With the end of 2018 comes the end of the part of the presidential race when people run for president while pretending they aren’t running. While nearly every Democrat insisted they were solely focused on the midterm elections, the reality is that more than two dozen possible contenders have spent the year burnishing their personas, floating policy ideas, road testing messages, meeting donors and earning chits in key primary states. Of course, nobody has been able to clear the field in advance, but there is no question that some 2020 candidates came out of 2018 ahead, some behind, and many spun their wheels.
Several candidates spent much of 2018 well below the radar, doing little more in public than signaling their intentions, such as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. But for those who overtly jockeyed in the past year, here’s my scorecard of how successful they were in establishing pole position before the race begins in earnest.
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The Winners: Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Amy Klobuchar
O’Rourke and Klobuchar are the only two prospective Democratic candidates who in 2018 demonstrably moved from the fringes into the realm of serious consideration.
O’Rourke did it, as any Pod Save America listener knows, by losing. The outgoing three-term member of the House became a progressive sensation during his race against the loathed Sen. Ted Cruz by livestreaming his long road trips across Texas, breezily dropping F-bombs and eschewing PAC money. He ended up raising $80 million, the most money ever for a Democratic Senate campaign (Florida Republican Rick Scott now holds the all-time Senate record of $84 million), and he lost by only 2.5 percentage points in what has been a firmly red state.
Particularly tantalizing for progressive voters is that he did all that without tacking right. The most memorable moment of the campaign was when O’Rourke praised NFL players who “take a knee” during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racism, insisting there was “nothing more American” than the sentiment of that protest. That wasn’t enough to win his Senate race, but it was part of a straight-talk charm that has catapulted him to third place in every 2020 presidential primary poll taken since his defeat, including the most recent Des Moines Register/CNN poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers.
Unlike O’Rourke, Klobuchar did win her race this year—and by 24 points. Like many other victorious Democrats, the senator from Minnesota portrayed herself as a mild-mannered pragmatist willing to reach across the aisle. For Democrats who believe their easiest path back to the White House runs through the Rust Belt, an Upper Midwesterner has a geographic edge.
She may also have a demographic advantage. Many Democrats are eager to take another shot at breaking the biggest glass ceiling in politics, and avenge Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton. But for most of the past two years, the buzz has followed female senators from the coasts who have been pushing the ideological envelope. That was until Klobuchar had her first dramatic televised moment. When a defensive Brett Kavanaugh tried to answer her question about blackout drinking with another question—“I don’t know, have you?”—Klobuchar’s unruffled response, “I have no drinking problem, judge” won her new feminist fans.
Klobuchar may also be winning the Rachel Maddow primary. On her MSNBC show, Maddow praised her as “one of the people who I most enjoy talking to on television about politics” and suggested, “You have the exactly the right profile of somebody who ought to run for president.” When Klobuchar said she wouldn’t make a decision about running without consulting with her family, Maddow playfully offered, “If you want me to talk to them, I’ll do so!”
All of that helps explain why Klobuchar has zoomed into the field’s top tier, at least in Iowa. She hit 10 percent in this month’s David Binder Research poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers, in fourth place and just a point behind O’Rourke.
Still, it is O’Rourke who has leaped the furthest this year, though with his rise comes the inevitable attacks. O’Rourke has been hit this month with a spate of negative articles from the socialist-populist left, criticizing him for wobbly support of single-payer health insurance, insufficient ambition on tackling the climate crisis, and various House votes in support of Republican-sponsored legislation. So O’Rourke ends 2018 with both substantial momentum and brewing headwinds.
The Loser: Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Warren started 2018 in pretty good shape. She was one of the few contenders who scored double-digits in Democratic primary polling. In May, she even led a New Hampshire poll. Unlike most potential candidates, she already has enough of a following that she inspires children’s books and action figures.
However, in the second half of the year, her support began to soften. In August, she slipped to third in a different New Hampshire poll. In September, a Massachusetts poll found a majority of her own constituents did not want her to run. And in a national poll taken in early October, she registered at 8 percent, down to single digits. These polls were taken before Warren’s controversial DNA test.
Of course, the test failed to help. Since then, she hasn’t been able to break 5 percent in the three most recent national polls, and came in third in a Massachusetts poll. Not only has she taken criticism from some Native American leaders who reject the use of DNA to determine indigenous ancestry, but some progressive activists—who long viewed Warren as their leader—faulted her strategic sense in taking Trump’s bait.
But the test is more symptom than cause of her current struggles. Arguably no other potential Democratic contender has been on the receiving end of Trump’s barbs as much as Warren, and every jab attracts more attention than any of Warren’s policy speeches. This wasn’t the first year the president mocked her as “Pocahontas,” but he ratcheted up the attacks, offering her $1 million if she took a DNA test. That was in July, just before her poll numbers ebbed.
Warren’s fans used to lap up each withering takedown of a Wall Street banker she delivered from her perch on the Senate Banking Committee. But Wall Street isn’t the left’s biggest boogeyman anymore; now it’s Trump. And Warren hasn’t been able to win a war of words with him.
Even the editorial page of her hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, argued that she shouldn’t run because “she has become a divisive figure.” That’s unfair. She’s “divisive” not because of what she says—plenty of other Democrats spout economic populism and skewer Wall Street bankers— but because of what Trump says about her. Whoever becomes the Democratic nominee will end up “divisive” in the same way, once Trump’s insult machine cranks up. Still, the Globe is voicing the fears of many rank-and-file Democrats: that she can’t win.
That doesn’t mean Warren actually can’t win. But if she does proceed, instead of launching a presidential campaign as a top-tier candidate, perhaps even the front-runner, she will instead begin in a hole. She will have to prove her electability to an increasingly skeptical base, which has other populists to choose from.
Still in Front: Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders
Yes, they’re old. Yes, they’re white men. Yes, they’ve lost before. But they have been at the top of every poll this year for a reason, and it’s not mere name recognition.
These are two politicians with loyal supporters, strong approval ratings, huge fundraising networks, well-honed philosophical visions, deeply substantive policy agendas and more experience on the presidential campaign trail than anyone else. Dismiss them at your peril.
They have continued to lead the pack in national primary polling, with both well into the double-digits, and Biden consistently at the top. (The most recent CNN poll gives Biden double the support of Sanders, though other polls show a narrower separation between the two.) Yet neither has been able this year to shake the criticisms that pose the biggest threat to their presidential ambitions.
When Sanders said, after the midterm elections, that white voters who wouldn’t support Andrew Gillum because he was African-American were “not necessarily racist,” he fed the perception that he still hasn’t learned how to connect with African-American voters. And last fall’s Kavanaugh hearings renewed attention on Biden’s handling of Anita Hill’s testimony during the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, raising questions whether Biden has permanently damaged his standing with female voters.
And yet, these two men are the most influential figures in the Democratic Party short of Barack Obama.
The nominally independent Sanders, more than anyone else, is able to single-handedly define what policies qualify as the progressive gold standard. Nearly every potential presidential candidate in the Senate scrambled to co-sponsor Sanders’ single-payer health insurance bill last year. To close out this year, Sanders, along with incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is setting a new bar for progressive climate policy: a “Green New Deal,” spending FDR-style to eliminate fossil fuel production in 10 years.
Biden, meanwhile, was the Democrats’ most popular campaign surrogate in the midterm elections, traveling to more than 20 states to boost 65 candidates. The former vice president was often welcomed by Democratic candidates campaigning in Trump-won territory—he was one of the few national figures Alabama’s Doug Jones was willing to be seen with during last year’s special election campaign—and most of his endorsed candidates won.
Sanders’ record wasn’t nearly as impressive. His multistate campaign swing in October brought him to few competitive House districts. Most of the long-shot progressives he supported for Congress lost, both in the primaries and the general election. In advance of a South Carolina rally, some local Democrats called him “extremely selfish” and told him to “get lost.”
But even if Sanders didn’t advance his electability argument, he maintained his stature as the voice of the populist left, at a time when the populist left is feeling confident enough to ignore electability arguments.
Neither Biden and Sanders can be considered locks. But nor can they be shrugged off as has-beens. Any candidate hoping to claim the progressive mantle has to wrest it from Sanders. And any candidate hoping to be the candidate of the Rust Belt has to run through the Scranton, Pa.-born Biden.
Stuck in the Weeds: Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris,
Kirsten Gillibrand and Jeff Merkley
Consider this about Gillibrand: The thing about her that people talk about the most is how she shoved Al Franken out of the Senate before an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct could be pursued. That happened in December 2017.
A whole year has passed. In that time, Gillibrand—who in her early career as an upstate New York congresswoman styled herself as a moderate—has sought to sharpen her progressive bona fides. She has proposed a federal jobs guarantee, supported retail banks in post offices (which has been called a “public option” for banking) and declared of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that we should “get rid of it, start over, reimagine it.” And yet, she still has been defined by the Franken episode.
Whether you think Gillibrand helped herself or not by leading the charge against Franken, the fact remains she wanted to broaden her profile in 2018, and despite her wonky efforts, she has not succeeded. For someone often knocked as an opportunist, she didn’t seize many opportunities this year.
She’s not alone in that failure—and not for lack of trying. Booker sponsored a bill funding job-guarantee pilot projects (which Gillibrand, Harris, Merkley and Warren co-sponsored). He also drafted a bill to establish “baby bonds,” putting $1,000 in a government savings account for every child born in America (paid with estate-tax increases) then adding more funds to the account every year on a sliding scale, based on family income. The money can be used to help buy a home or pay for higher education upon turning 18.
Harris has her own redistributive proposal: monthly cash payments of up to $500 that would reach about 80 million Americans. And Merkley has a bill that would deny pharmaceutical companies access to Medicare, Medicaid and Veteran Affairs patients, kneecapping their profits, if their drug prices for all consumers are too high.
All of these proposals may soon lead to a thoughtful and substantive campaign trail discussion of the best ways to reduce inequality and poverty. But the cold truth is they did little to boost the profile of their sponsors in 2018.
Winning the wonk primary is tough because ideas draw more attention when progressive activists give them snappy slogans and launch pressure campaigns to smoke out timid moderates (see “Medicare for All,” “Abolish ICE” and “Green New Deal.”) Propose an idea by yourself, and it can be like a tree falling in a forest.
Moreover, all of these senatorial candidates live in Sanders’ shadow. Because it’s hard to out-left a democratic socialist, almost anything they can come up with will either seem tame by comparison, or co-opted by him (as he did with Gillibrand’s and Booker’s idea for a federal job guarantee). Trying to prove you’re more effective than Sanders by working across the aisle also has its pitfalls; Booker may want some credit for the passage of the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill he has championed, but chances are Trump is going to hog that spotlight.
Presidential candidates need breakout moments more than 10-point plans, but this group fell short on that front as well. Booker received mostly mockery when he capped a speech about releasing previously confidential documents about Brett Kavanaugh with the all-too-self-aware observation: “This is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.” Harris dramatically interrogated Kavanaugh about a supposed inappropriate conversation he had about the Mueller investigation, but then she never produced the goods.
Merkley actually had a moment of great impact in June when he livestreamed his attempt to see a Texas facility that was detaining child refugees separated from the parents, and was denied access. As the Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick noted at the time, Merkley helped to “escalate the story from a horrifying but smoldering issue in the nation’s political discourse into a five-alarm fire.” And the visit exemplified “how lawmakers in the age of Trump are finding potency when they leave the confines of the Capitol.” Since then, however, Merkley hasn’t found a way to replicate that success on other issues.
Flush With Cash … But Not Much Else: Michael Bloomberg, Rep. John Delaney and Tom Steyer
Maybe Democrats will go for a socialist. Maybe they will go for a centrist. It remains hard to fathom how they would go for a multimillionaire Wall Streeter. But that doesn’t mean these guys won’t spend money trying.
Bloomberg, the billionaire Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, spent a whopping $110 million to help Democrats in the midterm elections. That included $5 million on a November ad that seemed to promote himself as a voice for “calm reasoning” instead of “shouting and hysterics” and “partisan bickering.” But it would be unfair to call the entire endeavor a vanity project. He spent more than $50 million on direct spending for candidates in swing districts, including overlooked districts like Oklahoma’s 5th, and backed the winner in most of them.
Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund investor turned political donor, spent even more, $123 million, in this past election cycle, but generally not on direct spending for candidates. Almost half went toward his “Need to Impeach” project, which has produced several TV ads featuring himself demanding Trump’s immediate ouster. And while Bloomberg was flipping swing districts and polishing his bipartisan persona, Steyer bet biggest on helping Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial race in Florida, where he came up short.
Delaney, a former banker whose net worth was recently estimated at a relatively paltry $233 million, announced his presidential campaign in July 2017 and has practically lived in Iowa ever since. Before anyone else entered the race, he already visited every one of Iowa’s 99 counties, preaching a message of bipartisanship and civility.
Did any of these fat cats get a return on their investment? Of the three, Bloomberg rates the highest in primary polls, eking out 4 percent support in the most recent from Harvard-Harris. That might not seem like much, but it was enough to tie Booker and hold a slight edge over Harris.
Meanwhile, Steyer and Delaney each scored a goose egg in the latest CNN poll. But they get consolation prizes for 2018. Steyer’s Need to Impeach online petition drive has collected more than 6 million email address. That may not be all that helpful in persuading Congress to impeach and convict the president, but many other presidential candidates wish they had that much voter data with which to launch a campaign.
For all his time in Iowa, Delaney registered at only 1 percent in this month’s CNN/Des Moines Register Iowa caucus poll. But that was at least better than Gillibrand! And a September poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers by David Binder Research found his name ID in the state is up to 64 percent, roughly the same as Gillibrand and Harris. So he hasn’t completely wasted his time.
Early presidential punditry like this can be dismissed on the grounds that polls more than a year out are not always predictive, new faces (hello, Sherrod Brown!) can still emerge, and unforeseen events can transform campaigns. All true. But it’s worth understanding why certain candidates gained or held ground this year, and others failed to rise. Once again, the Democratic presidential primary is becoming a debate over perceptions of electability.
While some Democrats recoil at yet another debate over the nebulous concept, few can resist electability arguments, be they based on progressive conviction, moderate pragmatism, red state geography or multicultural demographics. The candidate that took the biggest hit this year, Warren, did so because Democrats, even those of her populist ilk, worry she can’t win. O’Rourke and Klobuchar rose because they represent fresh, albeit different, approaches to flipping red states. Biden and Sanders are still formidable because their supporters believe they have unequaled stature and appeal beyond the party’s base.
As for the rest, as well as Warren, we should not count them out so early in this process. But nor should they shrug off their failure to break out of the pack this year as irrelevant to their prospects in 2019 and 2020.
This primary will be a chaotic, sprawling demolition derby. Candidates who don’t get traction soon will get smashed by those who do. You may have a great argument for yourself on paper, but it will be hard to convince any primary voter you can win in the general election if you can’t draw attention to yourself now. Those who couldn’t figure out how to do that in 2018 will need to think very hard about what they should do differently in 2019.