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The RS Politics 2020 Democratic Primary Leaderboard

Ranking a crowded field as nearly 30 contenders jockey to confront Trump

Senators Kamala Harris, Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren top the RS Politics Democratic primary leaderboard

MediaPunch/REX/Shutterstock; REX/Shutterstock;Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Elizabeth Warren officially took the plunge into 2020 waters. Julián Castro jumped in after. The Democrats’ campaign for president is officially underway. This second installment of our Rolling Stone primary leaderboard finds Warren the big mover, surging six places to number two — on the strength of a seamless rollout and a wide lead in a new straw poll of Democratic activists. Dropping in our rankings this round: Joe Biden who declared he has “no empathy” for the struggle of the kids these days, and Bernie Sanders who responded unsteadily to revelations of pay discrimination and sexual harassment on his 2016 presidential campaign. We wanted to dock Beto O’Rourke more for growing a goatee and livestreaming his trip to the dentist, but the Texas Democrat’s decision to leave behind the dysfunction of Washington — just as it’s become gridlocked by an endless shutdown — is looking like a minor stroke of genius. The field has also begun to winnow: Billionaire Tom Steyer has removed himself from the 2020 crowd, and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is actively exploring a Senate bid, so we’ve moved her from number 5 into our “wild cards.”

1) Kamala Harris
Harris is set to announce her 2020 candidacy, reportedly over the Martin Luther King Day weekend in Oakland, California. The 54-year-old senator, who battled big banks and for-profit colleges as California’s attorney general, stands astride the tectonic plates of the Democratic Party. She’s an establishment politician who has adopted a platform responsive to the passion of the grassroots, advocating for Medicare-for-All, free college and criminal justice reform. Black women are the heart of the Democratic Party, and seeing themselves reflected in the Howard University-educated Harris (born to Jamaican and Tamil Indian parents) could give her an advantage in a field chock full of white men. A straw poll asked women of color active in politics to rank their top three presidential contenders — Harris appeared on 71 percent of ballots. Harris also ranked third in a new, 35,000-vote straw poll of the Daily Kos community, a rough proxy for the Democratic activist base. Harris has a prodigious West Coast donor network and has reportedly been hitting up would-be backers on Wall Street. (Her connections to big money, as well as her past as a prosecutor, could cause headaches.) With California moving its primary up to Super Tuesday, on March 3rd, she could bank a delegate lead that proves difficult to overcome.
Previous Ranking: 1

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2) Elizabeth Warren
Warren was the first top-tier candidate out of the gates, launching a presidential exploratory committee on the last day of 2018, and she surges in our rankings. Her campaign forays in Iowa and New Hampshire have been eagerly attended, and she’s debuted a passable talking point on her DNA debacle: “I am not a person of color. I am not a citizen of a tribe,” she said. “Tribal citizenship is very different from ancestry.” The Massachusetts senator, 69, brings trademark policy chops to the race, with an ambitious progressive agenda on everything from foreign policy and pharmaceuticals to student debt and political corruption. Unlike democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who idolizes Eugene Debs, Warren is a capitalist at heart — but has made a career of trying to make it less cruel for working people. Warren ranked first in the DailyKos straw poll at 22 percent, with a seven point margin over Beto O’Rourke.
Previous Ranking: 8

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3) Sherrod Brown
The senior senator from Ohio announced he’ll be traveling to the early-voting states on a “Dignity of Work Tour,” and he’s vowed to make a decision on a 2020 run “within a couple months.” A proven Democratic winner in reddening Ohio, Brown is skilled at debunking the lies Trump tells to “Trump Country” and able to connect with working class voters who are white and of color. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Brown touted a proposal to boost the incomes of 47 million lower-wage Americans with a $1.4 trillion expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a wage subsidy. Like Sanders, he’s a champion of labor and a prescient critic of the dangers of unfettered free trade. The 66-year-old’s voice may be raspy and his wardrobe rumpled, but Brown is a persuasive campaigner — his messaging aided by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and wife Connie Schultz.
Previous Ranking: 6

Book (From 2006): Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed

4) Beto O’Rourke
He stole progressive hearts and built a nationwide fundraising network attempting to oust GOP megavillain Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Beto raised $60 million for the fight and pushed Texas ever closer to swing-state territory, but the erstwhile Foss bassist has faltered a bit since losing his longshot Senate bid. He’s been memed mercilessly for everything from a new goatee to broadcasting a teeth cleaning on Instagram. (The latter was part of a series on Insta Stories about life on the border, but nobody can make a trip to the dentist cute.) Can a high-profile one-on-one interview rekindle Beto-mentum? The 46-year-old is sitting down with Oprah on February 5th.
Previous Ranking: 3

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5) Joe Biden
The former vice president’s big challenge as a 76-year-old is connecting with a new generation of activists and voters. Doing himself no favors, Biden dismissed struggles of millennials — that is to say, voting-age Americans under 40 — in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Playing up the Civil Rights struggles, the Vietnam War and the Kent State massacre of his young adulthood, Biden said: “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it. Give me a break.” (Biden is partly responsible for the woes of the kids these days, helping pass a 2005 bill under George W. Bush that makes it nearly impossible to discharge student debt through bankruptcy). Still, Biden offers an appealing narrative: a reset from the Trump catastrophe. And he benefits from a potent combo of experience, name ID and a populist touch that resonates in the industrial Midwest. If Democrats don’t fall in love with a new hope, they may fall in line behind Biden.
Previous Ranking: 2

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6) Bernie Sanders
When allegations of sexual harassment and unequal pay from his 2016 campaign surfaced in recent weeks, Sanders stumbled, suggesting he’d been too “busy” campaigning to know about or police the misbehavior. (Sanders has also apologized and promised to “do better” moving forward.) Sanders takes a hit in our rankings, but the 2016 campaign still gives him advantages, including a prodigious nationwide grassroots network that backed him with $228 million. This machine began gearing up in mid January, with more than 400 house parties across the 50 states calling on Bernie to join the 2020 fray. Sanders will no longer have the left lane to himself, instead jockeying in a field of progressives who have embraced his proposals. But the democratic socialist has shown he can be pretty nimble for a 77-year-old, yoking himself to the youthful insurgency embodied by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Previous Ranking: 4

Book: Where We Go From Here: Two Years in the Resistance

7) Kirsten Gillibrand
Gillibrand announced her presidential bid on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in mid-January, vowing to “fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own.” The New York senator is a champion of progressive causes and perhaps the most vocal leader of the #MeToo movement in elected office, calling out former president Bill Clinton and pushing for Al Franken to resign from the Senate. In many ways, Gillibrand, 52, is the East Coast’s answer to Kamala Harris, with some of the same challenges. She can tap New York money but lacks a coast-to-coast profile. (Gillibrand has already caught flak for outreach to Wall Street donors.) Hailing from upstate, Gillibrand could play well in New Hampshire. But her evolution from an anti-amnesty Blue Dog moderate to a true-blue progressive calling to abolish ICE will require explanation.
Previous Ranking: 9

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8) Amy Klobuchar
Don’t let her aw-shucks demeanor deceive you. Klobuchar’s got game. And the Minnesota senator’s unruffled persona may be exactly what Democrats crave after four years of crazy. The 58-year-old showcased preternatural calm sparring with Kavanaugh in his confirmation hearings, and her legislative record is substantive; she’s passed laws to ban lead in toys and to reduce the backlog of rape kits. Klobuchar would benefit from a near-home-field advantage in neighboring Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucus and where she’s now polling at 10 percent — fourth behind Biden, Sanders and Beto. And her bipartisan bonafides give her credibility when, for instance, she calls out a Trump nominee like William Barr for refusing to meet with Democrats. Two tweets and less than 24 hours later, Klobuchar was hosting Barr for coffee in her office, reminding voters just how reassuring it can be to have a serious-minded adult in charge. Klobuchar says her family is “on board” with her running and will make a final decision “in the very near future.”
Previous Ranking: 7

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9) Julián Castro
The former Housing and Urban Development secretary — a short-lister for Hillary’s VP — announced his candidacy in San Antonio on January 12th, becoming the second top-tier candidate to enter the 2020 race. The Texan could be the top Latinx candidate in the field — and, at 44, one of the youngest. His personal story is equal parts improbable and inspirational, reminiscent of Barack Obama’s, and resonant at a time when immigration and borders dominate the national conversation. But Castro could be out of his depth: The only elections he’s ever won were in his hometown of San Antonio, for city council and then mayor.
Previous Ranking: 10

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10) Cory Booker
The former supermayor of Newark, 49, has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate and has distinguished himself by centering federal marijuana decriminalization and criminal justice reform in his agenda. But Booker has also backed the powerful in a pinch. He has problematic connections to Wall Street (and is reportedly already talking to top financiers in advance of a 2020 run). He was the first Democratic 2020 contender backed by a SuperPAC. Booker’s X-Factor? Hustle. He’s not going to be outworked as a candidate, and that snow-shoveling experience could come in handy in Iowa.
Previous Ranking: 11

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11) John Hickenlooper
Colorado’s former governor is very likely to run, testing whether a centrist has any juice with today’s Democratic base. Hickenlooper left office this month having created 400,000 jobs over his two terms, with unemployment dropping below 3 percent last year. But he’s also pro-fracking, and the longtime brewer was initially unenthusiastic about Colorado’s trailblazing marijuana legalization. The 66-year-old is both agreeably goofy and a straight shooter. A former strategist told Politico: “I think he has a lane [as] a pragmatic, pro-trade, business-oriented Democrat who has a very progressive social record, and a more centrist view of economic issues.”
Previous Ranking: 12

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12) Pete Buttigieg
The subject of a tell-tale pre-campaign profile in the Washington Post Magazine, the 36-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, seems like a longshot — until you hear what he has to say. Buttigieg — pronounced BOOT-edge-edge — was a Rhodes scholar before he was elected the mayor of his rustbelt city while still in his twenties. He has been namechecked by Obama as a gifted politician, and led an economic revival during his seven years in office, during which he also found time to serve a seven-month tour with the Navy in Afghanistan. Buttigieg is also openly gay and live-streamed his own wedding on YouTube. If any mayor has a of a hope of winning the nomination — and no mayor ever has — it may be Mayor Pete.
Previous Ranking: 15

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13) Jay Inslee
Can a contender win by championing climate change? Inslee, the governor of Washington state, seems intent on finding out. He told Rolling Stone in November that it’s “absolutely imperative” the Democrats have a climate-focused candidate in 2020, and the 67-year-old didn’t rule out that that candidate would be him. Inslee has presided over a roaring economy that’s let him invest in education and slash college tuition. He’s come out in 2019 advocating for a “public option” in the state’s health care system and for expanding college financial aid. Inslee has been seen testing the 2020 waters in Nevada and is scheduled to travel to New Hampshire.
Previous Ranking: 20

14) Steve Bullock
The Montana governor with a Deadwood-worthy name could be the dark horse of 2020. Bullock has the cred of winning statewide office in a state Trump carried by 20 points. The 52-year-old has focused on ending the influence of unlimited political contributions and dark money. “If we wanna address all the other big issues,” he said in a stump speech in Iowa, “you’re not gonna be able to do it unless you also address the way money is affecting our system.”
Previous Ranking: 19

15) Eric Garcetti
The L.A. mayor with Hispanic, Jewish and Italian-American heritage also wants to be the first candidate to make the leap from City Hall to the White House. He speaks powerfully about tackling climate change and expanding affordable housing. And Garcetti, 47, has been visiting battleground states, saying things like “Iowa and Los Angeles have a ton in common.” But he’s got a big, thorny problem close to home: A teacher’s strike — L.A.’s first since 1989.
Previous ranking: 16

16) Michael Bloomberg
The New York billionaire and former Republican-turned-independent mayor, 76, certainly has the money to mount a credible run — and made news this month insisting he’d finance his own presidential campaign. But Bloomberg’s Third-Way centrism seems an odd fit for the current passions of the Democratic base. Wild card: Bloomberg has invested deeply in fighting the NRA, including by backing pro-gun-regulation politicians from Oregon to Florida, creating a network of surrogates who can tout his progressive virtues.
Previous Ranking: 21

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17) John Kerry
Kerry drops in this ranking because he’s awfully quiet for a true contender. After an exceptional stint as secretary of state, including negotiating the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, Kerry is clearly among the most qualified prospective Democrats. But the scars of 2004, when he lost the presidency to George W. Bush, are deep. The now-75-year-old told a crowd at Harvard in November that he’s mulling a run: “Yeah, I’m going to think about it.
Previous Ranking: 14

Book: Every Day Is Extra

18) Eric Holder
A formidable inside player who is close to the Obamas, Holder is leading a Democratic project to fight for fair redistricting, and has said he’ll make a call on a presidential run early in 2019. Like Kerry, his recent silence is making us doubt the depth of his presidential ambition. The 67-year-old courted controversy during the 2018 campaign when he put a street-fighter’s spin on Michelle Obama’s famous line, “When they go low, we go high.” “No,” Holder insisted. “When they go low, we kick ’em.”
Previous Ranking: 17

19) Jeff Merkley
The progressive senator from Oregon, 62, flew under the national radar until Trump’s family-separation policy went into effect. A video of Merkley showing up at a Texas detention facility to demand answers, Michael Moore-style, went viral, and soon he was a fixture on cable TV and burning up Twitter. He’s actively considering a bid and says his family has given him the green light. But in early January he seemed to throw cold water on his own prospects, playing up the cost of mounting a credible run.
Previous Ranking: 18

20) Terry McAuliffe
The voluble former governor and Democratic moneyman has said he’ll decide on a presidential run by March, and recently put the odds at 50/50. A consummate establishment politician, the Macker is famous for his friendship with the Clintons, his prodigious fundraising abilities and four productive years as Virginia’s chief executive. Swimming against the progressive tides, McAuliffe, 61, has railed against what he calls “dishonest populism” among Democrats and insists:  “Free college is not the answer.” Put that on a bumper sticker!
Previous Ranking: 22

21) Tim Ryan
Ryan represents post-industrial Youngstown, Ohio, in the House of Representatives and wants the Democratic Party to compete for the disaffected white middle- and working-class voters who turned to Trump in 2016. Ryan, 45, ran against Nancy Pelosi in 2016 for Democratic leader, and was at the helm of the recent ill-considered putsch attempt against Pelosi in the speaker’s race. For a glimpse of Ryan on better footing, watch him denounce Trump’s efforts to make U.S. taxpayers fund the border wall.
Previous Ranking: 23

22) Howard Schultz
The former Starbucks CEO, 65, exited the coffee business last year and appears to be ramping up for a political run, including by hiring star Never Trumper Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 campaign. Under Schultz, Starbucks was kinder to its workforce than most multinationals. But the company’s awkward forays into social issues — including trying to get Americans to discuss race with their baristas — leave us with questions about Schultz’ political intuition.
Previous Ranking: 24

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23) Eric Swalwell
The California congressman is a comer. At 38, he’s already a member of House leadership and the Intelligence Committee. Swalwell does not cloak his ambition. He is almost certain to mount a presidential bid, and has been working the angles in key early-voting states. During the swearing in of the new Democratic House majority he vigorously bounced a baby for the C-SPAN cameras. A former prosecutor, Swalwell is sharp, but has an odd Twitter persona. It’s hard to imagine him coming out atop the scrum of California contenders.
Previous Ranking: 26

24) John Delaney
No one has poured more energy into the 2020 race than former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, who announced his candidacy back in July 2017. The self-described “pragmatic idealist,” 55, has already visited every county in Iowa, and opened campaign offices in both Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. A longshot without much national name recognition, Delaney is hoping voters find his bipartisan message refreshing.
Previous Ranking: 28

25) Richard Ojeda
The brash, tatted-up Army veteran may have lost his House race in West Virginia’s deep-red 3rd District, but he’s just aiming higher for 2020. Populist and pro-worker, Ojeda, 48, announced in January that he will resign as a state senator to focus on his presidential run. He also dissed #relatable moments like Warren drinking a beer on Instagram or Beto’s trip to the dentist. “Everybody that’s going to throw their hat into the ring to run for office is going to try their best to say they’re one of you,” Ojeda said in a Twitter video. “But are they really? How can somebody with a golden health care plan relate to somebody out there who struggles to pay their health care bills? I don’t think that they can.”
Previous Ranking: 27

26) Andrew Yang
Yang is a lawyer and the founder of Venture for America, which seeks to revitalize struggling urban centers by training and fostering young entrepreneurs in places like Detroit and New Orleans. Yang, 44, is one of the few officially declared candidates, running on a platform of a universal basic income, to forestall the worst effects of the predicted unemployment crisis from automation and AI: “Every U.S. citizen over the age of 18 would receive $1,000 a month, regardless of income or employment status, free and clear. No jumping through hoops.”
Previous Ranking: not listed

27) Tulsi Gabbard
An Iraq war vet and Hawaiian congresswoman, Gabbard is the first Hindu to serve in the House of Representatives. And the 37-year-old says she’s running. But as a candidate for commander-in-chief, holds noxious views on Syria, having paid a freelance visit to bloody dictator Bashar al-Assad and dismissed his opposition — across the board — as terrorists. Her announcement has also thrust her past, virulently anti-LGBTQ activism into the spotlight. 
Previous Ranking: 25

WILD CARDS:

Stacey Abrams After her history-making run for governor in Georgia, Abrams is mulling her next move in politics. In early January, she laid out a pragmatic three-point process, saying: “I intend to make a decision about the job I’m going to run for next by the end of March.” All indicators now point to a Senate run, but in the presidential mix, she’d be a frontrunner in South Carolina’s fourth-in-the-nation primary, a springboard to national momentum.
Previous ranking: 5

Hillary Clinton The 2016 nominee has given little indication she’s plotting a rematch with Trump in 2020, but her entry to the race would reshuffle this deck and throw the political world off its axis.

Love our rankings? Disagree with a passion? Tell us what we got right — or wrong — on Twitter: @RSPolitics

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