The 2020 Democratic Presidential Contenders: Invisible Primary Edition

The Democratic presidential primary is pretty damn interesting, since the polling front-runners are two men in their late 70s who might not run, four other Senators who are seen as top-tier contenders are struggling in the single digits, and the current excitement seems to be about Beto. Without knowing who’s going to run we don’t really know what openings there will be, or who will benefit from split votes.

Here are my premature thoughts on this topic. This considers how well I think they’d do as President (IE- whether I would personally vote for them over Trump), as well as political considerations in the primaries and general elections. An overall caveat is that the only way for some of the more obscure candidates to shine would be by demonstrating political talent, although someone obscure might win the primaries by pandering to the base in a way that hurts their general election odds.

I’ve split potential candidates into several categories.

The Ones To Bet On…

Joe Biden- He may be the right man for the time, largely for circumstances beyond his control. If 2020 is a referendum on outsiders, it can pay to be an insider, especially one who has remained respected even after holding a high profile for over a decade (with six terms in the Senate before that). He should be effective in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Trump really has no shot without those.

Beto O’Rourke- Best positioned for the Democrats who want to continue with the excitement of 2018. The party’s wins in the other legislative races in Texas make up for losing the state as far as his reputation should be concerned. With a few terms in Congress and the next two years as a national figure, he probably meets the bare minimum threshold for national experience.

The Paper Tigers…

Cory Booker- Not terrible, but largely generic. The Wall Street ties may be a problem in the primary, and he seems like a less impressive Obama, without a telegenic family, and without representing a significant and inspirational first. He also hasn’t acquitted himself especially well on the national stage (witness his lame ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.)

Kirsten Gilibrand- A blue dog congresswoman who became a very liberal Senator the moment her constituency changed can be painted as shameless. She seems to be trying too hard to impress the intersectional left.

Kamala Harris- Hasn’t been that impressive as a Senator. Has a lot of sound bites with limited substance/ general election appeal (IE- asking the head of ICE if he’s aware that some communities see the organization as the equivalent of the KKK.) She may be the likeliest in this group to get the nomination due to California’s early primary, and the milestone the first female President would represent.

Bernie Sanders- He’s not polling all that well for a runner-up who should have high name recognition, and is seen as the leader of a major movement. He’ll be 79 on Election Day, and has alienated much of the party.

Elizabeth Warren- Very well-positioned (a progressive with ties to the establishment, Senator from the big state next to the nation’s first primary, A woman at a time when there’s a desire to finally have a female President, expert on economic anxiety at a time of it) to run for President. Has not been that impressive as a politician. See the DNA test fiasco, as well as her reelection results (she got the same percentage of the vote as Klobuchar).

Obscure/ Tough Road But High Potential…

These are candidates I could see myself voting for in a general election, but who will have a tough time making it through the primary.

Mike Bloomberg- A former Republican in his late 70s will be a tough sell in the primaries. I’m not sure he’ll do that well in the rust belt/ sun belt in the general election. His accomplishments as a businessman and mayor have been impressive, and he could buy a lot of top-tier consultants/ support.

Sherrod Brown- A swing state Senator could be strong in the general election, but he would have to break through the pack.

Steve Bullock- A small-state Western Governor will have a tough time emerging from the primary, but can be a strong contender in the general election and have any easy time making it a referendum on Trump, rather than on national Democrats.

Amy Klobuchar- Very popular in her home state. Strong appeal in key regions of the country. Would represent a major first (first female President) without any serious baggage.

Mitch Landrieu- I’ve been impressed by what I’ve heard, and he has a potential story as a popular executive who helped his city recover from Hurricane Katrina. Not sure how he gets others on his side.

I Don’t See It…

Joaquin Castro- Has probably been overshadowed by Beto. Limited relevant electoral success. His experience is exaggerated (it seems the mayor of San Antonio has limited power compared to the city manager.)

John Delaney- His congressional tenure wasn’t impressive, and his business career suggests potential pitfalls.

Tulsi Gabbard- Can be young and exciting, but way too friendly with dictators in the current environment.

Eric Garcetti- Not sure how he stands out, especially with the rural focus of early primaries.

Eric Holder- Seems to be a less effective communicator than Obama, without any proven campaign experience and no foreign policy chops.

John Hickenlooper- Seemed to be an okay but not great Governor, who hasn’t really performed that well for his state. His family life isn’t ideal (he’s a divorced elderly man who just got married to a much younger woman.)

Jay Inslee- I don’t see how he emerges from the pack.

Terry McAuliffe- This does not seem to be a cycle for a middle-aged white guy who happens to be a former DNC Chairman. The reevaluation of Bill Clinton’s personal failings is also not going to reflect well on one of his top fundraisers.

Chris Murphy- Generic younger Senator. Seems overshadowed by Beto.

Richard Ojeda- He’s a state senator who lost a bid for Congress by more than ten points. He might have a shot at winning his state primary, but his decision to run is probably harmful to his party.

Deval Patrick- He couldn’t get fifty percent of the vote running for reelection in Massachusetts (he won thanks to an independent splitting the vote) so the decision not to run was a smart one.

Tim Ryan- There are probably better blue-collar candidates among statewide officeholders. Challenging Pelosi from the right is also not going to win a Democratic primary.

Howard Schultz- Democrats don’t really seem to be as impressed by business types, and the CEO of Starbucks seems to invite too many culture wars (not only left VS right, but mom and pop VS corporation.)

Tom Steyer- A political outsider without the fame of Trump.

Eric Swallwell- Hasn’t been that impressive as a Congressman. His biggest news item has been a gaffe about how the government can use nukes if there is opposition to gun control.

Jeff Merkley- Even if Sanders doesn’t run, he’ll have a hard time standing out.

It’s a big crowd, but it would be a mistake to settle on a favorite now. It’s better if weaknesses emerge under the high scrutiny of a competitive primary.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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