Author’s note: This post has been updated in late December 2018 from its original version published prior to the midterms in early November 2018 to include Beto O’Rourke as the #2 seed in the “Washington Dems” region, after his senate loss dramatically increased public appetite for a presidential run.
The intersection of U.S. politics and robust competition reaches its apex for the 2020 Democratic Party race for president. Much like the 2016 Republican field, when 17 candidates attempted and failed to beat Donald Trump to the convention, the 2020 election is sure to provide a plethora of Democratic candidates vying for their party’s nomination.
To make sense of the crowded field and visualize each candidate’s path to the nomination, I’ve created a March Madness-style, fillable 2020 Democratic presidential candidate bracket composed of 32 potential nominees, seeded #1 through #8 across four regions: “Progressives”, “Washington Dems”, “State Execs” and “Celebs”:
The idea is that candidates within the same region can be considered as running in the same lane, competing for the same voter preferences.
The Progressives region consists of eight Democratic senators with presidential ambitions who could claim to represent the left-most wing of the party.
The Washington Dems region contains eight current and former political insiders who, while not always moderate in their political views, provide an alternative to the popular progressive-senator-running-for-president archetype.
The State Execs region takes us to our first “outsider” candidates who don’t have an office in Washington, DC. Four current governors and four former or current mayors make up a region of candidates who can distance themselves from the chaos in Washington while claiming the political experience that candidate Trump didn’t have.
The Celebs region acknowledges the reality that, after Trump, anyone can run for president. These are eight business or media personalities who could follow in Trump’s footsteps.
For an objective count of current popularity, I’ve seeded each candidate according to their Twitter follower count. The more followers, the better the seed.
Using the bracket, there are 65,536 possible ways the primaries could turn out. This assumes, of course, that all of these — and only these — 32 candidates actually run for president. Regardless, we’ll luckily only have to live through this once.
My Bracket and Region-by-Region Notable Matchups
I think that the Democratic Party will end up nominating another white female senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, but not without first a fierce competition against a plethora of tough candidates, including relative dark horse Washington state governor Jay Inslee. Let’s break down my bracket region by region.
Region A: The Progressives
My Final Four pick: New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand
In the powerhouse region of progressive senators that will most likely produce the eventual candidate, the top five seeds stand far and above the competition: #1 Bernie Sanders, #2 Elizabeth Warren, #3 Cory Booker, #4 Kamala Harris, and #5 Kirsten Gillibrand.
Interestingly, the two younger female candidates, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, are pitted against each other as #4 and #5 seeds, respectively, in the most challenging first round matchup of the entire bracket. Junior California senator Harris is undoubtedly under-seeded here; she acts and is treated as the 2020 front-runner by much of the national media, especially given her youth relative to Sanders and Warren and her quick rise to the national scene since elected in 2016, reminding many of another junior senator, from Illinois, elected to the same Senate body in 2004.
That said, I believe that New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s astute political instincts and her ability to “sniff out the direction” of the party will guide her through this tough region. I think her skills will allow her to appear more authentic than her competition, a useful tool in a group that can often be perceived as angry grandstanders.
Region B: The Washington Dems
My Final Four pick: Former Vice President Joe Biden
Three former Obama administration officials, two senators, three current or former representatives, and one former governor from the mid-Atlantic make up this category of Washington-area presidential hopefuls.
I think this will be a very challenging region, but ultimately play out as the most chalky region with few upsets. The top-seeded former Vice President Joe Biden can create a campaign fueled by happy memories of the Obama presidency, pure catnip for primary voters who see nothing but despair in our current political environment. As the former VP, he could take a wait-and-see approach to the primary, jumping in late if he isn’t pleased with the party’s early choices.
The bracket pits him against his fellow former Obama administration officials, former Attorney General Eric Holder (#4 seed) or former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro (#7 seed). More challenging will be two potential candidates whose stocks rose significantly following the 2018 midterms. Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar (#3 seed) represents a strong potential challenger, giving the party hope to reclaim its standing in the middle of the country after cratering with white working class voters in 2016. Incredibly, rising star and former congressman Beto O’Rourke (#2 seed) wasn’t even on many lists (including mine) until after his loss in the 2018 Texas senate race against Ted Cruz.
Both O’Rourke and Klobuchar would create problems for the former Vice President, but ultimately, if Biden choses to run, I think it will be because he sees weakness in both candidates. In this scenario, I predict Democratic primary voters would play it safe and push its favorite uncle deep into the tournament, deferring Beto and Amy to be top candidates for the vice president nod to the eventual nominee.
Region C: The State Execs
My Final Four pick: Washington state governor Jay Inslee
This region of governors and mayors is the most interesting and has the most potential for spoilers. It seems like distant memory, but just three presidential elections ago, former governors and executives dominated the presidency for decades.
The region’s top seed and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg recently caught everyone’s attention by re-registering as a Democrat, but his history as an independent and friendliness towards business may hurt his chances with increasingly progressive primary voters. That said, I think he would easily make it past New Orlean’s mayor Mitch Landrieu (#8 seed) and wonky Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (#6 seed).
Bloomberg would run into trouble when he runs into the upset-laded bottom half of that region, led by Washington state governor and #5 seed Jay Inslee. Also the current chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Inslee’s profile rose as his state won a legal battle on the immigration ban early in the Trump presidency. I’m particularly bullish on Inslee after his early appearance on the Pod Save America podcast shed light to authentic personality and progressive bona fides.
Region D: The Celebs
My Final Four pick: Attorney Michael Avenatti
After Donald J. Trump, anything’s possible from this region. #1 seed and media mogul Oprah Winfrey got everyone excited when she toyed with a run in her memorable speech at the January 2018 Golden Globes awards ceremony. However, since then, she’s claimed that she is definitely not running, leaving an opening for #8 seed Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager who has made a name for himself by calling loudly for the impeachment of President Trump.
He would face a relative newcomer to the 2020 field in Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti (#4 seed), who quickly rose to potential presidential contender, visiting early primary states Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, pinning a summary of his political views to the top of his Twitter feed, and launching a political ad ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Despite Avenatti’s recent inclusion in 2020 candidate discussions, I think he would easily beat out the rest of the bottom of this region, #2 seed Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, another celebrity unlikely to run, and the two Facebook executives #5 seed Mark Zuckerberg and #7 seed Sheryl Sandberg, especially given the beating Facebook has received by Capitol Hill since early ventures into the political arena.
The Final Four
A recap of my Final Four:
- Region A (The Progressives): #5 seed Kirsten Gillibrand
- Region B (The Washington Dems): #1 seed Joe Biden
- Region C (The State Execs): #5 seed Jay Inslee
- Region D (The Celebs): #4 seed Michael Avenatti
A battle between Kirsten Gillibrand and Joe Biden would be a close one, but I think the party would favor a new direction over a “Make America Great Again”-style reminiscing of past Obama administration glory.
In a matchup between Jay Inslee and Michael Avenatti, I’d wager that the party would forgo pushing through its own version of a reality TV candidate and look to an outside — but party-friendly — executive branch official.
If it actually comes down to Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee, I think it would be unlikely that the party doesn’t continue pushing leftward with its selection of a progressive senator and select Kirsten Gillibrand as its nominee.
Fill Out Your Own Bracket
Who do you think will win the nomination? Will there be any Cinderella candidates who break onto the national scene? Fill out a copy of the blank bracket and comment or tweet me a screenshot how you think the race will pan out.
Can’t Get Enough of the 2020 Horserace?
Check out these election resources and roundups:
- Who will win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination? — PredictIt (betting website, continuously updated)
- Who is Running for President in 2020? — The Washington Post (continuously updated)
- US Presidential Election 2020 — Democrat Candidate Betting Odds — OddsChecker (betting website, continuously updated)
- The full list of 76 potential candidates I considered for the bracket
- Summary of FiveThirtyEight’s Democratic primary drafts
- Who’s Behaving Like A 2020 Presidential Candidate — FiveThirtyEight (October 2018)
- The definitive ranking of 2020 Democrats — CNN (August 2018)
- The top 15 Democratic presidential candidates for 2020, ranked — The Washington Post (July 2018)
- The 2020 Democratic Primary, as a March Madness Bracket — CNN (March 2018)
- If You Want To Know Who’s Running In 2020, Watch Capitol Hill, Not Iowa — FiveThirtyEight (January 2018)
- An Early Look at Democrats’ 2020 Brackets — The Cook Political Report (June 2017)
- An Outrageously Early Field Guide to 2020 — Politico (May 2017)
- The 43 people who might run against Trump in 2020 — The Hill (May 2017)
- Say It Ain’t So: 129 People Have Already Filed To Run For President In 2020 — NPR (May 2017)
If you liked this post, you may also like my other post about brackets (actually related to basketball).