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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 has attracted unprecedented interest. Although there are more than 30 politicians, businessmen and celebrities running or weighing a bid, former Vice President Joe Biden led the pack from day one, months before he officially threw his hat in the ring.

His delayed entry gave the long list of dark horses time to prove that they are the next Barack Obama, ready to catch fire and snatch the nomination from the heir apparent. So far, none has emerged. Instead, a handful of candidates have had their turn in the spotlight, but none has pulled away from the pack. Yet. With Biden finally in the race, and the first debates on the horizon, the race is finally on for real.

We've ranked the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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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 next year. Biden has said: "I'm the most qualified person in the country to be president." Now that the Pennsylvania native is seeking the presidency for the third time, the clear front-runner has the chance to prove himself right.

Many Democrats, particularly Obama loyalists and party veterans, wanted Biden to challenge former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. He will quickly assemble a top team of consultants and advisers and lock in some of the party's biggest donors. Access to Obama's fundraising mailing list gives him another distinct advantage, as does his ability to tap the organization that their 2008 and 2012 campaigns built for volunteers, doorknockers and other vital ground-game work.

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. However, Biden's ability to appeal to that demographic is considered one of his biggest assets. Where Sanders has a major leg up on Biden is small donors. Sanders has raked in an impressive $28 million already, most from supporters who chipped in $200 or less each. And Sanders has a formidable base of grassroots activists ready to do battle for the self-proclaimed socialist.

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#3 South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg

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It's hard to say what is more improbable: That a 37-year-old is now a top contender for the nomination or that a mayor of not even a mid-sized city is. But that's exactly what's happened. Whether Buttigieg can sustain his newfound status or if he's just experiencing his 15 minutes of fame will soon come into focus, especially now that Biden is officially running and undoubtedly will start sucking up most the media attention.

Buttigieg's entire political career has been improbable. Most 29-year-olds don't get elected mayor, especially not gay ones in Middle America. Buttigieg is not running as "the LGBTQ candidate." And he's even gotten flack for not having a diverse enough base of supporters. But as many of the names on this list pander to the party's far left, Buttigieg has picked up steam--especially in the absence of Biden--for being a fresh face with a pragmatic agenda.

Several impressive cable TV townhall and other appearances have thrust Buttigieg so far into the limelight that he trails only Biden and Sanders in some polls, which is why he moves from "longshot" on our list to the No. 3 slot.

#4 Beto O'Rourke

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The former three-term Texas congressman from El Paso's high-profile attempt to unseat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz last year garnered him national headlines and the adoration of Democrats across the country, catapulting the 46-year-old to near rock star status within the party.

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.

He entered the race to much fanfare but is struggling to transform his Senate run "it" factor into a top-tier national campaign.

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#5 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.

She's consistently in the top five in most polls, seemingly having weathered the controversy over her claims of Native American heritage. She also rolls out detailed policy initiatives at a healthy clip while many of her competitors have yet to get past platitudes.

However, even 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.

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#6 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? She also consistently ranks in the top five polling wise but at this stage, it's 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.

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.

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#7 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 emissions.

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#8 Gov. John Hickenlooper

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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. Hickenlooper's biggest obstacle is that he's running in the same lane as Biden: middle of the road. He'll need to pick up major steam to make it to the Iowa caucuses.

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#9 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. 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.

However, her "Minnesota nice" reputation took a big hit when the not-so-secret fact around Capitol hallways that she's a difficult employer came to light. That dinged what 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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#10 John Delaney

Courtesy U.S. Department of Labor via Wikimedia Commons

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 former three-term congressman believes his doggedness will pay off. He's been to Iowa more than 20 times -- hitting all 99 counties already -- and New Hampshire almost as many 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 was 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 2018.

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#11 Sen. Cory Booker

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The 49-year-old Rhodes scholar and former Stanford football player who entered early was expected to make a big splash. Comparisons to Obama were immediate when Booker came onto the national scene after winning his first mayoral race in 2006. But such comparisons can cut both ways and so far, he hasn't generated anywhere near the kind of energy that Obama did in 2008.

And now a Republican (Hirsh Singh) has declared his Senate candidacy in the Garden State, pressuring Booker to either forego seeking a second term next year or splitting his energy between keeping his day job and going for the big prize.

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#12 Sen. Michael Bennet

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The two-term senator from Colorado was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and says that is what pushed him into the race.

"It'd be a great excuse not to run if I didn't want to run--this would be the best excuse you could ever have," he recently told The Atlantic. "It only underscores how infuriating it is that we have a guy in the White House who's made a mockery of dealing with the problems in our health-care system," Bennet added, telegraphing what his signature issue will be.

Unlike the more liberal names on this list, the one-time superintendent of Denver's schools does not support Medicare for all, but has sponsored a bill that would make joining Medicare an option.

Bennet is running as a centrist, but the 54-year-old's health could stunt his campaign.

#13 Julian Castro

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The secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama and former San Antonio mayor is the only Latino in the race. In a party that prides itself on its popularity within the Latino community, that should be a major asset. He does register in most recent polls (the field is so large that many hopefuls don't) but is struggling for attention.

If he can hang in long enough to make it to primaries in Nevada and other states with large Latino populations, he could have a shot. But with so many people running, and rivals Sanders, Warren, O'Rourke and Harris raking in so much cash, it's hard to see how he makes it to that late-stage of the contest.

#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.

Ryan benefits 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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#15 Sen. Kristen Gillibrand

Courtesy Department of Defense

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. She became a heroine of the #MeToo movement, but now is embroiled in a controversy that she mishandled complaints about sexual harassment in her own Senate office.

Her denouncements of President Clinton and former Minn. Sen. Al Franken during the height of #MeToo largely backfired. And she alienated Clinton allies, who still hold tremendous sway in the party.

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#16 Gov. Steve Bullock

Courtesy National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons.

Montana's Bullock is another 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 recently hired veteran operative Jenn Ridder to work for his Big Sky Values PAC and has visited both Iowa and New Hampshire.

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Other Names to Watch (And to Forget About)

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, California Rep. Eric Swalwell and Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton are all officially running, as is Venture for America founder Andrew Yang, but we don't see them registering yet. All are very long shots.

The end of June brings the first culling of the field--seven months before a single primary vote is cast. The first official Democratic debates are June 26-27 in Miami. Candidates must be either polling at 1% or have 65,000 donors to make it on to the stage. If more than 20 meet that criteria, the Democratic National Committee will use "a methodology that gives primacy to candidates meeting both thresholds, followed by the highest polling average, followed by the most unique donors" to decide which 20 partake.

"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