July 15, 2019

Handicapping the Dems

The United States Capitol. July 27, 2017. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/REUTERS.

The college basketball season is over, and most of us have quietly thrown away our March Madness office pool brackets in shame and embarrassment. But there might be a lesson to be learned in how those brackets helped fans make some sense out of a sprawling and unwieldy field of contenders. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tourney always is marked by a frenzy of chaos and unpredictability. The fight for the Democratic presidential nomination has begun in much the same way. 

The NCAA has learned that the best way to establish some sense of order is to divide the field into four regions. As the largest field of potential candidates in modern political history begins to take shape, perhaps this approach could work just as well for handicapping the rapidly growing field of Democratic presidential hopefuls.

It makes more sense to establish the Democratic brackets based on different components of the party’s emerging identity. Ideological, demographic and generational divisions must all be resolved before Democrats can unite behind a candidate to defeat President Donald Trump. 

Here is an early look at the field before the first round tips off:

Unapologetic Progressive Regional

Bernie Sanders – Massive first-quarter fundraising shows 2016 contender with a big edge over younger foes even in a more crowded field.

Elizabeth Warren – Has the thickest policy portfolio, but crowds aren’t excited yet. Betting voters want substance rather than flash.

Jay Inslee – Washington governor running as a single-issue candidate. Climate change is key issue for primary voters, but is that enough?

Julian Castro – The only Latino candidate needs to motivate nation’s fastest-growing voter bloc to get to the Final Four.

Middle America Centrists Regional

Joe Biden – Pride of Scranton, Pa., and former President Barack Obama sidekick represents old-school collaborative approach. But 20th-century baggage may hurt with new-era Dems.

Amy Klobuchar – Minnesota senator emphasizes heartland progressive credentials to work across party lines. Low-key but rising.

John Delaney – Former Maryland House member spends his own fortune to run as centrist. Will spending more time in Iowa than anyone get him noticed?

John Hickenlooper/Michael Bennet – Play-in game between moderate former Colorado governor vs. moderate Colorado senator. Only room for one of them.

Emerging Majority Regional

Kamala Harris – Former prosecutor and current senator from California uses courtroom chops to take on Trump, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which made her an early crowd favorite.

Cory Booker – Former big city mayor, current senator from New Jersey selling message of love and unity. But Wall Street ties might be a problem.

Kirsten Gillibrand – Has #MeToo candidate missed her moment? Maybe, but another Harvey Weinstein scandal brings her right back into the fray.

Stacey Abrams – The narrowly-defeated Georgia gubernatorial candidate is already on many early VP lists but hasn’t a run of her own.

Instagram Upstart Regional

Pete Buttigieg – Just your typical 30-something gay, veteran, Indiana mayor running for president. Early season long shot moves to top seed.

Beto O’Rourke – Texas folk hero almost parlayed social media magic into senate seat. Lots of early excitement, but still waiting for policy details.

Andrew Yang – Former tech exec has never run for office, but uses online network, universal income proposal to qualify for first debate.

Mark Cuban – Megalomaniac billionaire-TV reality host hints about running. But people like that never actually go through with
it, right?

One candidate from each of these four regions will almost certainly be represented when the field narrows next year after the first few primaries, and we’ll have a much better sense of the finalists after seeing how they perform in the early rounds.

And good luck with your own selections.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.