayne Messam was more anonymous. And even if Moulton does get his message out, will it resonate? Almost no voters (4 percent, according to a recent CNN/SSRS poll) say foreign affairs and security — expected to be Moulton’s signature issue — will be the most important factor in their 2020 vote. And in our study of 2018 primaries for Senate, House and governor, we found that veterans didn’t win open Democratic primaries any more often than non-veterans did. There may simply be no appetite for a figure like Moulton in today’s Democratic Party.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.