Here's how you get a crowded presidential primary: A beatable opponent plus no clear frontrunner. With President Trump consistently unpopular, under investigation from every side, and beset by a never-ending stream of scandals — plus no Hillary Clinton to clear the field — the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is going to be a huge mess.
The dysfunctional American political system means the primary campaign has already begun. So we might as well embrace this hell world and start speculating about future events we have limited-at-best knowledge of!
As 2019 begins, here's my highly premature and incomplete handicap of the 2020 primary field, based off the PredictIt prices for who will win at the time of writing. As Vox explains, "The site runs a market on the 2020 race where you can buy 'stock' in any candidate, and each share you own of the candidate will pay out a value of $1 if they win the nomination." Based on those prices, writers at Vox put together a list of overrated and overrated candidates. Here are mine, in order of PredictIt prices:
1. Beto O'Rourke. Cost: 19 cents. Verdict: Sell.
O'Rourke is pretty clearly trying to follow the Obama formula of disguising a record of milquetoast centrist liberalism with vague soaring rhetoric. It seems likely to me that this won't work nearly as well as it did in 2008, as lefties have gotten highly suspicious about that kind of bait and switch.
Experience is also an issue. Obama was criticized for only having four years in the Senate before jumping straight into the presidency, while O'Rourke has only been in the House (if elected in 2020, he would be the only former representative to do so since James Garfield). He's also managed to get himself involved in the first bitter media squabble of the primary, thanks to his partisans. They spotted a few Beto-skeptical articles and tweets and immediately leaped to hysterical conspiracy theories about Bernie partisans plotting to take Beto down.
On the other hand, rhetorical charisma is in short supply in this field, and Beto's record isn't that bad. And negative polarization is a big wild card in today's politics. If centrists can talk themselves into the idea that Beto is the victim of a Bernie Bro conspiracy, then they might just unite around him in a classic defensive overreaction. He definitely could win — he's just not anywhere near first place.
2. Joe Biden. Cost: 18 cents. Verdict: Sell.
Biden is currently polling in first place, likely due to near-universal name recognition, the warm contrasting glow the Obama presidency makes compared to Trump's, and The Onion's goofy caricature of him as an aging cool uncle.
However, this jovial reputation is belied by his appalling policy record. For most of his career, Biden has served as a bought-and-paid-for stooge of Delaware's financial corporations. He worked diligently to make student debt near-impossible to discharge in bankruptcy, to unleash predatory credit card companies, and to increase the likelihood of a catastrophic financial crisis. He was a key figure in the Democrats' turn away from desegregation policy. He voted for the Iraq invasion. He will be 78 years old in 2021.
However, probably most important in political terms is his notorious handsiness. Biden is one of those retail politicians, like Bill Clinton, who thrives on human contact and clearly has a fondness for the ladies. Norms about that kind of thing have changed enormously since he last ran for president in 2008. I would not be at all surprised if his candidacy ends up being blown apart by a #MeToo scandal.
3. Kamala Harris. Cost: 18 cents. Verdict: Sell.
Harris is a former prosecutor and California attorney general whose most notable accomplishment to date was letting Trump's Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin skate on foreclosure fraud back in 2013. Her proposal for a second Earned Income Tax Credit is okay, but pointlessly excludes the very poor. However, she's also reasonably young, the single woman of color in the top tier, and positioning herself on the left of the Senate Democratic caucus. Things might easily break her way — but like Beto, she shouldn't be considered a frontrunner just yet.
4. Bernie Sanders. Cost: 15 cents. Verdict: Hold.
Sanders is arguably the real frontrunner. He also has near-universal name recognition and good favorability numbers. That is on the strength of his totally unmatched credibility — indeed, the main reason he is a national figure today is because he has been yelling at Biden and company over selling the country to Wall Street for 30 years. It's also worth noting that he would be the first Jewish president.
On the other hand, he is a white guy, and he will be 79 years old on inauguration day in 2021. Konrad Adenauer managed to remain a competent German chancellor up to age 87, but he was very much an outlier. By all accounts Sanders is still sprightly, but illness and mental decline are very real possibilities at that age. At a minimum, he would need to consider his choice of running mate very carefully and pick someone who would be ready to fill his shoes immediately. As a longtime political loner, he is known to have staffing issues, and his organization Our Revolution is reportedly a bit of a mess.
Ultimately, I'd say Sanders is in roughly the position Mitt Romney was in the Republican field in 2012 — clearly ahead, but only by a bit. He ought to be able to win if he can run a solid campaign across the whole country, but whether he can do that is very much an open question.
5. Amy Klobuchar. Cost: 11 cents. Verdict: Sell.
Klobuchar has low name recognition, no signature policy initiatives, and is infamous for treating her staff poorly (she has the highest turnover rate in Congress). Anything could happen, but 11 cents is clearly too high.
6. Cory Booker. Cost: 9 cents. Verdict: Hold.
Booker is cheerful and halfway charismatic in an earnest, dorky sort of way. He's also the only black man in the top tier. His "baby bonds" proposal, while flawed, is at least interesting and different. However, he emerged from the notoriously dirty New Jersey machine (he backed his comically corrupt Senate colleague Bob Menendez to the hilt), and the left won't forget his ties to Big Pharma, nor his defense of Bain Capital back in 2012. That's a steep hill to climb.
7. Elizabeth Warren. Cost: 8 cents. Verdict: Buy.
So far Warren is not setting herself up as well as I had expected. Her first major news cycle was a tin-eared defense of her tiny admixture of American Indian heritage. Her dour and detail-heavy style isn't that well-suited to today's flighty and superficial news cycle. Her polling numbers don't look great.
On the other hand, she's got the second-most lefty credibility behind Sanders — especially her proposal for worker co-determination (in which workers would get 40 percent of seats on the boards of large corporations), which is genuinely aggressive. She's likely to be the most impressive candidate in a debate setting. If Sanders doesn't run or flames out, then she is a likely second-best candidate for his supporters.
8. Kirsten Gillibrand. Cost: 6 cents. Verdict: Buy.
Gillibrand is one of the few former centrists who not only appears to understand which way the political wind is blowing, but also is trying to stay ahead of it. She has turned in one of the most lefty voting records over the last Congress, has put forward a paid leave plan, and become a co-sponsor of Medicare-for-all.
With that traditional Democratic Party HR manager affect, she's not terribly charismatic. But she was right on the Al Franken question, which fortunately for her alienated a lot of the Democrats' intolerable donor class. Without big money corruption holding her back, she might just make a play for the left and bring along enough of the center to win.
The dark horses
1. Oprah. Cost: 3 cents. Verdict: Buy.
If there's anything Trump has taught us, it's not to underestimate the power of celebrity.
2. Andrew Cuomo. Cost: 1 cent. Verdict: Sell.
Cuomo is nakedly corrupt, incompetent, and the left loathes him almost as much as Trump. He's prickly, defensive, and a poor campaigner — only winning re-election as New York governor thanks to his control over the state's Democratic machine. Very nearly a non-starter.
3. Mark Zuckerberg. Cost: 1 cent. Verdict: Sell.
A couple years ago, Mark Zuckerberg still had a bit of that Silicon Valley golden boy shine. Now he's known as the guy who runs a giant surveillance panopticon that enables racism, genocide, and Trump's election. He also has no discernible politics beyond wanting to keep Facebook and his personal fortune free of government oversight. If he has any sense at all, he won't run.
4. Hillary Clinton. Cost: 1 cent. Verdict: Sell.
5. Michael Bloomberg. Cost: N/A. Verdict: Sell.
It seems fair to say that America in 2019 is not crying out for a hectoring, elfin billionaire financier with nanny state centrist politics who has already promised to muzzle his own journalists if he runs.
6. Richard Ojeda. Cost: N/A. Verdict: Buy.
This former West Virginia state senator lost the 2018 election to that state's 3rd Congressional District — but managed a swing of 32 points compared to 2016. He's one of the few declared candidates so far. He voted for Trump in 2016, which is probably a deal breaker for most Democrats.
Still, he is probably the biggest firebreathing populist on this list, including Bernie. There's a tiny outside chance that he might catch fire as the one person who can actually channel Democrats' incandescent anti-GOP rage.
No doubt most of these predictions won't survive first contact with the actual primary contest. But politics matters, and therefore political competition matters. The fact that centrist goobers like Chris Cillizza (who aren't even good at their jobs) treat the horse race as a game doesn't mean the horse race is unimportant. So long as we are stuck with this anachronistic, malfunctioning Constitution, we can't get around the campaign.