An extraordinary alignment of ambition, opportunity and timing is raising the prospect that the Democratic Party in 2020 could have its biggest presidential field in a generation.
A sprawling roster of potential primary candidates is already surveying the political climate and reaching out to campaign consultants in stealthy meetings and calls, according to roughly a half-dozen party operatives familiar with the initial conversations.
At least a dozen senators are widely thought to be in the mix — including Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, California’s Kamala Harris, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, Connecticut’s Chris Murphy, and both Minnesotans, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken. But the depleted bench of Democratic governors is also stocked with possible White House hopefuls, expanding the list of credible presidential prospects to as many as two dozen.
“You say there are 7,000 Democrats who think they’re going to be president? Well 3,500 of them have a good shot at it,” said Democratic strategist Erik Smith, a veteran of multiple presidential campaigns, including Barack Obama’s. “There are so many candidates who have held back over the last 10 years. A lot of them didn’t get into the race because Hillary Clinton was running in 2007, and then a lot stayed out in 2016 because she ran again, so you have a whole generation that’s been waiting in the wings for years. Those calls are definitely happening.”
A handful of the party’s top contenders will be showcased at this week’s upcoming National Governors Association conference in Washington. New York’s Andrew Cuomo is high on the list of expected candidates, Washington’s Jay Inslee has caught operatives’ attention with his strident anti-Trump proclamations in recent months, and both Montana’s Steve Bullock and Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe are also surfacing on long-lists. Colorado’s John Hickenlooper pointedly refused to rule out a run just this week, telling CNN, “There’s going to be a lot of things on the table.”
“They’re all just thinking, ‘I have no idea what the world is going to look like in a year, so instead of methodically plotting out my march to the nomination, all I’m trying to do is be relevant in this environment, not do anything that closes a door on any future, and make sure I can carve out something that I’m known for so that when people ask, ‘where were you,’ you’re ready with an answer,’” said a Democratic campaign veteran who declined to talk about the 2020 race on the record. “Everyone assumes in four years it’s going to be a referendum on [Trump]. But what’s it going to be a referendum on? He’s a liar?”
With repeated trips to Iowa, 2016 candidate Martin O’Malley is another possibility. And unlike many of the other prospects who are playing coy about their intentions while thinking ‘why not me,’ the former Maryland governor has openly admitted his interest in running again. “As for the question of whether I might run for president in 2020, I just might,” he told NBC News in January.
The expansive list also takes into account the growing number of wealthy party donors and activists who are considering whether Trump’s victory is evidence that prior political experience is no longer necessary for a viable presidential bid. That slate includes environmentalist hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer — long expected to mount a gubernatorial bid in California next year — and billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has also refused to shy away from the speculation.
The last time the Democratic field appeared so open — and so bereft of candidates with a claim on the nomination — was 1992, when more than a half-dozen Democrats entered the race to take on President George H.W. Bush.
Since then, the seemingly iron-clad rules of presidential politics have changed dramatically — never more drastically than after Donald Trump’s victory. Now, as potential candidates consider their rationales for running, there’s constant refrain in Democratic circles from Capitol Hill to California: No one expected Obama at this point in 2005 either.
Yet it’s the shadow of Donald Trump, not Obama, that looms largest as the presidential field begins to take shape — the party’s animus toward the president is accelerating the types of pre-presidential conversations that usually would not get started so soon after the last election.
Clinton’s team didn’t begin laying the groundwork for her latest run until late 2013, while Sanders’ team started assembling in 2014. But Trump’s unpopularity has Democratic operatives and potential candidates assuming that their eventual nominee will be the favorite to win in 2020.
Until recently, few Democrats had given any thought at all to 2020 since Clinton’s expected 2016 win was widely thought to seal off any 2020 campaign within the party.
As a result of the vacuum left by Clinton’s defeat, many more Democrats than usual are taking a look at running, calling media consultants, political strategists, and organizing operatives around Washington to sound out ideas for what a campaign starting in just over two years might look like. The early behind-closed-doors moves to court the relatively small group of top-level, battle-tested campaign operatives reflect the widely-held belief that the primary field is likely to be larger than any other in years.
Multiple operatives are already advising ambitious candidates to have a clear message and rationale for running, using the example of Sanders and Trump — and contrasting with Clinton. But so far, the conversations have largely been hypothetical, say Democrats familiar with several of those discussions.
Prospective candidates are mindful of the difficulties inherent in facing a brawler like Trump, but they’re also careful not to project too far into the future with such an unpredictable president in power.
“The biggest mistake people can make four years out — and now more than ever before — is trying to project what the landscape is going to look like and bake in your plan,” said Democratic strategist Dave Hamrick. “How do you extrapolate from this cycle to the next one? I really don’t think you can. And if you say you can, I really think you’re full of it. Is politics as we know it completely and forever changed? Or will there be a regression to the mean?”
Accordingly, with few exceptions, the potential candidates’ public steps toward a White House bid have veered away from the standard script, even as their behind-the-scenes preparations get underway. None but O’Malley has visited Iowa or New Hampshire, and there is little chatter in those states about such potential visits. The traditional process of wooing donors hasn’t even picked up.
“The activist community is so engaged right now that there’s a lot you can do without just going to Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Smith. “Before you had to go to San Francisco to raise money, but maybe now you just have to ask, ‘What’s the top podcast?’”
Absent an obvious roadmap toward the nomination, Democrats are being especially careful not to close any doors amid the uncertainty. They are also sensitive to the perception that Trump’s early stumbles and subpar approval ratings is what spurred them to take a closer look at the race, rather than their own vision.
“What Trump does has no correlation to what I may or may not do. And it’s far too early to guess what impact his election and approach to governing will have on future elections,” said Cuban, who has gone out of his way to needle Trump, publicly toying with the idea of a White House run of his own — including wearing a number 46 jersey to last weekend’s NBA All-Star Celebrity game, in reference to Trump’s status as the 45th president.
But asked if it’s safe to say he’s not sealing off any potential avenues for what comes next, Cuban responded, “Correct.”