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Who’s Behaving Like A 2020 Presidential Candidate

Sen. Cory Booker went to Iowa. Michael Bloomberg re-registered as a Democrat after years as an independent. Former Secretary of State John Kerry would not rule out another presidential run, even though it’s very unlikely he will actually pull the trigger. And that’s just the 2020 campaign activity that made the news this week.

The 2020 Democratic presidential primary started the day after the 2016 election — let’s not pretend otherwise. But we’re hitting a new phase of the campaign: the last few weeks of the midterms, when prospective presidential candidates campaign across the country, officially in support of other politicians, but unofficially to build their own brands. And right after the midterms, I would expect a few Democrats to formally announce that they are running in 2020, others to start hiring staff and taking other concrete steps toward a run without quite fully jumping in, and a third bloc to bow out before they have to pretend to enjoy spending the winter in Iowa and New Hampshire

At this point, however, it’s hard to distinguish “I’m keeping my options open” from “Hell yes, I’m running.” So rather than wildly speculating about who’s going to do what, let’s try to answer this question: Who’s already doing the things that eventual candidates typically do at about this point in the election cycle? We’ll use the same rubric we used back in May 2017 for our article “The 7 Signs That Someone Might Be Running For President in 2020”: whether a candidate appeared at a political event in an early primary state (Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina), whether they were profiled for a major magazine, whether they campaigned for their party’s candidates for senator or governor, whether they released a book during this campaign cycle, and whether they’re being included in polls of the Democratic field.1

Here’s the latest tally2:

Who’s acting like they plan to run for president?

Based on indicators between the 2016 election and the 2018 midterms

Visited
Iowa N.H. S.C. Book Poll Magazine Profile Campaigned Score
Sanders 7
Biden 6
Bullock 5
Booker 5
Castro 5
Garcetti 5
Holder 5
Ryan 5
Steyer 5
Avenatti 4
Buttigieg 4
Flake 4
Gillibrand 4
Harris 4
Hickenlooper 4
Kasich 4
Landrieu 4
Merkley 4
Moulton 4
O’Malley 4
Swalwell 4
Warren 4
Bloomberg 3
Inslee 3
Klobuchar 3
McAuliffe 3
Schatz 3
Hassan 2
Patrick 2
Sasse 2
Schultz 1

Visits to Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire include formal political events only, including scheduled visits that haven’t happened yet. Candidates count as having a book out if they have published a book or are scheduled to publish a book during the 2018 election cycle. For polls, we’re counting any national, nonpartisan primary surveys that include the potential candidate. A national profile is defined as a piece in The Atlantic, New York magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine or Time that is more than 1,000 words long and includes an interview with the potential candidate. Campaigning is defined as participating in an event for a gubernatorial or Senate candidate.

There are a lot of names there, though even so we probably still missed a few. Because we started with a list of candidates who had visited early primary states, we were more likely to capture candidates who met that criteria and less likely to capture people who have been campaigning in other ways. And since much of this information is pulled from news reports, we may have missed events that didn’t attract much media attention, like a campaign stop in support of candidate whose re-election looks like a sure thing.3 With those caveats in mind, let’s run through this list we have in groups.

Basically running right now

Lawyer Michael Avenatti; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; former Vice President Joe Biden; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro; Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Former Attorney General Eric Holder; former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon; former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts; Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Rep. Eric Swalwell of California; businessman and pro-impeachment activist Tom Steyer; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren

I should emphasize that these signs are a general rubric — a way to test our impressions of the field against reality — not some kind of formal system for predicting who will run for president. That said, I think these indicators do give you some sense of which politicians seem to really want to run.

This first group is potential candidates who have taken at least four of the seven steps toward running. I think of the people in this group as running for president right now, even if some of them end up never launching full-blown campaigns. (For example, at this point, the more interesting story would be if Bernie Sanders didn’t run for president; he is the only person who hit all seven of our indicators.) It’s worth noting the diversity of approaches in this group. Some of them, like Michael Avenatti and Eric Garcetti and Sanders, are making visits to multiple early primary states, which is the equivalent of saying, “I’m really, really thinking about running for president and I really, really want the national media to cover my explorations.”

To be fair to people like Garcetti, if you’re not a nationally known figure, going to the early states is perhaps the most efficient way for an aspiring president to get his or her name in articles like this one. Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, is already well-known among Democratic activists, so she can skip the activities that seem very self-focused — she hasn’t gone to Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina — while making moves that keep her profile up (campaigning for Democrats in key gubernatorial races).

There are 20 people in this bucket — a fairly large group. That said, I don’t expect all 20 to run, and I would be surprised if even half of them ultimately do. People who have taken this many early steps often bow out because they decide that they are unlikely to win. Jeff Merkley, for example, is an economic populist who was the only U.S. senator to endorse Sanders in 2016. In terms of message and policy views, the two have a lot in common. So it’s hard to see a path to victory for Merkley if the much-better-known Vermont senator runs too.

Two governors in this group, Steve Bullock and John Hickenlooper, are presenting themselves as more centrist candidates. If Joe Biden decides to run, he will likely enter that centrist lane too, and I doubt there is room for both him and those other two.

Indeed, Biden and Sanders would enter the contest as two of the best-known candidates. But you could imagine one or both of them deciding that the possibility of winning both the primary and the general election is outweighed by the possibility that they will lose one of those races and taint their strong political brands with another presidential defeat.

Of these 20, I’m most skeptical of the idea of Holder and Landrieu running. The former attorney general could be publicly teasing a presidential campaign not because he really wants to run but because the national coverage will bring more attention to his project to mobilize Democrats against what he considers unfair Republican-engineered gerrymandering in states across the country. Or I could be wrong — Holder might launch a formal campaign over the next year, and we could have a field with three high-profile black candidates (I think Booker and Kamala Harris are almost definitely running).

Landrieu has been downplaying the idea of running, and he’s the kind of person with low national name recognition who should probably be overhyping himself if he really wants to compete in 2020.

Notice there are only three women in this group. To be sure, Harris and Warren, in particular, seem more likely to wind up being the Democratic presidential nominee than men like, say, Eric Swalwell. That said, despite the rise of women candidates in the Democratic Party after President Trump’s election, the majority of Democratic presidential candidates will likely be male, in part because the ranks of senators, governors and House members are disproportionately male.

Taking steps but not being as aggressive

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii

This category covers anyone who hit three of our seven signs. I don’t want to overemphasize the distinction between this group and the first one — some people in this group are almost definitely running. Michael Bloomberg and Jay Inslee, for example, are being quite open about considering candidacies, so I just as easily could have included them in the section above.

Amy Klobuchar has a lot of potential appeal: She’s expected to cruise to a third term in a closely divided state; she has gotten fairly strong support in Minnesota’s rural areas, an unusual quality for a Democrat; and she’s a woman at a time when Democratic voters appear to be seeking more gender parity in their elected officials.

I don’t think Brian Schatz has any plans to run, and his visit to Iowa really seemed like an exercise in helping party activists there and not raising his personal profile. But you never know.

Doing fairly little

Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire; Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; businessman Howard Schultz

Deval Patrick and Howard Schultz are fairly high-profile figures. Neither seems to have closed the door on the possibility of running, but they have been less aggressive than others in laying clear groundwork for a campaign.


Whew. That’s 27 people. And that’s not all. Remember, Rep. John Delaney of Maryland has been an official, declared candidate for over a year. The third-term congressman is not being taken too seriously — many outlets doing polls of the 2020 field aren’t including him. I’m keeping my eye on a businessman named Andrew Yang, who has also officially declared his candidacy. He could run at least a semi-serious campaign for two reasons: He is making a universal basic income, a buzzy idea in left-wing circles, the center of his candidacy, so he is getting some media attention, and, yes, reporters like me are going to cover more out-the-box candidates to avoid missing the next Donald Trump.

Also, and we may come back to this in a later piece, at least three Republicans (Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska) have emerged as anti-Trump figures in the GOP and visited at least one of the early primary states. I would not rule out the possibility that one of them (probably Kasich) will run against the president in the Republican primary.

But let me finish with this: Who seems likely not to run?

On the sidelines

Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, former first lady Michelle Obama, media mogul Oprah Winfrey

After Trump was elected in 2016, it seemed like the rules of politics no longer mattered and so we would see a lot of actors, corporate titans, musicians and other political neophytes run in 2020. That seems fairly unlikely, at least as of now. Avenatti, Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, in particular, would be non-traditional candidates with some Trump-like characteristics. But we’re not seeing real, bonafide celebrities making active moves to run for president.

Michelle Obama, for example, has been included in polls and is coming out with a book, so I could have put her in the section with Deval Patrick, but those are pretty weak indicators in her case; I really, really, really don’t think she is running. Winfrey has two post-2016 books and she polls well, but I don’t think she is running either. In an interview last year, The Rock expressed interest in running for president, but far in the future (2024). And he wouldn’t really fit into our analysis here anyway, since the actor is not affiliated with either party.

It also seemed, in the days immediately after the 2016 election, that the Democrats would be desperate to draft anyone who could appeal to white working class men in Ohio and push those candidates into the presidential field. So far, not so much.

Tammy Baldwin, Sherrod Brown and Bob Casey are likely to win re-election this November in key states that Trump flipped to the GOP side in 2016. The fact that Democratic party activists are not clamoring for any of these three to run in 2020 is a sign that the party is not singularly obsessed with finding an “electable” candidate. Democrats might regret this choice if Trump defeats, say, Sanders or Warren in 2020, carrying Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin along the way.

Footnotes

  1. Check out that original article for a more detailed explanation of each sign.

  2. The table below is up-to-date as of Oct. 9. Each indicator is just a yes or no — you don’t get more points for going to New Hampshire five times rather than once. To track each indicator, we sifted through news reports and social media and the like for each candidate. After that, I also reached out to each potential candidate’s office to see if I had missed anything. As of publication, we hadn’t heard back from New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, or ex-Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz.

  3. How big of a list you want to look at is partly a judgment call, but we erred on the side of inclusivity. If you were to include only people tested by at least one national poll, for example, you’d miss some interesting figures. Even this inclusive list, however, surely leaves some people out.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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