Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. Sen. Kamala Harris.
Every day, it seems, another candidate enters the Democratic race. Every week, there’s a new poll, most showing former Vice President Joe Biden as the party’s early presidential leader.
The highly respected Cook Political Report even put out its first estimate of the 2020 Electoral College map, showing the Democrats with 232, the Republicans with 220 and the remaining 86 as tossups.
But with all due deference to my old friend Charlie Cook, stop already!
There is no way to have any real idea at this early date who will be the Democratic nominee, let alone how the electoral votes will likely end up. (Well, not totally true, the Democrats will win DC’s 3, the Republicans Wyoming’s 3, and a few others are predictable!) But not even President Donald Trump’s renomination is certain now, given the plethora of investigations and the potentiality of impeachment.
So let’s look at 2020 by raising some questions that will be answered over the next two years.
■ Who are the most important Democratic players?
Former Vice President Joe Biden, because he starts with the most support. Whether he can keep it -- or add to it -- will be one of the campaign’s major questions, assuming he runs.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Warren and Harris. Democratic primaries in 2018 showed a strong bias for female candidates; at least one is likely to emerge as a major player.
Sens. Harris and Cory Booker, and former HUD Secretary Castro. One problem Hillary Clinton encountered in the general election was insufficient enthusiasm from minority voters, especially African-Americans. Expect strong pressure for at least one non-white candidate on the 2020 Democratic ticket.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. He displayed strong initial support without lifting a finger because he fits the desire of many Democrats for a new face. If he runs, a big question will be: Can he meet what have already become outsized expectations?
Sen. Bernie Sanders. He was the runner-up in 2016, and many analysts believe the 77-year-old Vermont independent’s day has passed. But latent Sanders strength could diminish progressive support for Warren.
A potential wild card. Democrats love shiny new objects. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg? Washington Gov. Jay Inslee? California Rep. Eric Swalwell? Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu? Name your choice! Could an O’Rourke candidacy prevent some other wild card from emerging?
■ What will be the defining events?
The first debates. Given the big field, any candidates the media acclaims as winners will likely get a boost in money and the polls. One challenge: Sustaining the enthusiasm in future debates. No candidate will likely dominate the debates like Donald Trump did for the Republican Party in 2016.
The money primary. The compacted primary calendar requires a substantial bankroll, and candidates who raise the most will inevitably be acclaimed as major players. But former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 collapse shows that fundraising prowess has limits as a predictor.
National polls. Not now, but at the end of 2019. In many past cases, the candidate who led his party’s national polls on the brink of the election year proved to be its ultimate nominee.
The Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Sorry, California, but with a big field, those first two tests will almost certainly winnow the pack, as in the past. Strong Iowa showings could be vital, especially with New Englanders Warren and Sanders the early New Hampshire favorites. But beware of early state polling: Iowa has a history of big changes in the final pre-caucus weeks.
A factoid to remember: Iowa caucus winners (Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton) have won the last four contested Democratic primaries.
■ When might the race clarify?
Surely after the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries in nine states, including California, Texas, Massachusetts and Virginia, and maybe sooner. Any candidate who isn’t in the top two or three after Super Tuesday is likely out of the running.
And if one candidate wins two or three of the first four tests -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- the remaining primaries may ratify the choice.
■ What about Trump’s second term prospects?
Questionable, at this stage. Trump won the narrowest possible electoral vote victory in 2016, despite polling 3 million fewer popular votes. Since then, he has made no effort to broaden his support, and his job approval has never approached 50 percent, hovering mainly between the upper 30s and low 40s.
While no predictor, the Democrats’ 2018 congressional victory was unusually large, and support for Republicans closely mirrored Trump’s approval numbers. Of course, Democrats could again nominate an unacceptable candidate. And an independent like former Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz could drain off enough anti-Trump moderates to help re-elect the president.
Carl P. Leubsdorf
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. -- Ed.
(The Dallas Morning News/Tribune Content Agency)