Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 2

Two months ago I published my first 2020 Democratic candidate rankings. Not a whole lot has changed in the primary race since then, so neither have my preference rankings. Nonetheless, here is my update.

A reminder that my personal preferences lead me to prioritize candidates who: 1) have strong foreign policy expertise/experience and recognize global democratic backsliding as one of the most alarming international trends of the current moment, 2) display a nuanced approached to analyzing complex issues, 3) eschew populism, both right-wing nationalist/racial populism and left-wing economic populism, 4) have previous electoral experience and a background that helps understand the life experiences of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 5) have a realistic “plan of action” for enacting a policy agenda that takes into account the reality that they have to pass stuff through Congress, which is hard. (More detail on each of these is available in my earlier post.)

I’ll add as well that the current Democratic activist electorate seems to generally fall into one of two camps: 1) those who see economic inequality and the influence of lobbyists and “special interests” as the key barrier to enacting a meaningful legislative agenda and 2) those who see political polarization and electoral/institutional constraints as the key barrier to enacting a meaningful legislative agenda.

While I am persuaded that both of these matter, my academic training and experience has strongly persuaded me that political polarization and institutional constraints account for far more of the legislative paralysis and political dysfunction that we see in the federal government today than the influence of “corrupt special interests” on lawmakers. Fixing political polarization and institutions that distort democratic outcomes will enable the government to better address economic inequality (which is, to some extent, policy-solvable), while the reverse is less true.

In these rankings I am also limiting my candidates to those who have qualified for the second debate (with a polling average of at least 2% and a broad donor base). I’ll also pretend that I get to use ranked-choice voting, and show how they’ve moved since last time.

For most of these candidates, the rationales for my rankings remain the same, so please refer to the earlier post for more context and explanation of the pros/cons of each (from my perspective). I added a few notes based on things that have happened over the last few months.


1. Kamala Harris

  • While her first debate attack on Joe Biden was perhaps not entirely fair on the substance, it suggested to me that she’s smart and strategic, willing to make gutsy decisions when needed. She’s playing “go big or go home.”

2. Pete Buttigieg (↑ 1)

  • He is the only one consistently talking about institutional and electoral institutions. This suggests to me that he has the best lens to diagnose problems in American society and what tool would be the best to try to address them. It’s not an exciting topic, but it’s the most important one. See Ezra Klein’s write-up on this topic here. He’s also someone who is doing an effective job of speaking about what it’s like to live in the U.S. as someone from a marginalized group but also does a good job of speak to white working-class voters in a way that validates their life experience as well. This is an important skill for U.S. presidents.

3. Cory Booker (↓ 1)

4. Amy Klobuchar

5. Joe Biden

  • He is the only one I hear consistently discussing how President Trump’s rhetoric weakens democratic institutions and norms and emboldens dictators around the world to weaken their own democratic institutions and abuse human rights. Every candidate should be talking about this all the time.

6. Elizabeth Warren

  • I would rank her higher, but her diagnosis of the problems of American society (corrupt special interests) simply doesn’t match up with what I understand to be the more powerful barriers toward meaningful policy enactment (see above).

7. Andrew Yang (new!)

8. Beto O’Rourke (↓ 1)

9. Bernie Sanders (↓ 2)



That all said, the only person I’d hesitate before enthusiastically endorsing for the 2020 Democratic nomination would be Bernie Sanders. I am extremely wary of the Democratic party going down the path of tepidly-illiberal economic populism to try to beat Donald Trump’s enthusiastically-illiberal nationalist/racial populism. A Sanders-Trump match-up in 2020 for the U.S. Presidency signals to the world that populism has won.




One response to “Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 2

  1. I am with you on the core polarization vs. special interests debate, so (reluctantly) see why you rank Warren as you do. What do you think about the role of identity politics of the left in creating a white nationalist identity politics on the right?

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