Politics & Policy

Who’s Running for President? Right Now, Everybody

It’s the season of the invisible primary, and plenty of Democrats are in the mix for 2020. A lot will happen in the meantime.

Who’s Running for President? Right Now, Everybody

Who will still be flying by the caucuses?

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Perry Bacon Jr. over at FiveThirtyEight asks and gives a good answer to a very worthwhile question: Who is actually running for president right now

Not, to be sure, by asking the candidates. That’s a pointless exercise at this point. There are both political and legal reasons why candidates rarely make it official this early. So asking either gets a denial or a dodge, which unfortunately are pretty much the same answers from both those who are currently running and those who are not.

The other thing to accept is that all anyone can know at this point is who is running now. As usual, I’ll use nomination rules maven Josh Putnam’s formulation: There’s a big difference between who is currently running for 2020 and those who will be running in 2020. Or even who will be running for 2020 by mid-2019. 

Fortunately, the signs of an active presidential candidate at this stage of the process are easy to spot. Bacon flags several: visits to the early states; campaigning for other party candidates in the midterms; writing a book. He also includes two indicators that others have notice campaign activity — if the candidate has been the subject of a major media profile, and if the candidate has been included in public polls about the nomination. 

So who is running? Everyone. Well, perhaps not quite, but he identifies 20 fully active candidates, five more who show signs of a run, and three more who at least have demonstrated hints of a run. 

My guess is that somewhere between two and five of those 28 aren’t running at all but just happened to do things that presidential candidates also do.

On the other hand, I can think of a few people who didn’t make his list but might have. That requires a bit of explanation. We’re in the “invisible primary” portion of the campaign. The main thing that candidates do at this point is to convince party actors — the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party staff and officials, donors and activists, party-aligned interest groups, and the partisan news media — that the candidate is at least an acceptable nominee, and perhaps even one worth supporting. Candidates who enter the contest well-known and well-liked within the party network have a huge head start and may wait until fairly late to take overt public steps. Those who are less well known and those who expect to run into significant resistance from various party actors have an incentive to begin public campaigning early. (Unless their day job conflicts with a public presidential campaign, which is the case for anyone with a competitive re-election campaign this year.) 

In other words, plenty of campaigning at this point really is invisible to most of us — and the visible activities in large part simply signal to party actors to say, “Hey, look at me! I’m running!” 

What that means is that candidates who don’t feel a need to do that because they already have relationships with many party actors might look a bit less like candidates at this stage. I’m not sure whether it includes any Democrats or not, but Sherrod Brown, for one, would fit as a candidate Bacon’s system might miss. He’s already fairly well known nationally and quite popular with many party actors; as far as I know, there are no factions who are likely to find him unacceptable. And he (and Amy Klobuchar, who the system does count as a candidate) is running for re-election in a potentially competitive race. I have no idea whether he’s candidate No. 29 or not, but if he is, it’s not surprising that he’s keeping it quiet for another four weeks.

The thing to remember is that all of these 30 or so candidates are also learning a lot about whether they have any support among party actors. Sometimes that comes in the way of tangible resources such as campaign funds; sometimes it’s just encouragement. Or, for others, not getting those resources. The candidates know more now than they did in January; they’ll know more in the next few months. Each candidate has his or her own threshold for what it takes to continue on; some will only stay in the race if the chances for victory are pretty good, while others are committed regardless of how badly it goes. 

What we know is that winnowing works. It’s likely that quite a few out of this huge crowd will listen to the cues party actors are giving them and drop out without ever getting to the point of a formal announcement. Others will plug on for a while but fail to meet fundraising or polling targets and quit. Some may even find that being a long-shot candidate for president is a lot less enjoyable way to spend one’s time than they thought going in. My guess is that fewer than 15 Democrats, and quite possibly fewer than 10, will make it all the way to the Iowa caucuses in early 2020.  But now? Yeah, they’re all running.

1. Rupa Jose, Jeni Klugman and Anita Raj at the Monkey Cage on economic opportunity for women and how the law can help. 

2. Jacob Levy on winning, losing and Donald Trump

3. Ariel Edwards-Levy on what the polls say about Brett Kavanaugh and the midterms

4. Jonathan Rauch on truth, knowledge and Trump. I’m linking to it, but there’s a lot of sloppiness in his section on academia. 

5. Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight on the midterms and state governments

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Barry Ritholtz on the stock market drop. It’s from Thursday morning, but it’s still timely. 

7. And Josh Gerstein reports on a new disclosure coming on a key Watergate document

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