In a crowded Presidential nominating field lacking a strong frontrunner, many—if not most—early primary and caucus voters don’t really decide on their vote until they perceive a final group of what might be called “Serious Conversation” choices. That is, five to eight candidates who seem to be real, viable options, based on polling, media coverage, high-profile endorsements, and local or advertising presence.
Others may have dropped out, or be sticking it out with all hope gone; but by January 2020 just a half-dozen or so will stand out as the real options for voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond.
That Serious Conversation group often doesn’t become apparent until the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries. In the 2004 cycle, at various times one might have thought Bob Graham, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, Al Sharpton, or Dennis Kucinich were more likely than Howard Dean, John Kerry or John Edwards to be there. In mid-2007, odds seemed low that either Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney would be in that conversation six months later.
Yet, when that final group does become clear, almost anything can happen within that select set of candidates. Kerry and Edwards rocketed past Dean and Dick Gephardt; Romney dropped behind Huckabee in Iowa and McCain in New Hampshire.
In the current field of Democratic candidates for 2020, hope springs eternal among the 23 main candidates that they can find themselves in that Serious Conversation group come next January—and then, who knows?
They all have arguments for their paths to get there. Some are far less plausible than others.
At the same time, it is possible to imagine scenarios for each of them—even the current top dogs—being left behind as irrelevant also-rans when the real choosing time comes around.
Here I assess the chances of each candidate to make it into that group of five to eight serious contenders next January. To be clear: these are their odds of being in that Serious Conversation group. What happens from then is anybody’s guess.
Three who will probably make it
Bernie Sanders: 85% The Vermont Senator tried, and failed, to force a two-candidate Biden-or-Bernie narrative onto the race. Now he’s dropped to the mid-teens in polls, struggling to stay ahead of Elizabeth Warren for second place. His defense of “democratic socialism” this week may have served mostly to demonstrate that he’s no longer the best salesperson for what are now commonly-held policies among the liberal candidates. All that said, Sanders has two things that, together, give him the best chance of a spot in the final group: money to spend, and a core group of dedicated supporters.
Elizabeth Warren: 80% Warren’s recent surge, to double-digits in national and early-state polls, looks deceptively impressive because of her awful start. A huge star of the party, who gave prime-time speeches at the last two Democratic National Conventions, should have started the race polling in the mid-teens. Now, she has benefited from the lack of criticism aimed at a single-digit candidate, and from a flavor-of-the-month lull following the Buttigieg phenomenon, to surge to where she should have already been. Those conditions won’t last much longer. One big question: is her current polling surge translating into a fundraising breakthrough, to keep this expensive operation afloat for eight more months?
Joe Biden: 75% Biden is raising plenty of money, and holds the polling lead. It remains possible that the former Vice President will roll untouched to the nomination. But signs are bad, and getting worse every week—and, unlike Sanders, there is no guarantee that a base of fervent supporters are there to set a floor if things go the Giuliani route. Nor is there a rush of institutional party support gathering around him. Biden’s national polling average has dropped nine points in five weeks, according to RealClearPolitics, and his lead is particularly weak in key early-voting states such as Iowa and California. It’s notable that, after previously avoiding all appearances with other Democratic candidates, Biden has agreed to join cattle calls of the Poor People’s Campaign, in Washington D.C. on June 17; Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in South Carolina on June 22; AARP, in Iowa on July 15; and of course the DNC televised debate in late June.
Two on the bubble
Kamala Harris: 65% After a fast start, Harris has stalled in the high single-digits—clearly part of the conversation as it stands now, but just a slim drop away from being out of it. The conventional wisdom holds that if she shows viability, eventually black voters in the South and her home state of California will come around to her. But she won’t get there if she bombs in Iowa and New Hampshire. She just announced a new dedication to building up her Iowa operation.
Pete Buttigieg: 50% Keeping the campaign funded no longer seems to be an issue for the Indiana mayor, who will reportedly report a hefty $12 million raised in the second quarter. The bigger question is whether the bloom fades on the impressive but untested Millennial. His poll numbers have crested for now in the high single-digits nationally—and he has yet to gain any support from black and Latino voters. He has plenty of upside potential, but could as easily drop to irrelevance as other candidates get their spotlight moments.
Eight with a shot
Stacey Abrams: 30% The former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, and nearly successful candidate for governor, has put off a decision on entering the Presidential race until later this year. If she does get in, she will enjoy a huge initial welcome from the media and Democratic—perhaps even taking a temporary lead, as Rick Perry did when he joined the 2012 Republican contest in August 2011. Subsequent scrutiny might drag her down on the same sad arc of Perry’s campaign, but she’d probably be part of the Serious Conversation in January.
Cory Booker: 25% Booker has robust ground operations in Iowa and New Hampshire, money in the bank, a strong message, great retail campaign skills, and absolutely no momentum at all. Maybe his moment will never come in this race, but if it does, watch out.
Amy Klobuchar: 25% Klobuchar has a better chance than most to climb into the Serious Conversation group, by virtue of a roughly 300-mile-long border shared between Minnesota and Iowa. Not that it’s helped her much so far: the U.S. Senator is polling at about 3 percent in the Hawkeye state, behind seven competitors. But, the launching pad is there if she can get ignited.
Julian Castro: 20% Castro, former HUD secretary and mayor of San Antonio, has both identity and policies to appeal to the party’s diverse, urban base. Unfortunately for him, those demographics are underrepresented in Iowa and New Hampshire. He needs to work backward, catching enough fire in California, Texas, and Florida to get noticed. He stands out enough that his odds of having a surge sometime in the campaign are better than most—if his funding lasts long enough.
Beto O’Rourke: 15% On the plus side, he’s raised a lot of money. On the downside, he’s already had his viral surge—last year, during his U.S. Senate campaign in Texas—and now is flailing in low single-digits. He’s already changed his campaign approach once, with little to show for it.
Steve Bullock/John Hickenlooper/Jay Inslee: 15% each It seems reasonable to think that one of the three governors will catch on with a decent chunk of Democratic voters. Their ability to check off actual accomplishments in office—and their proven electability in state-wide races in Montana, Colorado, and Washington respectively—has already stood out at multi-candidate forums. Those opportunities are about to become much more frequent. There’s probably only room for one (at most) in the Serious Conversation: Bullock has institutional support; Inslee has the hook of climate change; and Hickenlooper has perhaps the most Presidential resume in the field.
Six with not-impossible paths
Tulsi Gabbard/Andrew Yang: 5% each Among the one-percent crowd, these two stand out for being different. Gabbard, congresswoman from Hawaii, is a younger, female Bernie Sanders type whose controversial foreign policy views have adherents among Green Party leaners. Yang is a very likable non-politician with a small but devoted online following. Cornering the market in Democrats who want an unusual type of candidate can be enough to get one of them into the Serious Conversation—see, for example, Ron Paul in 2012—though the road from there to the nomination would probably be as unlikely as Paul’s.
Kirsten Gillibrand: 5% Gillibrand’s utter failure to launch remains a mystery, but whatever makes people shun her seems unlikely to change. Unlike others polling at or below one percent, the New Work Senator has been given months of serious attention by media and Democratic activists; she hasn’t been hidden, she’s been seen and dismissed.
Seth Moulton/Tim Ryan/Eric Swalwell: 2% each The appeal of Buttigieg and O’Rourke suggests that Democratic voters are eager, in theory, to fall in love with a candidate representing generational change; their stalled polling numbers suggest that those voters are still waiting for the right one. For different reasons, these three congressmen each have the long-shot potential to be the right fresh face at the right time to fill that role heading into the new year.
Five with no apparent path
Michael Bennet/Bill de Blasio/John Delaney/Wayne Messam/Marianne Williamson: 0% each