The 2020 Democratic presidential nominating contest is attracting unprecedented interest, as it's the first in decades that is truly wide open. Although there are more than 40 politicians, businessmen and celebrities weighing a bid, former Vice President Joe Biden is the only one for whom virtually all other candidates would step aside. And this far out, it's impossible to know whether there's another Barack Obama hiding in the mix, ready to catch fire and snatch the nomination from the heir apparent.
We'll be ranking the top 21 contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, updating our list after the 2018 midterm elections in November and as primary season ramps up in 2019. For now, only three potential candidates stand out enough to rank. Name recognition for everyone else is scant, which is why the remaining 18 names here are listed alphabetically for now.
1. Joe Biden
The former vice president tops most early polls of Democratic voters, but that's as much a result of being in the public eye for nearly 45 years as it is a measure of true desire to see the 75-year-old former Delaware senator top the ticket two years from now. But should the Pennsylvania native seek the presidency for a third time -- he said he'd decide by January -- he'd be the clear front-runner. Many Democrats, particularly Obama loyalists and party veterans, wanted Biden to challenge former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. He could quickly assemble a top team of consultants and advisers and lock in some of the party's biggest donors. He'd also have access to Obama's campaign mailing list and be able to tap the organization that their 2008 and 2012 campaigns built.
Biden has headlined countless fundraisers for Democratic candidates during his career and plans to hit the circuit again this fall. He has an extensive, influential alumni network, both from his 36 years in the Senate and eight years in the Obama administration. Finally, most politicos and Biden supporters think President Trump meant exactly the opposite when he recently claimed that Biden is the would-be nominee he'd most like to draw as an opponent.
For all those reasons, we think he leads the pack at this early stage. Not too far behind Biden is another septuagenarian presidential campaign veteran.
2. Sen. Bernie Sanders
The Vermont lawmaker's donor and volunteer bases are fresher than Biden's, and haven't really disbanded since his 2016 loss to Clinton. He remains popular with young voters and the liberal activists seeking to shift the Democratic Party to the left. Sanders inspired many of this year's first-time candidates to seek office, most of whom embrace his socialist-leaning platform.
One of Sanders' biggest strengths is that the self-described socialist has proven he can attract the type of voter that shunned Clinton and backed President Trump: white working-class men. Overall, 12% of Sanders' supporters defected to Trump on Election Day. They provided enough votes in key states that, had they voted Democratic or even just stayed home, Clinton would have won.
3. Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Warren, like Sanders, is a darling of the party's progressive wing. The 69-year-old's fierce criticism of Wall Street and big banks has made her that industry's No. 1 enemy. Her role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- it was the then-Harvard professor's brainchild -- particularly irks the industry. She continues to solicit donations via her own lists for other candidates up and down the ballot even as she faces reelection in Massachusetts this fall. She's considered a shoo-in for a second term but is amassing a large campaign war chest that could be transferred to a presidential account if she decides to run. Her political action committee (PAC) is also one of the most active on behalf of other candidates. As of July 23, she had doled out $275,000 this two-year cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Sen. Cory Booker
The junior senator from New Jersey has long been pegged as an up-and-comer with presidential potential. He earned a national profile while serving as Newark's mayor for deeds ranging from saving a freezing dog to saving a neighbor from a burning house, sustaining injuries in the process, to shoveling out residents trapped by major snowstorms. During his seven years as mayor, he was featured in two award-winning documentaries. He once challenged an opponent of food stamps to join him in limiting himself to a $30 weekly food budget to prove how meager the benefit is. The 49-year-old Rhodes scholar and former Stanford football player hasn't officially thrown his hat in the ring, but, like all other serious potential contenders, he's helping Democratic candidates. He distributed $292,500 through his PAC as of July 23.
Comparisons to Obama were immediate when Booker came onto the national scene after winning his first mayoral race in 2006. Such comparisons could cut both ways in 2020, when he would also have to decide whether to seek a second term in the Senate.
Sen. Sherrod Brown
Many Democratic operatives believe the road to the White House in 2020 runs through the Midwest. They look at Clinton's surprise losses in Michigan and Wisconsin, which historically vote Democratic in presidential elections, and her inability to win swing states such as Ohio or Pennsylvania, and believe their nominee must come from the heartland if they are to defeat Trump.
Enter Ohio's senior senator, Sherrod Brown. The 65-year-old traditional liberal has said he's not interested, but many believe that if he survives his tough reelection bid in November, he can be talked into making a run. Brown has been in Washington since 1993, when he was a freshman House member, but it's hard to paint the earnest, pro-labor, anti-free trade lawmaker as a swamp creature.
First Brown has to get past veteran Rep. Jim Renacci to win reelection before considering a run at national office. If he blows Renacci out of the water in the Buckeye State, his stock will definitely rise.
The $217,500 that his PAC has doled out to other Democrats this cycle can't hurt if he changes his mind about 2020.
Gov. Steve Bullock
Montana's Bullock is another potential candidate with the kind of profile that many strategists believe a Democrat needs to win in 2020. He's a noncoastal moderate who won reelection while Trump cruised to victory in his state in 2016. (Big Sky Country does have a propensity for choosing moderate Democrats for governor and the U.S. Senate, however.) As the newly elected chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association, Bullock found his national profile was already rising. Throw in a lawsuit against the Trump administration -- Montana is trying to prevent the IRS from dropping a disclosure rule relating to politically active nonprofits -- and his name is sure to make the headlines.
Unlike some would-be contenders, Bullock isn't hiding the fact that he's testing the waters. He'll make his third trip of the year to Iowa later this month to attend the state fair -- a can't-miss event for anyone serious about running for president. Later in the month, he'll visit New Hampshire for the first time. Such heavy travel to the first two states on the presidential nominating calendar doesn't go unnoticed.
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo
The New York governor should be considered a top contender: He's a two-term chief executive from one of the largest states, and son of legendary former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. However, he's under primary pressure from actress Cynthia Nixon, of TV's "Sex and the City" fame, who's running to his left. His trouble with the party's progressive wing shouldn't be taken lightly after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another first-time candidate, bested veteran Rep. Joe Crowley in June's primary for his Queens-based seat.
Nixon is trying to make malfeasance a central theme of her upstart bid. Two members of Cuomo's inner circle have been convicted on corruption charges since March. Even if their taint isn't hurting Cuomo now, such allegations would surely dog him in any presidential run, as would charges of East Coast elitism, given his pedigree and home state.
Mayor Bill de Blasio
De Blasio won a second term as New York City's mayor last year, running on a decidedly progressive platform. He also recently formed a federal PAC to help other progressives and to fund his political travel not related to New York. However, no sitting mayor has ever been elected president. And one hasn't topped a major party's ticket since the War of 1812.
Rep. John Delaney
Maryland Rep. Delaney was the first Democrat to file presidential candidate papers, but he has a long road before becoming the first House member to jump from the lower chamber to the White House since Gerald Ford -- who was never actually elected president, or vice president, for that matter.
But if he falls short, it won't be for a lack of effort. The three-term congressman believes his doggedness will pay off. He's been to Iowa 12 times and New Hampshire 10 since declaring his candidacy last July. He also has fieldworkers in place in both states. A recent poll showing his name recognition among Hawkeye State Democrats topping 50 percent suggests he's doing something right.
He's also willing to put his money where his mouth is. With an estimated net worth of $90 million, he's one of the wealthiest members of Congress. He self-funded much of his first two campaigns and has already shelled out millions from his own pocket on TV ads in the early-voting states. And unlike many of his eventual rivals, he's giving up his day job. He is not seeking a fourth term in November.
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Mayor Eric Garcetti
Despite the disclaimer about mayors, Los Angeles' Garcetti probably has a leg up on de Blasio. Garcetti would be the first Latino to top a ticket. Given the prominence Trump has brought to the immigration issue, many Latinos hope their community will finally vote at, or near, full strength in 2020. November will be a good test of whether that hope is misplaced. According to the Pew Research Center, not even half of eligible Latino voters went to the polls in 2016.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
For all the talk about the Democratic Party's need to get beyond the coasts, New Yorkers dominate these early lists, and Gillibrand would have to be considered first among equals of Empire State contenders.
First appointed to the Senate from the House in 2009 to replace Clinton when she became secretary of state, Gillibrand practically inherited a national spotlight. She's been a major advocate for sexual assault and harassment victims, especially in the military, which has brought her further national attention. However, her denouncements of President Clinton and disgraced former Minn. Sen. Al Franken were more controversial. She became a heroine of the #MeToo movement, but alienated allies of the former first couple, who still hold tremendous sway in the party.
At nearly $400,000 as of July 23, her PAC makes her the most generous donor of all potential 2020 contenders.
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Sen. Kamala Harris
California Sen. Harris was liberal Democrats' flavor of the month before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez burst onto the national scene in July. However, since the 28-year-old political novice hasn't even won a seat in Congress yet, Harris is still the one atop many progressive Democrats' wish list of presidential competitors.
A black freshman senator from a populous state captivates politicos with soaring rhetoric, and immediately talk of presidential mettle begins. Sound familiar? International betting parlors like her chances enough to put her just behind Biden and, at 12-to-1, tied with Warren and Sanders. But at this stage, it's far too early to say whether Harris can break out of the pack and become an Obama-like figure, or if she'll just be another also-ran, or almost-ran.
Harris hasn't committed to running yet. But just 19 months into office, at $353,500 she heads the second-most-generous PAC and is busy endorsing candidates up and down ballots across the country.
Gov. John Hickenlooper
The two-term Colorado governor is weighing a presidential bid. He too has traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire. If he decides to go for it, the one-time Denver mayor's initial strengths will be having twice won statewide in a "purple" state and being a moderate who doesn't hail from the coasts or a traditionally Democratic state.
President Obama's first attorney general is more likely to seek the Democratic nomination than probably half the people on this list. He launched the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in 2017 to fight Republicans' advantage in redistricting -- the decennial process by which all statehouse and U.S. House of Representatives districts are redrawn. In many states, Republicans control the entire process. Both parties, when given the opportunity, draw districts to their advantage, a practice known as political gerrymandering.
The NDRC has Obama's support: The 44th president recently cut an ad for the political nonprofit as it seeks to influence the midterm elections. But Holder's closeness to Obama, which could be an asset in the primary, could be a liability in the general election.
Gov. Jay Inslee
Two-term Washington Gov. Inslee may lead a state that was considered purple not too long ago, but, with his stances on climate change and immigration alone, a GOP opponent could easily paint the former longtime U.S. House member as a liberal.
As president of the Democratic Governors Association, Inslee has been a vocal Trump critic, but he remains little-known outside the Evergreen State. He hasn't said whether he's running for president or reelection in 2020, but he has visited Iowa recently.
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Sen. Amy Klobuchar
The Minnesota senator won an open seat in 2006 -- a banner year for Democrats -- to become the state's first woman senator. She's made a name for herself on Capitol Hill as a no-nonsense, pragmatic straight shooter. Her willingness to work across the aisle, as well as her Midwestern origins, could be big assets if Democrats opt for the centrist route in 2020.
She hasn't said whether she's weighing a bid, and she would not immediately be in the top tier if she does run. She does have a very active PAC, and hailing from a state that borders Iowa makes testing the waters easier for her than most.
The former Virginia governor's résumé is second only to Biden's in terms of breadth. He was instrumental in Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection. He was a rainmaker when he led the Democratic National Committee in the early 2000s, catching the party up to the GOP in the money chase. In 2013, he successfully parlayed those behind-the-scenes roles into an electoral career of his own.
His access to the party's deepest pockets would be a major asset, as would having led a swing state.
Sen. Jeff Merkley
Oregon Sen. Merkley is one of the few names mentioned who has publicly admitted he's weighing a run. The Beaver State's junior senator has made a name for himself by forcefully squaring off with Trump over his administration's controversial policy, now ended, of separating minor children from their illegal immigrant parents at the southern border.
First elected in the 2008 Democratic wave, Merkley would be vying for the support of the party's progressive wing.
Sen. Chris Murphy
The Connecticut senator doesn't plan to run, but that hasn't curbed speculation about his prospects. He's been an outspoken critic of the gun industry and the National Rifle Association since the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy rocked the Constitution State and the country. Murphy is expected to easily win a second term in November. Nonetheless, his PAC is aggressively fund-raising and bestowing donations upon his more vulnerable colleagues.
Along with Biden and Sanders, former Maryland Gov. O'Malley is one of the few on the list who previously sought the Democratic nomination. He couldn't make headway against Clinton and Sanders while Trump sucked up all the oxygen from both primaries. However, many Democrats think he could've beaten Trump. Should Biden decline to run, many of his supporters would likely turn to O'Malley.
Rep. Tim Ryan
Ohio Rep. Ryan recently took a big step toward throwing his hat in the presidential ring: He hired Sanders' 2016 Iowa campaign coordinator. The operative, Pete D'Alessandro, says he joined Ryan's nascent national political team to pay back the eight-term congressman for supporting D'Alessandro in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in Iowa's 3rd Congressional District.
Like Brown, Ryan would benefit from his Buckeye State origins. He's talked frequently since the 2016 election about Democrats' need to reconnect with Rust Belt voters. He's also talked about the House Democratic Caucus's need for new leadership. He sought to replace California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as minority leader in 2016, backed by many younger members who are frustrated by the longevity of the caucus's leadership. He took a shellacking, but his challenge garnered headlines. He says he's not interested in doing that again this year. Perhaps that's because he has his eyes on a bigger prize.
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