2020 Democratic nomination predictions: who’s overrated and underrated

It’s obviously way too early for anyone to have a realistic sense of who is going to prevail in Democrats’ large field of 2020 presidential candidates, but it’s never too early to start breathless speculation about at least parts of it.

The betting website PredictIt offers a perfect opportunity to take stock of where the conventional wisdom currently lies, and where it may be wrong. The site runs a market on the 2020 race where you can buy “stock” in any candidate, and each share you own of the candidate will pay out a value of $1 if they win the nomination. That means you can interpret the current market price, in cents, of a single share as offering implicit odds on the probability of that contender winning.

As of Thursday afternoon, for example, a share of Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) costs 11 cents, implying an 11 percent chance that she will be the nominee.

Buy Klobuchar, sell Gillibrand

Who? Yeah, nobody outside Amy Klobuchar’s state knows who the senior senator from Minnesota is, except for hardcore political junkies. But here’s the thing that hardcore political junkies know about her: She’s probably the most popular politician in America.

Technically, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and John Thune (R-SD) edge her out with 63 percent and 62 percent approval ratings respectively in their home states. But Vermont is a deep-blue state where Trump got 30 percent of the vote, and South Dakota is a deep-red state where Hillary Clinton got 32 percent. Minnesota was a closely divided state that Clinton carried 46-44, and Klobuchar has a 60 percent approval rating. That’s by far the largest gap between an incumbent senator’s approval rating and the underlying partisan lean of the state.

Of course, if being popular at home were good enough to win you a nomination, Sanders would have won in 2016. But two things do follow from this fact. One is that even though Klobuchar isn’t well-known, she clearly has some political skills — just as Sanders managed to surprise on the upside.

The other is that to the extent that Democrats want to put their various factional disputes aside and just try to win the damn election, Klobuchar smells a lot like the electability candidate to me. Democrats are aware that they need to do better at appealing to the secular, white, Midwestern working-class voters who backed John Kerry and Barack Obama but then flipped to Donald Trump. Klobuchar has a proven track record of winning those voters without necessarily taking any positions on issues that Democrats elsewhere have too much problem with.

Is she a guaranteed winner? No. But I think she deserves to be a top-tier candidate alongside Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), etc.

Conversely, my advice would be to demote Gillibrand from that top tier. She feels like a contender because “age-appropriate white woman who’s generic on policy” feels like a strong option for 2020. But that’s Klobuchar’s lane.

Gillibrand is up there in the rankings instead because more people have heard of her, but that’s largely just because she’s from New York and partially because some Democratic donors have developed an irrational hatred of her. In the course of an actual campaign, that name ID advantage will fade away. —Matthew Yglesias

Buy Avenatti, sell Oprah

There are few sure things in political betting, but my take is that people who are running for president are likelier to win than people who aren’t running for president. Oprah Winfrey, currently selling contracts on PredictIt for 3 cents, is not running for president. Michael Avenatti, who isn’t even listed, looks almost certain to run for president. So I give Avenatti better odds of winning the nomination.

Here are some things Oprah has said about 2020:

That all sounds pretty definitive, both by normal person standards and by the weird standards we apply to possible presidential candidates, where we assume they’re constantly lying about whether or not they want to run for president.

Avenatti, by contrast, has:

He is really, truly, honest-to-God running for president. And I think he could win.

The always-sharp Eric Levitz at New York magazine doesn’t go so far as to actually argue in favor of an Avenatti vote (“it would be something approaching a national tragedy if Avenatti actually won,” he clarifies) but has a good explanation of what makes Avenatti so appealing.

Rank and file Democrats are pissed — and not really for the policy reasons that would drive them to, say, Gillibrand because she wants to abolish ICE or Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) because she wants tax credits for renters. They’re mad because Trump is president, he keeps being president despite being a petulant, corrupt child, and that’s infuriating. There’s a huge demand for a candidate who gets that raw emotion on an instinctual level.

Avenatti is that candidate. As Levitz writes, he’s “centered his nascent campaign on a call for tactical ruthlessness.” In Iowa and New Hampshire, he told audiences that, contra, Michelle Obama’s credo that, “when they go low, we go high,” he prefers an approach of, “when they go low, we hit harder.” And there’s more where that came from:

What I fear for this Democratic Party that I love so much is that we have a tendency to bring nail clippers to a gunfight. Tonight, however, I want to suggest a different course. I believe that our party, the Democratic Party, must be a party that fights fire with fire. I believe that we can no longer be the party that turns the other cheek. We must be the party that marshals the power of law and government to strike back at those that strike our cheek and to bring those to justice.

There’s an audience for this stuff. Avenatti has gone from 500 Twitter followers in February to 727,000 now. While much of that is due to the Stormy Daniels case, he clearly has an appeal beyond the Daniels case alone. As an Iowa voter told the Washington Post, “I really liked Delaney and I could vote for him, but right now I’m feeling a little more like punching Trump in the face.”

Is Avenatti the most, second-most, even fifth-most likely Democrat to win? I doubt it. But should PredictIt have higher odds on him than zero percent? Absolutely. —Dylan Matthews

Buy Garcetti, sell Brown

Look, if California Gov. Jerry Brown were 10 years younger and running for president in 2020, he’d be the Democrat to beat.

Brown is the popular, successful governor of the largest state in the union, and he’s governed in partnership with huge legislative majorities. He turned a $27 billion deficit into a $6.1 billion surplus. He’s pushing California — which would rank as the world’s fifth-largest economy if it was a country unto itself — toward full carbon neutrality by 2045; as Vox’s Dave Roberts explains, “it would be the most significant carbon policy commitment ever. Anywhere. Period.”

Brown passed a gas tax to fund huge infrastructure improvements, signed a $15 minimum wage into law, implemented Obamacare smoothly, and led Democrats to win every statewide office in California. And he’s been an exceptionally effective Trump antagonist.

There’s a reason that, prior to Barack Obama, the last candidate to win the White House from Congress was John F. Kennedy. Governors get to brag about what they’ve actually done, they get to criticize the toxicity of Washington from the outside, they get to project an aura of executive competence that speechifying senators can only marvel at.

But Brown will be 82 in 2020. He’s unlikely to run, and has said as much, though his denials are not quite Sherman-esque. Meanwhile, the Democratic wipeouts in 2010 and 2014 left the party with only 16 governors nationwide, and even fewer than that with Democratic legislatures. That’s left Democrats with a lot of senators running for president and relatively few governors.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti governs a city larger than 22 states. He won reelection with a crushing 81 percent of the vote. His tenure in Los Angeles has been largely successful, though the city’s homelessness problem will be a real trouble spot for him. Even so, he gets glossy profiles in GQ and gushing interviews on The Daily Show.

And if Brown stays out of the race, as seems likely, Garcetti will be able to run on the California story. He’s a charismatic Rhode scholar out of central casting with a diverse family story — he’s Jewish, Italian, and Hispanic, with both undocumented immigrant and refugee sides to his background — that he weaves into ongoing debates more skillfully than any politician since Barack Obama. And speaking of Obama, he’s got that thing where he manages to be extremely progressive without alienating Republicans, as this glowing George Will column shows.

Make no mistake: Garcetti is a longshot. But unlike Brown, he’s a longshot who is running. It’s hard to predict the moods of future electorates, but I think there’s a good chance that 2020 finds a lot of voters exhausted the Trump show and looking for Washington outsiders who can turn the political temperature down a bit. Someone who can talk about a diversifying country in ways that seem hopeful and unifying rather than threatening and divisive, and project an ability to govern the country in a competent, low-drama fashion.

For all those reasons, Garcetti is worth keeping an eye on (and listening to on my podcast). He’s certainly worth more than the nothing PredictIt is pricing him at. —Ezra Klein

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