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March Madness, Politics Edition


Balloons fall at the 2012 GOP convention as Gov. Mitt Romney accepts the Republican nomination for president.

It’s March, which means Americans from across the country are busy filling out their brackets.


Kloubuchar, Kamala, and Kirsten are in. So are Beto and Bernie, and Biden apparently privately has told close associates he is too. The roster of Democrats vying for the right to challenge President Donald Trump for the White House next November is growing by the week.


The size of the presidential field has grown over the last generation, but it hasn’t always resulted in a drawn-out primary process. Indeed, it’s likely that a lot of the individuals mentioned below will never make it to the Iowa caucus, which is set for Feb. 3, 2020 and is the first nominating race of the presidential election cycle.


The Chicago Tribune is tracking candidates and, at this writing, there are 14 individuals (not counting the former vice president) contending for the spot at the top of the Democratic ticket. The list includes a dozen current and former lawmakers:

• Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey)

• Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (Texas)

• Former Rep. John Delaney (Maryland)

• Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii)

• Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (New York)

• Sen. Kamala Harris (California)

• Former Gov. John Hickenlooper (Colorado)

• Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minnnesota)

• Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas)

• Gov. Jay Inslee (Washington)

• Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont)

• Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts)


The field is so crowded that it also includes “American spiritual teacher, author, lecturer, entrepreneur, and activist” Marianne Williamson and former tech executive and Venture for America founder Andrew Yang. Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (New York), former Attorney General Eric Holder, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg all have said they won’t add their names to the already-robust list.

To be sure, if he opts in, Biden isn’t likely to be the last one to launch. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg also has an exploratory committee.


The crowded 2020 Democratic primary begs the question: how does this cycle’s roster of potential presidential challengers compare to other cycles where a sitting president was running for reelection?


While the number of individuals running from the opposing party against a sitting president has grown over the last 30 years, the number of early entrants for the 2020 already is record-breaking by modern standards. (To be sure, the roster doesn’t yet match the 2016 Republican field, which was the largest since 1916, when 17 candidates ran for the GOP nomination. But that contest, which President Trump won, had no incumbent running.)

Republicans took back the House and Senate from Democrats in November 2010 – a fact that emboldened the GOP for the 2012 presidential race in which Barack Obama would run for reelection. President Obama’s approval in early 2011 was under 50 percent, and the large roster of GOP candidates reflected the belief that the opportunity could be ripe for a Republican to retake the White House. In addition to the eventual nominee then-Gov./now Sen. Mitt Romney (Mass. and Utah), 12 individuals found themselves on GOP ballots in the states. Four – former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, businessman Herman Cain, former U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty – withdrew before the calendar even turned on 2011.


Due to an unpopular war in Iraq, President George W. Bush’s popularity already was waning in advance of his 2004 reelection race. (In the months immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the president’s approval soared near 90 percent. While still high at 58 percent in late February 2003, it had fallen significantly.) Democrats were motivated. Ten, including eventual winner Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), Al Sharpton, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, vied for the nomination. While public polling shifted throughout late 2003 and favored Howard Dean moving into the Iowa caucuses, Kerry had racked up enough victories by mid-March to earn the nomination.


A dozen Republicans lined up in 1995 and 1996 to challenge incumbent President Bill Clinton, including Steve Forbes and U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.). That large field also didn’t impact the length of the race. While Pat Buchanan didn’t officially end his bid until the convention the summer of 1996, he suspended his campaign in March when it became clear that U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (Kans.) had enough delegates to win the nomination.


Clinton’s election in 1992 was the last time a member of the opposing party unseated an incumbent president. By today’s standards the field was relatively narrow: just eight Democrats, including Clinton. Clinton, who had secured the nomination in early April, chose Al Gore to be his running mate. Gore had secured only one delegate in the final tally, two less than Larry Agran, the former mayor of Irvine, Calif., who also ran.


The field of Democratic candidates trying to keep President Ronald Reagan from returning to office in 1984 was similarly small: just eight ran then too, but the race went all the way until June when Walter Mondale secured the nomination. (He would be trounced in the general election, one of only two candidates in American history to win only one state in the electoral college battle.)


The amount of money a candidate attracts often is an indicator of early momentum and, using that gauge, Beto O’Rourke is this cycle’s clear frontrunner. The former Texas congressman raised $6.1 million during just his first day on the campaign trail. Current Sen. Bernie Sanders is second so far with a $5.9 million first day take and Sen. Kamala Harris is a distant third with $1.5 million. (Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised only $300,000 on the day of her announcement, but that could be because she announced on New Year’s Eve when Americans were otherwise occupied.)


Campaign contributions do not always ensure success, of course. O’Rourke raised more than $80 million during the 2018 election cycle in his race against Sen. Ted Cruz – and Cruz is still the junior senator from the state of Texas. While Romney bested his opponents in the 2012 GOP primary, he outraised the late Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the general election by more than $50 million – and lost.


What about polling – will that help observers predict the winner of this contest? According to Pew Research Center, surveys are bit more reliable in Democratic contests. In seven open Republican primaries between 1960 and 2004, the early front-runners held on to win the party nod six times. Early Democratic favorites won four out of eight open contests during that period. (In 2008 and 2016, respectively, eventual winners Barack Obama and Donald Trump were not the early favorites.) If we see a return to historical norms and that statistic holds true in the Democrats’ 2020 primary, Joe Biden, who has held a solid lead in polling amongst likely Democratic primary voters for several months, will be the party’s presidential nominee next year. But nothing about our politics over the last several years has indicated a tendency back to the historical status quo.


So, how should you fill out your 2020 bracket? It’s anyone’s guess.

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