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Ranking the Top Democratic Presidential Candidates for 2020

Nicole Duran, Senior Editor, The Kiplinger Letter

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The 2020 Democratic presidential nominating contest is attracting unprecedented interest, as it's the first in decades to be 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're ranking the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, updating our list as hopefuls drop out and primary season lifts some and crushes others. Take a look.

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#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 76-year-old former Delaware senator top the ticket two years from now. Biden says his decision, which will come by February, depends on whether he and his family are "ready" for another grueling campaign. But he sure sounds like a candidate, recently saying: "I'm the most qualified person in the country to be president." Should the Pennsylvania native seek the presidency for the third time, 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.

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.

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#2 Sen. Bernie Sanders

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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 he has proven he can attract the type of voter that shunned Clinton and backed 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.

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#3 Beto O'Rourke

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The former three-term Texas congressman from El Paso didn't even make our initial list in August. But after his high-profile attempt to unseat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz garnered him national headlines and the adoration of Democrats across the country, the 46-year-old entered our list at #3.

O'Rourke shattered fundraising records in what officially became the most expensive Senate contest ever weeks before Election Day. He raised $38 million in the third quarter, breezing past the old $22 million record ($31 million in today's dollars) set in 2000. And he did so eschewing corporate and labor political action committee dollars.

He amassed a national donor base and list in under two years and built a loyal army of volunteers from both inside and outside the Lone Star State that would happily help march him to the Democratic nomination. Party honchos have taken note. Some, such as outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, dismiss him as the flavor of the day: "You don't promote a loser to the top of the party," Emanuel said of O'Rourke. Others think he's exactly the kind of fresh face and novel campaigner the party needs. O'Rourke, who gave up his House seat to run for Senate, did lose to Cruz. But, amid record turnout, he came closer to winning a statewide race in Texas than any Democrat in a generation has.

Several of the party's biggest donors are sold. They were unwilling to commit to most of the names on this list, preferring to see if one really breaks away from the massive herd, but said they will fund O'Rourke if he throws his hat in the ring. Now that he has, how quickly they do, or don't, follow through will be a big early indication of whether he can transform his Senate run "it" factor into a top-tier national campaign.

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#4 Gov. Jay Inslee

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The two-term Washington governor 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 veteran U.S. House member as a liberal.

As president of the Democratic Governors Association, Inslee crisscrossed the country in 2018 -- including stops in Iowa and New Hampshire -- to promote his current and would-be colleagues and to talk up his ideas for combatting climate change. Democrats' gain of seven governors' mansions on his watch has raised his national profile and earned him bragging rights.

His long tenure in the House and time in the governor's mansion give the 68-year-old gravitas that most hopefuls vying for the progressive vote cannot match. Although he is quite liberal, his experience has led him to advocate practical approaches to combating greenhouse-gas emmissions. Now that he is seeking the nomination, we move him up to #4.

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#5 Gov. John Hickenlooper

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The two-term Colorado governor is running. He traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire in the past year. Now that he's in, the Hawkeye and Granite states will undoubtedly see more of him. The one-time Denver mayor's initial strengths are having twice won statewide in a "purple" state and being a moderate who doesn't hail from the coasts or a traditionally Democratic state.

With announcements from Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and billionaire Michael Bloomberg that both men are taking a pass, and with Biden not officially in the race, there's room for a moderate candidate to move up in the pack. We think that person could be Hickenlooper, so we move him into the #5 spot formerly occupied by Brown.

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#6 Sen. Cory Booker

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The 49-year-old Rhodes scholar and former Stanford football player made it official Feb. 1. Like all other serious potential contenders, he helped Democratic candidates in the lead-up. He distributed $485,000 through his PAC for the 2018 cycle -- the second most of anyone on this list.

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.

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#7 Sen. Amy Klobuchar

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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 Minnesota's senior senator, Amy Klobuchar. She 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 reach across the aisle could be big assets if Democrats opt for the centrist route in 2020.

She just won a third term with 60% of the Gopher State's vote. She has a very active political action committee (PAC) and hails from a state that borders Iowa, making early-state campaigning easier for her than most.

We drop this hard-working lawmaker and former prosecutor to the #7 spot after credible allegations that she's an abusive boss became public. The not-so-secret fact around Capitol hallways that she's a difficult employer quickly emerged after she officially entered the race. The stories are damaging because her "Minnesota nice" was considered one of her best attributes. Talk among Democratic operatives is that her reputation is making it difficult for her to attract top talent to her campaign staff.

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#8 Sen. Elizabeth Warren

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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.

While cruising to reelection as Massachusetts' senior senator in 2018, she amassed a large campaign war chest that can be transferred to her presidential account. Her PAC was also one of the most active on behalf of other candidates. She had doled out $284,441 in 2018's two-year cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

However, her stock has been dropping since she bungled an announcement that was supposed to put to bed an old controversy about her claims of Native American heritage. Instead, she not only looked foolish, but dishonest. And her subsequent "clarifications" have only kept the controversy in the headlines. Her hometown paper has called on her to stand down. The Boston Globe said that Warren "missed her moment" by not seeking the nomination in 2016. Bookmakers, who dropped her odds to 12-to-1, are unimpressed with the tortured rollout of her campaign. Given she's drawn mostly negative headlines recently, they haven't boosted her chances.

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#9 Sen. Kamala Harris

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California Sen. Harris was liberal Democrats' pet politician before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez burst onto the national scene in July. However, since the 29-year-old political novice won't be old enough to run for president in 2020, 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 O'Rourke (who wasn't even on those parlors' boards initially), at 5-to-1. Biden and Sanders, tied at 10-to-1, now trail O'Rourke and Harris. 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.

In office just two years, with $410,000 she heads the third-most-generous PAC and busied herself last cycle endorsing candidates up and down ballots across the country.

Harris faced her first real test of whether she's presidential material before she officially announced. The state of California had to settle a harassment suit brought shortly before she left office against one of her top deputies when she was attorney general for $400,000. He was a California-based senior adviser to her until news of the settlement broke. Critics are accusing Harris, who said that she didn't know about the payment or complaint, of hypocrisy. She has been a leading advocate of the #MeToo movement.

But so far feminists, the party and the media have given her a pass. Only the Sacramento Bee newspaper has demanded more answers from her, unlike every other major politician who has recently found themselves in a similar circumstance. The Bee's board implied that she's not ready for prime time.

"This is hardly a propitious beginning to a presidential candidacy," the paper chided.

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#10 Gov. Steve Bullock

Courtesy National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons.

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 secured 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 chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association, Bullock's national profile is on the rise. 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.

He's testing the waters. He's visited Iowa a handful of times already, including hitting the state fair -- a can't-miss event for anyone serious about running for president. He also made his way to New Hampshire last summer. Such heavy travel to the first two states on the presidential nominating calendar doesn't go unnoticed.

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#11 John Delaney

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Former 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 20 times -- hitting all 99 counties already -- and New Hampshire a dozen since declaring his candidacy in July 2017. He also has field offices and campaign workers in both states. A poll showing his name recognition among Hawkeye state Democrats at a whopping 79 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 gave up his day job. He did not seek a fourth term in November.

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#12 Terry McAuliffe

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The former Virginia governor's résumé is second only to Biden's in terms of breadth. He was instrumental in President 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 being a former chief executive of a swing state. His ties to the Clintons could cut both ways, however.

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#13 Sen. Kristen Gillibrand

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For all the talk about the Democratic Party's need to get beyond the coasts, there sure are a lot of New Yorkers on these early lists, and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand must be considered first of equals potentially vying from the Empire State.

First appointed to the Senate from the House in 2009 to replace Hillary 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 Clinton allies, who still hold tremendous sway in the party.

At $538,000 last cycle, she was the most generous PAC donor to other candidates of the potential 2020 contenders.

#14 Rep. Tim Ryan

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Ohio Rep. Ryan has already 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.

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Other Names to Watch (And to Forget About)

The longest shots: Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet is heading to Iowa to test the waters. Julian Castro, who was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama as well as also mayor of San Antonio, is officially running, as are Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. But we don't see them registering. California Rep. Eric Swalwell is also thinking of getting in, but he would be a very long shot.

"Dream on" candidates: Many Democrats would like to see Michelle Obama run. But her husband's last days in office couldn't come fast enough for the former first lady. She's content speaking out and touring the country promoting her book, causes and candidates.

Americans love the idea of an Oprah Winfrey candidacy, but she has made clear that while she is happy to stump for certain candidates, she has no interest in becoming one herself. And finally, the young Democratic voters and activists who are trying to promote Rep. Ocasio-Cortez of New York need to read the Constitution. Again: she won't be old enough to take office until 2024.

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Copyright 2018-2019 The Kiplinger Washington Editors