(This is the 11th edition of our power rankings of Democrats most likely to get their party’s presidential nomination in 2020.)
Bernie Sanders has been running for president for the last four-ish years straight. In the wake of his closer-than-expected primary loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016, Sanders kept his massive grassroots organization active and made sure anyone and everyone knew that he wasn’t done with this whole “national politics” thing.
But as of late, for the first time in more than 1,000 days as an official (and unofficial) candidate, Sanders has climbed to the top of the mountain: He is, as of today, the leader of the Democratic 2020 pack, according to our updated power rankings.
Why? Well, lots of reasons. But here are a few:
- That national organization built over the last four years and assiduously maintained by Sanders and his political allies is more robust than anything any other candidates in the race – including Joe Biden, who officially announced on Thursday – have at the moment.
- Sanders is likely to raise the most money of anyone in the field. He brought in north of $18 million in the first three months of 2019, with 84% of those contributions coming in at under $200. That was the biggest total of any 2020 Democrat. And there’s every reason to think he can keep it up; he raised $237 million for his 2016 race against Clinton.
- His path to the nomination is the easiest to see, with Iowa’s caucuses dominated by liberals and his geographic proximity to New Hampshire.
- Sanders’ liberalism – once considered radical – is now very much en vogue within the party. And he’s been in that space for a very long time.
Again, the mantle of front-runner is a tough thing to pin down. Most voters remain largely disengaged from the primary process so far and may not truly focus on the race until late this year or early 2020.
Our rankings, however, are aimed at capturing a moment in time. Who, if the primary fight began today, would be best positioned to win? And the answer to that question is the senator from Vermont. Below, the nine other people with the best chances of winning the Democratic nod next year, ranked by their chances at victory.
10. Julián Castro: The potential strengths of this former housing and urban development secretary’s candidacy remain. Castro is, for instance, the lone Latino in the field. Latinos make up greater than 10% of Democratic voters. Castro is also from the border state of Texas, and he might be able to make the best case against Trump on immigration and the border wall. Still, this field is really crowded, and Castro has yet to make a name for himself. He rarely polls above 1% nationally or in the early-voting states, and he is struggling with fundraising. (Previous ranking: 10)
9. Kirsten Gillibrand: The senator from New York isn’t doing anything wrong, she’s just having trouble distinguishing her message and her record from those of a giant field of candidates. She was good but not great in her CNN-sponsored town hall. Her $3 million raised in the first quarter of 2019 wasn’t terrific but it wasn’t abysmal, either. In a race with 20 candidates, however, you need something that everyone else doesn’t have. it’s not clear yet what that “something” is for Gillibrand. (Previous ranking: 9)
8. Cory Booker: Type in “Cory Booker” and “next (Barack) Obama” into Google, and you’ll get a slew of hits. It’s not just that Booker is seeking to be the second black president. It’s that he, at times, has similarly soaring rhetoric. The problem for the junior senator from New Jersey and former mayor of Newark is that he’s going backward. Booker hit an average of 5% in the national polls in February, 4% in March and just 3% this month. Meanwhile, the young-and-hip-mayor mantle has been taken up by Pete Buttigieg. (Previous ranking: 7)
7. Amy Klobuchar: Klobuchar’s theory of the case is very different from that of every other candidate not named “Joe Biden” in the running. Rather than simply adopting a series of liberal policy positions to appeal to voters in early primary and caucus states, the senator from Minnesota is instead painting herself as a hard-boiled realist. While people like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are pushing for free tuition at public universities, Klobuchar said this at a CNN town hall earlier this week: “I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs. I do. Don’t look. It’s not there. I wish I could do that, but I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth.” (Previous ranking: 6)
6. Elizabeth Warren: Uniqueness helps in a field of 20, and the senior senator from Massachusetts stands out. Warren has become known as the liberal policy wonk of this field through her detailed policy papers. If Democratic voters are looking to go to the left, but don’t want to go too far left, then she could be a good compromise candidate. Unfortunately for Warren, it’s not clear how much voters care about policy. This year more than any other, voters care about electability – and they’re not sure she is electable. Warren continues to poll mostly in the single digits, despite near-universal name recognition. (Previous ranking: 8)
5. Beto O’Rourke: Think of this race – and this field – as a classroom full of students. At the moment, O”Rourke would be the kid in the back who never really answered questions, sometimes skipped class, but whose papers showcased how bright he was and how much potential he had. O”Rourke may be taking the it’s-a-marathon-not-a-sprint approach to this race, but, man, is he moving slowly right now. (Previous ranking: 4)
4. Pete Buttigieg: The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has all the momentum right now. Since a CNN town hall in early March, Buttigieg has seen his polls skyrocket. He’s jumped from 0% nationally to the high single digits and into a tie for third place. Buttigieg may even be polling better in the early contests of Iowa and New Hampshire. On the other hand, he’s still polling near folks like Harris and Warren. Additionally, Buttigieg has so far had little appeal to moderate and nonwhite Democrats, who make up a substantial portion of the Democratic electorate. (Previous ranking: 5)
3. Kamala Harris: Out of the five back-to-back 2020 candidate town halls CNN hosted Monday night, the California senator’s performance was the least impressive. Harris seemed to dodge any difficult question with a standard “we should have that conversation” line that left you not really sure if she had a hard and fast opinion. And her refusal to say whether she thought felons currently in jail should have the right to vote – Sanders has said they should – forced her campaign to clarify the following day that she does not think they should be able to do so. Still, Harris has the profile, the money and the early-state organizations to go the distance – even if she is drafting off the two leaders right now. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Joe Biden: The case for the former vice president is simple to make: Biden continues to lead national polls with about 30% of the vote. Well-known candidates in that position at this point in the nomination process have won about a third to two-fifths of the time, which is a pretty decent chance in a field of 20. Biden has seen some decay in his favorable ratings over the last month, but still is the most popular Democrat. Our question is whether Democrats really want Biden once they see him running. He is a gaffe machine and is, despite being his former vice president, not Obama. (Previous ranking: 1, tie)
1. Bernie Sanders: See above. The senator from Vermont has the most things going for him right now of anyone in the field. Concerns about electability have already begun to creep in, but Sanders seems committed to showing doubters that he has an eye on the general election, too. His answer on whether Congress should impeach Trump is a sure sign he’s thinking beyond the primary. (Previous ranking: 1, tie)