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The 7 Signs That Someone Might Be Running For President In 2020

Donald Trump showed that the field of people who could be elected president is larger than just senators, governors and vice presidents. And his underwhelming approval ratings so far suggest that anyone who wants to be the commander-in-chief should run in 2020 — at the moment, President Trump looks vulnerable. So 2020 could have a huge field of Democratic candidates — perhaps even a Republican challenger — and there has been a ton of speculation about who might run, from the surprising (Oprah Winfrey) to the utterly predictable (New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker).

It’s too early to guess who will actually take the plunge, but it’s not too early to start looking for the signs. Even Trump tested the presidential waters in traditional ways: The real estate mogul gave a speech to the Family Leader, a high-profile conservative group in Iowa, in 2013. He then returned to the Hawkeye State a year later to campaign for U.S. Rep. Steve King. Like many past presidential hopefuls, he spoke at a New Hampshire “Politics and Eggs” breakfast. He joined a few other future candidates at another Granite State event put on by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

So to get a sense of who might be preparing to might run in 2020, FiveThirtyEight looked at some of the things that the 22 men and women who ran in 2015 and 2016 did between Election Day 2012 and the midterms in 2014, after which many of them formally declared their candidacies.1

We looked at seven signs that indicated a person might run for president:

  1. Making at least one visit to Iowa for a political event;
  2. Making at least one visit to New Hampshire for a political event (We should note here that this story would not be possible without the work of Eric Appleman, a journalist who runs a site called Democracy in Action that since 2001 has tracked nearly every appearance that a prospective or declared candidate has made to Iowa and New Hampshire.);
  3. Making at least one visit to South Carolina for a political event;
  4. Participating in an interview for at least one feature story in any of a few large national magazines that are followed by political junkies2;
  5. Making at least one campaign appearance — outside of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — for his or her party’s candidates for governor or U.S. Senate;
  6. Releasing a book in the time between the 2012 elections and the 2014 midterms or reaching an agreement to write a book that would be released during the campaign cycle;
  7. Being included in at least one early national poll of the race that was conducted by either media outlets or polling companies.3

Put all these together and you have a familiar playbook for presidential candidates. In 2006, for example, Barack Obama campaigned for Democratic candidates in tight Senate races in states like Pennsylvania. He wrote a policy book and made a stop in Iowa. Time Magazine profiled him, and CNN included him in a poll of potential 2008 candidates.

It’s likely that our data is incomplete. Some candidates4 didn’t receive much media coverage before their campaigns began, which makes them difficult to track. Even when coverage is good, it’s particularly difficult to prove a negative, such as that someone never went to Iowa for a political event during a two-year period. But our goal here is not to create a formal model to predict who will enter the presidential race. Instead, we just wanted to look at factors that are commonly associated with running for president and get a sense of how much they truly are signals of a candidacy.

So what happened in 2013 and 2014?

In 2016, the strongest sign that someone was running for president, perhaps unsurprisingly, was that they visited Iowa between the 2012 election and the 2014 midterms.5 Of the 22 people who ran in 2016, 17 participated in at least one political event in the Hawkeye State during this period.

VISITED
POTENTIAL CANDIDATE IOWA N.H. S.C. BOOK INCLUDED IN POLLS HELPED CAMPAIGN* MAGAZINE PROFILE
Ted Cruz
Rand Paul
Marco Rubio
Mike Huckabee
Bobby Jindal
Rick Perry
Rick Santorum
Hillary Clinton
Martin O’Malley
Chris Christie
Scott Walker
Bernie Sanders
Jeb Bush
Ben Carson
Carly Fiorina
Jim Webb
Donald Trump
Lindsey Graham
George Pataki
Jim Gilmore
John Kasich
Lincoln Chafee
Political activity of 2016 candidates after the 2012 election

Note: Data covers period from Nov. 7, 2012, through Nov. 4, 2014.
*Campaign help refers to campaigning with same-party candidates for governor or U.S. Senate in states other than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Who didn’t go to Iowa? Three people who ran lightly funded, no-chance campaigns never went: Republicans Jim Gilmore and George Pataki, and Democrat Lincoln Chafee. John Kasich, who entered the presidential race fairly late, didn’t go. And neither did Jeb Bush.6

Sixteen of the 22 visited New Hampshire, 15 visited South Carolina, 14 appeared in early polls of the race, 13 were campaign surrogates for their parties in Senate or gubernatorial races, 11 wrote a book or signed a deal to do so. (Indeed, early polls have never done a great job of identifying the field, although until 2016, at least one survey nearly always included the eventual winner of a party’s nomination. Trump was not in any of the 30 pre-midterm polls of the GOP race. Joe Biden, who did not run, was in 38 of 41 surveys of the Democratic side.)

Who hit all seven of these markers? Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. This should not surprise you. They were not all particularly successful as candidates, but as early as 2013, Cruz, Paul and Rubio were showing clear signs that they were preparing to run for president. Hillary Clinton did not visit South Carolina, but took all the other candidate-like steps.

But let’s not get carried away; these indicators don’t do a great job predicting the presidential candidates in a given year for one key reason: They are overly inclusive. Almost everyone who runs for president has gone to Iowa in the preceding years, but not everyone who goes to Iowa runs for president. Some people take many of these steps — likely in an effort to keep the door open in case they later want to walk through it — but don’t actually run. For example, in addition to being included in the early polls in 2013 and 2014, Biden visited the three early states and campaigned for his party’s hopefuls across the country, but did not run in 2016. And some politicians probably want the attention they get when they hint that they are running for president, so they take at least one of these steps. U.S. Rep. Pete King of New York made a series of visits to New Hampshire in 2013 and 2014, but showed few other signs that he was making a presidential run.

So maybe the best way to think about these indicators is as signs that a person is thinking about running for president or that they at least want the media to think they’re thinking about it.

So what does this mean for 2020?

We’re still in the early part of the two-year window we’re looking at, so it’s not surprising that few people have dipped more than a toe into the 2020 pool. We started our search by looking at who has visited the three early primary states or has been included in polls of the 2020 contest, but we acknowledge that those metrics are somewhat crude. While we conducted a thorough Google search using many different search parameters and read local papers and political websites, there is no definitive website tracking every political event in Iowa or New Hampshire. (Appleman has not started doing his 2020 tracking yet.) Local newspapers are more likely to cover Biden appearing in South Carolina than some obscure ex-congressman, even if it later turns out that the congressman, not Biden, was determined to run in 2020.

Moreover, part of our goal here is to identify the next Trump, an unexpected candidate. But unexpected candidacies are unexpected for a reason, and we had to decide who to include in our list. So in addition to people who have been included in at least one national poll or gone to the early states for political events, we’ve added some famous people who have demonstrated an interest in political issues, if not in elective office (Van Jones, Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg).

VISITED
POTENTIAL CANDIDATE IOWA N.H. S.C. BOOK INCLUDED IN POLLS HELPED CAMPAIGN* MAGAZINE PROFILE
Joe Biden
Bernie Sanders
Al Franken
Martin O’Malley
Cory Booker
Hillary Clinton
Mark Cuban
Kirsten Gillibrand
John Kasich
Michelle Obama
Elizabeth Warren
Oprah Winfrey
Sheryl Sandberg
Sherrod Brown
Julian Castro
Andrew Cuomo
Van Jones
Jason Kander
Amy Klobuchar
Mark Zuckerberg
Political activity of potential 2020 candidates since the 2016 election, as of May 5

Data covers Nov. 9, 2016, through May 5, 2017.
*Campaign help refers to campaigning with same-party candidates for governor or U.S. Senate in states other than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Biden is the furthest along so far. Less than six months after the November election, the ex-vice president has already hit five of our seven markers: He has visited two early-primary states, been included in polls, signed a book deal, and sat for a New York Times Magazine feature. At a speech last month, he said, “Guys, I’m not running,” a message in some ways contradicted by the fact that he delivered the speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, and had visited South Carolina earlier in April. A former vice president probably has invitations to speak in all 47 of the states where he can avoid presidential speculation. Biden has visited two of the remaining three.

Three other potential candidates have hit three of the markers.

Sanders released a book after the election in November, attended a campaign rally for Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Tom Perriello and has been included in 2020 polls. (The Vermont senator is scheduled to attend an event in Iowa in July, which would be a fourth marker.) Martin O’Malley has visited Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina since last November and has already said that he is considering a second presidential run.

The other person who has hit at least three markers is somewhat surprising, since, unlike the others, he has not run for president before: Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. The former Saturday Night Live star was included in polls done by both Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen Reports, was profiled by The New York Times magazine in December and has humorously dubbed himself a “giant of the Senate” in a memoir due out May 30.

Three others have shown up in Iowa or New Hampshire, which is akin to declaring your wish to be president if enough support emerges for your candidacy. Another 2016 also-ran, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, went to Manchester recently to, yes, hawk his new book, “Two Paths: America United or Divided.” Kasich is intriguing, since he did not rule out the idea of challenging the incumbent president of his own party, which is highly unusual.

In December, Jason Kander, the 36-year-old former Missouri secretary of state who narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race last fall, gave a speech to Progress Iowa, a liberal organization there. The youngest person ever elected U.S. president was John F. Kennedy, who was 43 on election day in 1960, so Kander would be an unlikely candidate. On the other hand, if Democrats are looking for someone who might draw in more conservative-leaning voters, Kander has appeal. He lost his Senate race by 3 percentage points in a state, Missouri, that Clinton lost by 19 points. Another potential new face on the presidential scene is Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who went to Des Moines on Sunday to speak at a Democratic Party dinner.

Those people, except for Kander, all generally fit the profile of a typical presidential candidate. Is there any sign of the next Trump, a total outsider? Zuckerberg went to South Carolina in March, and Sandberg is headed there this week. But those trips appear to be non-political, so it’s hard to tell if either Facebook executive is trying to become the next president or whether they’re just working to further enhance their own brands. In a joint poll, Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies and Harris Insights and Analytics asked Democrats about the possible candidacies of Mark Cuban, Michelle Obama and Winfrey, along with the usual sitting and former governors and senators. But beyond the fact that those three have recently published books or signed book deals, there is little sign so far of any presidential ambitions from Cuban, Winfrey or Obama.

And so far, the news is really not good if you were looking for Beyoncé, Matt Damon, Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep to run in 2020.

Those people were already longshot candidates. But who else are our metrics not hitting? In my conversations about 2020 with Democrats in Washington, a few names have come up repeatedly: Sens. Kamala Harris (California) and Chris Murphy (Connecticut), and Gov. John Hickenlooper (Colorado). Harris is in her first year in the Senate, while Murphy is up for re-election in 2018. For those two, giving obvious hints of presidential ambition may be unwise, because it could annoy voters in their home states at an inopportune time. The New York Times recently floated the names of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. No one has ever gone directly from city hall to the Oval Office before, but obviously no one had ever gone straight from being a businessman to being POTUS until 2016.

Finally, our analysis assumes that the methods candidates used to raise their profiles and signal interest in a presidential run in 2013 and 2014 will be used again in 2017 and 2018. That could be wrong. Nearly everyone in Washington expects both Booker and Elizabeth Warren to at least strongly consider challenging Trump, since both seemed open to being Clinton’s running mate in 2016 and campaigned across the country for her, further building their national profiles. Booker released a book before Election Day last year, while Warren’s anti-Trump “This Fight Is Our Fight” came out last month.

What are they doing? Well, Booker has already campaigned for his colleagues Bill Nelson of Florida and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a very traditional move for a potential candidate. But he recently appeared on the podcast of entrepreneur and self-help author Tim Ferriss, and he is fishing for an invite to “Pod Save America,” a podcast run by former Obama aides that is popular with the left. The latter podcast, of course, did not even exist in 2013. And what’s better than being profiled by The New Yorker? Maybe speaking to its editor on a podcast, as Warren recently did. So maybe one of our indicators should be podcasts instead of magazines.

Figuring out who will win the election is complicated. It may be even more difficult to figure out who is running.

CORRECTION (May 8, 12:03 p.m.): A previous version of the second table in this article mistakenly listed Scott Brown instead of Sherrod Brown.

Footnotes

  1. Twenty-two candidates appeared in one of the formal presidential debates of the 2016 cycle: 17 Republicans and five Democrats.

  2. We chose magazines that seem to have strong followings among political elites: The Atlantic, New York, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Time. We looked for articles that were longer than 1,000 words and involved the potential candidate speaking to the author.

  3. These factors are, of course, not independent of one another. For example, a visit to Iowa may result in the media putting a potential candidate into its polls.

  4. Ex-Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, for example.

  5. Nov. 4, 2014.

  6. Bush did do something that could have been interpreted as a move to court Iowa Republicans in advance of a 2016 run. He held fundraisers for two Iowans, Gov. Terry Branstad and then-U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst, but Bush held both events in his home state of Florida.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Dhrumil Mehta is a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight focusing on politics.

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