The first votes of the Democratic primary race won’t be cast for more than a year. None of the highest-profile candidates have formally launched campaigns, and only one, Elizabeth Warren, has even formed an exploratory committee. It’s entirely possible the 2020 Democratic nominee is someone considered such a longshot that she or he isn’t even being included in polls — the circumstances that surrounded Donald Trump’s candidacy at this point during the 2015-16 cycle. There’s a ton about the nominating contest that we don’t know.
But as some potential candidates move toward deciding whether to run and others near their formal entry into the race, there’s a decent amount we do know, at least as it pertains to who will be in the race and whose candidacies voters are likely to take seriously. Where each candidate and potential candidate falls in the pecking order is largely a subjective exercise. But imperfect as they may be, prediction markets can serve as a useful gauge measuring conventional wisdom.
Sizing up the Democratic Field for 2020
Using the Democratic primary market at PredictIt as a guide, we can divide the candidates into three tiers. We’ll call them the frontrunners, the contenders, and the longshots. PredictIt traders have three candidates — Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden — with at least a 17 percent chance of winning the nomination. Another six — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown — have between a 7 percent chance and a 12 percent chance to win it. Beyond that, there are another 10 people you can wager on, ranging from one candidate who’s formally entered the race — Representative John Delaney of Maryland — to celebrities such as Oprah (2 percent), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (1 percent) and Mark Zuckerberg (1 percent). It’s possible that the eventual nominee is someone not even listed as an option. In fact, O’Rourke, who PredictIt traders have as the frontrunner right now, wasn’t even included as an option until December.
We’ll likely know a lot more about the dynamics at play two weeks from now, and a lot more than that in two or three months, by which time the majority of potential candidates are likely to have announced their intentions. As the race shapes up, we’ll periodically check in here to measure the conventional wisdom. What follows is an outline of the race in its earliest stages.
The Frontrunners: Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris & Joe Biden
PredictIt stock: 21 percent
O’Rourke became such a sensation during his Senate race last fall against Ted Cruz that, as the election neared, people stopped just asking whether O’Rourke had a chance to beat Cruz and started asking whether it would even be good for him to win the race. O’Rourke had told reporters on the campaign trail that, if elected, he planned to serve his full six-year term in the Senate. He could have beaten Cruz and tested the presidential waters just as he entered the Senate, but the optics would have been less than ideal.
As it turns out, the Senate results may have been close to exactly what O’Rourke needed in order to use the Senate campaign as a springboard for the presidential race. O’Rourke lost, but only by about 2.6 percentage points, coming closer than any state-wide Democratic candidate had come to turning Texas blue in more than 20 years. Since his loss to Cruz, O’Rourke has continued building a massive social media following, grown a beard, and plotted a trip outside of Texas to meet potential voters.
In less than three months, he’s gone from not being included in presidential polls to consistently placing in the top three along with Biden and Sanders. With Trump’s border wall proposal at the center of national political dialogue, O’Rourke has made opposition to the wall — and his status as a former representative of a district on the US-Mexico border — a centerpiece of his social media activity.
PredicIt stock: 18 percent
Harris has been the subject of presidential speculation since before she even entered the Senate in 2017, and that speculation has intensified as she’s made it fairly clear she’s going to enter the race. Harris, who served as the San Francisco district attorney and the California attorney general before being elected to the Senate in 2016, has been making the media rounds lately promoting her memoir and children’s book.
She also earned some praise from liberals on Twitter for an exchange in which she defended progressive upstart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in response to a question from Meghan McCain.
The headline of a recent New York Times article about Harris encapsulated her candidacy nicely: “Kamala Harris Is Hard To Define Politically. Maybe That’s The Point.”
Harris, as the article notes, has built a liberal record in her short time in the Senate, and has earned praise for her aggressive questioning of Trump appointees in Senate hearings. But criminal justice advocates view her law enforcement record with some suspicion. The Times described a recent Harris talk at New York’s 92nd Street Y as a “broad, biography-heavy message” that set itself apart from the sharply ideological tone that Warren, Sanders and other progressive candidates have taken.
Harris has long been courting donors, and she has no shortage of access to them in California. In a Democratic party being increasingly defined by women and people of color, Harris has established herself as by far the most prominent woman of color in the field. She’s expected to announce the launch of a campaign imminently — perhaps as soon as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
That said: Her stock is where it is based on assumptions about her upside — not because of her current standing in the polls, where she’s been stuck in the single digits.
PredictIt stock: 17 percent
After contemplating a late entry into the 2016 race and then deciding against it in the wake of his son Beau’s death, the two-term Vice President is said to be close to deciding to jump into the race. Biden’s brother, Frank, made waves last week when he said the Biden family would be on board with an entry into the race. (Frank Biden also said members of the Biden family in Pennsylvania had voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
Biden is a serious candidate for several reasons. His favorability ratings among Democrats are through the roof, both nationally and in Iowa. He’s leading most national and early-state primary polls, sometimes by wide margins. Though polls this far out from the start of the primary season don’t have great predictive value, they’re not worthless, either. For all the talk about Trump’s surprise emergence in the spring of 2015, each of the past two presidential election cycles have featured at least one candidate — Mitt Romney on the GOP side in 2012 and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side in 2016 — who led most primary polls a year before the first votes were cast and went on to win his or her party’s nomination with relative ease.
Yet Biden is up against some significant hurdles. He’ll be 78 on inauguration day in 2021. He’s an old white man in a party whose energy is behind women, people of color and generational change. Last but not least: He’s a career politician who’s been a Washington fixture for almost 50 years, accumulating a ton of baggage that could be a drag on his popularity once he faces greater scrutiny and becomes a target of his fellow Democrats.
The Contenders: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar & Sherrod Brown
PredictIt stock: 12 percent
In each of the past three presidential election cycles, a candidate who had finished second or third in his or her party’s nominating contest in the previous cycle went on to win his or her party’s nomination. (John McCain won the 2008 GOP nomination after finishing second in delegates in 2000, Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination in 2012 after finishing third in 2008, and Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 2016 after finishing second in 2008.) So Sanders, who emerged as a progressive champion during his 2016 race against Clinton, starts the 2020 cycle in position to make some noise if he chooses to run. He’s been in the top tier of virtually every national and state poll, and he’s led some of them, including a recent poll in New Hampshire.
Yet there are plenty of reasons to be bearish on Sanders’ chances. Winning the nomination would require Sanders growing his base of support. Yet this time around, he’ll have to fend off a number of strong candidates just to retain the voters who supported him in 2016. (Warren, for one, is aggressively going after progressive voters who supported Sanders last time around, especially in New Hampshire, where both she and Sanders have regional appeal as candidates from neighboring states.) Sanders is also facing accusations that his 2016 campaign featured rampant sexual harassment and gender discrimination, prompting him to apologize to women who were mistreated during the campaign.
PredictIt stock: 11 percent
The case against Warren’s chances is pretty straightforward: Her polling numbers are abysmal for someone who’s extremely well known, and her electoral performance in Massachusetts has been underwhelming given that the Bay State is one of the bluest in the nation. The case for her, though, isn’t hard to make. As Fivethirtyeight’s Nathaniel Rakich wrote in the site’s piece on how Warren could win: Warren is a good ideological fit for the party and may be well-equipped to appeal to voters on the left while also having appeal to the party establishment.
Fivethirtyeight’s Nate Silver had a similar take when Warren announced her candidacy on New Year’s Eve:
PredictIt stock: 9 percent
Like most of the other people in the “contenders” grouping, Booker is polling in the single digits nationally and in early-voting states. Though he’s had a high profile dating back to his tenure as mayor of Newark, he’s not extremely well-known nationally. He’s also been deemed too Wall Street-friendly by some on the left. On the plus side, he has a track record of appealing to non-white voters — and of building a national following. He has more than 4 million Twitter followers — far more than anyone else in the field except for Sanders.
PredictIt stock: 8 percent
Klobuchar may be one of a handful of candidates who isn’t many voters’ first choice, but who may be broadly acceptable to different coalitions within the party. She’s not very well-known outside of her home state of Minnesota. Her main appeal: She’s one of the most popular politicians in the country with her own constituents, having won a landslide re-election victory in 2018, and she hails from a Midwestern state that Hillary Clinton barely carried in 2016. Like Booker and Harris, Klobuchar is on the Senate Judiciary committee, meaning we’ll see a lot of her on TV this week during the confirmation hearings for William Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general.
PredictIt stock: 7 percent
Gillibrand has consistently polled in the low single digits, and there’s not anything resembling a grass-roots movement in favor of her candidacy. Assuming she runs, she’ll have to answer questions about her transformation from being a moderate, pro-gun-rights congresswoman from the Albany area to being one of the most liberal senators in the country. That said: Her current issue stances are in line with the ideological momentum of the party, and her campaign launch appears imminent. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe reported that she’s expected to announce on Tuesday that she’s forming an exploratory committee. Her political organization has been staffing up in advance of an expected campaign launch, and she’s rented a massive amount of office space in Troy, New York, an Albany suburb where her campaign is expected to be headquartered.
PredictIt stock: 7 percent
Brown has long been the subject of presidential speculation given his potential appeal to the voters who defected from the Democratic coalition in 2016 and voted for Trump. A liberal populist from Ohio who’s been critical of trade deals, Brown was elected in 2018 to his third term. Ohio swung sharply to the right in 2016, and most analysts view it as moving toward becoming a safe red seat in presidential elections. It’s not clear that Brown would be favored to carry Ohio if he were the nominee. But it’s not hard to envision him running a Midwest-based strategy that gets him close in Ohio and allows him to carry Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — the three states that cost Hillary Clinton the election. Brown has sent fewer clear signs that he’s running than some of the other potential candidates in the field, but Politico reported recently that he’s planning a trip to Iowa to test the waters.
The Longshots: Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Michael Bloomberg & John Delaney, Among Many Others
The list of people reported to at least be considering a run is exceedingly long, and we’re far enough away from any votes being cast that it’s possible a candidate will emerge who isn’t yet on our radar at all. It’s also possible that one of the longshots listed here will have a surprising breakthrough.
Some of the candidates listed here are longshots at PredictIt. If you think Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut is a good bet to be the nominee, you should buy now. He’s trading at 1 percent. If you think Hillary Clinton is going to swoop in during a brokered convention and secure the nomination, you can buy now at 2 percent.
Two of them — Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former HUD secretary Julian Castro — aren’t even listed, despite that Castro has formally launched his campaign and Gabbard told CNN’s Van Jones that she’s running and will soon make a formal announcement. Ditto Washington governor Jay Inslee, who’s said he’s mulling a bid with climate change as his signature issue. Representative John Deaney of Maryland, who announced he was running way back in 2017, is included as an option, but he’s hardly gained steam during his time as a candidate. He’s trading at 1 percent and hasn’t budged from that price.
The following potential candidates are listed as longshot options at PredictIt:
- Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg: 4 percent
- Oprah Winfrey: 2 percent
- Hillary Clinton: 2 percent
- New York governor Andrew Cuomo: 1 percent
- Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: 1 percent
- Virginia senator and 2016 VP nominee Tim Kaine: 1 percent
- Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: 1 percent
- Former California governor Jerry Brown: 1 percent
- Connecticut senator Chris Murphy: 1 percent
- Maryland congressman John Delaney: 1 percent