Politics

The March Democratic Power Rankings

It's Bernie's world and the other Democrats are just living in it.
March 7, 2019
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(Art Hannah Yoest, photo Getty Images)

As the Democratic field continues to grow, it’s time to revisit our Power Rankings. When last we checked in, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke were at the top of my list.

Let’s see how things have developed since then . . .


(1) Bernie Sanders. I had him in the top spot before he announced and I’m even more comfortable with him there now that he’s in the field.

Sanders officially declared he was running on February 15. Twenty-four hours later his campaign had raised $6 million from 225,000 small donors. In less than a week, his haul crossed over the $10 million mark from 359,914 donors. He held his first campaign event in Brooklyn, on March 2, in the snow—and 13,000 people showed up.

This is what it looks like when voters are genuinely excited about a movement. Go ahead and look at the pictures—the costumes, the snowmen, the volunteers breaking their backs to shovel the grounds for the rally.

If you could buy this kind of energy, Jeb Bush would be president.

All of which answers our first question about Sanders: Would his movement and his list still be live propositions? Yes. He’s raising money, turning out people to events, and leading basically all polls of declared candidates.

But there’s even more good news for Sanders in the rest of the field. He has two direct competitors in his lane of the primary: Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren.

Beto hasn’t jumped yet. (More on this in a second.) And Warren is in trouble. (More on this later, too.)

And if you want one more data point on how strong a position Sanders is in, have a look at the size of his post-announcement polling bump compared to other candidates and the fact that he very conspicuously just signed a “loyalty pledge” to the Democratic party. (Remember the last time an outsider candidate was forced to do that?)

But what about the non-data driven aspects of Sanders’ candidacy? I think they’re awfully strong, too.

For starters, he has a reason to run. He has a vision for America and a platform that is different and new and entirely independent of Donald Trump. You may not like why Bernie Sanders is running for president, but he knows why he’s doing it. He can communicate why he’s doing it. And no one else in the Democratic field is going to sell exactly the same proposition he’s selling.

Finally, Sanders has one advantage compared to everyone else in the field (with the exception of Biden)—his downsides are baked in. He was vetted pretty thoroughly four years ago. His bombshells—he’s a socialist with proposals that are literally impossible!—aren’t hidden. They’re his platform.

I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that Bernie is the prohibitive favorite. Not yet. But I think he should be considered a very real favorite. If anything, I’d say his stock is undervalued right now.

(2) Beto O’Rourke. When O’Rourke said that he wouldn’t challenge John Cornyn for the other Texas Senate seat in 2020, it was a sign that he was inching closer to making a run at the White House.

Although he’s polling at 5 percent right now, Beto is the only other guy in the field who has obvious juice with Democratic voters. The minute he jumps in (if he jumps in) he goes directly from being a candidate to being a cause. It’ll be another children’s crusade and the starkest generational choice offered in a presidential election maybe ever. Beto versus Trump makes Obama-McCain and Clinton-Bush look tame.

And then there’s this: Beto is a blank slate. If he plays his cards right, he will allow Dems from every lane to project their hopes and aspirations onto his candidacy. And because of his lack of experience, he’s pretty much the only guy in the field who can do that.

But the reason I’ve moved Beto up a slot isn’t so much what he’s done right as what Kamala Harris has done wrong.

(3) Kamala Harris. She’s the candidate with everything: Money, demographics, a favorable primary schedule, and a winning smile.

There’s only one thing Harris doesn’t have: A compelling rationale for why she’s running for president.

That’s not fatal. And her core strengths are so great that I think Harris is destined to be part of the Final Four, no matter what. And maybe she knows why she’s running for president, but she just hasn’t been able to articulate it yet.

Surely, there’s a tremendous amount of good will among Democrats for her. They want to believe.

But the top tier in this field all have instantly definable sales-pitches.

Bernie: Socialiasm!

Beto: Generational Change!

Biden: Make America Normal Again!

Sherrod: Blue Collar Workers!

Warren: Fight the corporations!

What is Kamala Harris’s pitch except that she’s smart and ambitious and normal-ish (for a politician) and wants to be president?

(4) Joe Biden. I’ve decided that if Joe Biden runs his slogan should be “Make America Great Again,” and he should put it on blue hats and just troll the MAGA types out of their ever-loving minds.

He’s still pretty robust in the polls, which is partly an artifact of name ID, but is also kind of impressive since he hasn’t been on a ballot since 2012. His existential question is: Has the Democratic party moved on ideologically from where he lives?

I think this is a closer call that it might seem. Certainly the party is in the process of moving on. But is it far gone enough that Biden couldn’t win one last race by pitching himself explicitly as a return to normalcy?

I don’t know about that.

Think about this way: The Biden proposition is unlike anything else in the field. He’s not forward looking, with the promise of a new future. He’s backward looking to what he will claim was a better, very-recent past. He is an explicit referendum on Trump. He eschews the generational argument and instead essentially says to voters, “Who wants to hit the reset button? Raise your hands.”

And part of this offer is an implicit deal for a one-term presidency. (Biden’s choice of VP would be incredibly germane because he will essentially be designating a successor for 2024.)

In that way, I would argue that Biden is as close to a “national unity” candidate as we can have in a two-party system.

Maybe Democratic voters won’t want that. But no one else will be selling it and if he runs he’ll have that lane all to himself.

(5) Cory Booker. Someone will have a chance to ride a wave of support from African-American voters. Why not Booker? He won’t have the institutional support Harris will, but he has a rationale: He’s the problem solver.

He’s also the guy in the second tier waiting to break into the bigs.

(6) Sherrod Brown. At this point, Brown’s entire campaign depends on what Biden decides to do. If Biden gets in, Brown gets snuffed out. There’s no real lane for him. If Biden passes . . .

A bunch of people will have their tickets punched out of Iowa. Brown could do well there in a Biden-less field. But it’s not clear where he goes after that. He has to wait around through New Hampshire and California and South Carolina and not run out of money before the race gets to the industrial north in March of 2020. Hard to see that happening.

(7) Pete Buttigieg. No, really. At some point an outsider is likely to make a leap from the second-tier into the top tier. And with Mike Bloomberg now out, why couldn’t it be Mayor Pete? (I refuse to attempt to type—or pronounce—his last name.) Millennial, gay, veteran, and progressive.

But he’s more like a progressive Mitt Romney looking to find solutions than a progressive warrior looking to make wild-eyed promises.

My one crazy prediction is that at some point, Pete is going to get a real look. (Especially if Beto doesn’t run.)

(8) Elizabeth Warren. Believe it or not, her campaign might be over already.

A recent Emerson poll had her at 7 percent in New Hampshire—a state she’s supposed to be able to take for granted. Worse: 13 percent of New Hampshire Dems say they won’t vote for her under any circumstances. (That’s the highest number in the field.)

The Native American stuff won’t seem to go away. (Maybe that’s fair and maybe it isn’t, but it’s real.) And her nearest competitor, ideologically speaking, is Bernie, who is going gangbusters.

I’m not ready to say that Warren is finished, but if she were a stock, I’d sell.

(9) Kirsten Gillibrand. In the same way that someone might succeed in winning a big percentage of African-American votes, someone could succeed in winning a big percentage of suburban women and catch fire and maybe that could be Gillibrand?

But realistically, that’s her only play at this point. The question is whether or not she goes kamikaze on the rest of the field at the debates which would—if we’re being honest here—be pretty awesome to watch.

(10) Amy Klobuchar. It’s not the crime that kills you, it’s the coverup.

When Klobuchar was revealed to be a Very Bad Boss, she had three options: (1) Deny; (2) Admit, apologize, and reform; or (3) Play the feminism card.

She went with Door No. 3 and that was a mistake. You know what’s not a great idea? To insist that being a woman is just part and parcel of being a terrible human being.

As the great Caitlin Flanagan writes, “Don’t sell cruelty and pathological behavior as a feminist victory.”

She’s toast.

The Rest: There are a lot of people running for reasons that don’t have to do with becoming the Democratic nominee in 2020. And that’s great! They have issues they want to push or are trying to position themselves as possible VPs. John Hickenlooper, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, John Delaney, and Andrew Yang don’t need to be ranked at this point. But they’re already in the show.

And even with 16 declared candidates already, I suspect the field is going to get even bigger before it starts shrinking.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.