The costs and risks of the Democratic field

O.T. Ford
28 min readJan 27, 2019


Sherrod Brown being sworn in, with wife Connie Schultz and Joe Biden (Getty)

There is already a large field of Democrats (or standoffish Democratic-leaning independent socialists) running for president, and it will get larger, perhaps much larger. While evaluations of them as candidates depend heavily on personal values, there are some hard facts that face Democrats in choosing among them from a partisan perspective. What is good for the party overall? Obviously, the goal is to capture the White House and the Senate in 2020, while holding the House, and winning as many additional governorships and state legislatures as possible — and then to use these offices to implement specific policies. Which presidential nominee gives Democrats the best chance of that?

Even if we could measure electability precisely — and we very much cannot — and even if we only cared about electability — and we very much should not — nominating the most electable candidate for president is not necessarily the optimal move. Many of the nominees come with significant trade-offs. A small increase in the chances of winning the White House may entail a large decrease in the chances of winning the Senate, if, say, the best candidate for a marginal Senate seat were the presidential nominee instead. Put this in Beto terms: Is Beto O’Rourke the best candidate to reclaim the White House? Is he the best candidate to take John Cornyn’s Senate seat? Is the Texas seat likely to decide control of the Senate? If Beto is only slightly better than Elizabeth Warren as a presidential nominee, but far, far superior to anyone else as a Texas Senate nominee, and Texas is the fiftieth seat Democrats would need to control the Senate, then the best move is to nominate Warren for president and O’Rourke for Senate. The opportunity cost of Beto’s presidential run is that he is not running for Senate, which may mean the cost is the Senate itself. Moreover, if Beto is the best Senate nominee, but runs for president and fails to get the nomination, then he will be on the sidelines in November for no benefit whatsoever.

And Beto is a good example that electability alone should be a secondary concern in any case. The first criterion for the Democratic nominee should be how well that person can do the job. If Beto (or anyone else) is not the best person for the job, and could be more useful to the Democratic agenda in some other role, then there is all the more reason not to nominate him — even if he is marginally more electable than some other candidate, which again is something that cannot actually be known. And apart from Joe Biden, none of the potential candidates stands out as exceptionally prepared for the office; most of them could do the job, and the differences in experience come down, again, to values (whether you emphasize economic versus national security policy, administrative versus legislative experience).

It is often supposed that some of these candidates are not expecting to win the nomination, but are positioning themselves for a vice-presidential nomination, or the cabinet of a future Democratic president. The same calculus on opportunity costs applies. Anyone who is serving in the administration come 2021 is not available to do something else. Perhaps the best example of opportunity costs recently was Barack Obama’s selection, in 2009, of Arizona governor Janet Napolitano for Secretary of Homeland Security. Her successor was a Republican, and a very bad Republican at that: Jan Brewer. Obama also selected Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services. While Sebelius was term-limited and her term was completed by a Democrat, she could have run for Senate when her term was up. But her service under Obama, owing to opposition to Obama himself and to Obamacare, which Sebelius oversaw, largely ended any hope of winning statewide office in Kansas.

No fewer than five of the announced or potential candidates who are US Senators won reelection in 2018 (Brown, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren), meaning that their seats would not have been up again until 2024. State laws differ on vacated Senate seats. If Brown, in particular, leaves the Senate in 2021, the Republicans will get his seat for two years, and probably many years beyond that. From a broader political perspective, nominating Brown in 2020 or drafting him into the cabinet in 2021 is unwise, unless he somehow really is the only person for the job, which is a very strange thing to believe.

The section on opportunity costs obviously omits the one common to all: nominating one candidate for president excludes nominating someone else.

Several of the candidates are quite old. This obviously increases the chance that the president will die in office or become incapacitated, and the vice president will take over. That new president would then not enjoy the same popular mandate, nor would he or she have the same incumbency advantage running for reelection. Alternatively, an older president might choose to serve a single term, or an older nominee might feel compelled to promise to do so during the election, meaning that the Democrats would be contesting an open seat in 2024. An older nominee also has a challenge picking a running mate, who must simultaneously convey the experience and seriousness to serve as president if needed and the youth and vigor to be around to do so. Bear in mind that age was a political issue for Hillary Clinton, who would have been 69 on inauguration in 2017. In 2021, Bernie Sanders will be 79, Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg 78, Elizabeth Warren 71, Eric Holder and Jay Inslee 70, John Hickenlooper 69, and Sherrod Brown 68. The age issue was of course unfair to Clinton, as her main opponents were Donald Trump, who was 70 on inauguration, and Bernie Sanders, who would have been 75. Both of them were men, who have a lower life expectancy, and Trump is obviously overweight, eats badly, and doesn’t exercise. So whether this issue would affect these candidates against Trump (who would start his second term at 74), or just some of them, is unknown.

Other risks are harder to break down. Every woman would receive a special kind of abuse at Trump’s rallies. On the other hand, women get under Trump’s skin so much that he will be more easily provoked in the debates, as Hillary Clinton successfully demonstrated. Anyone who is not a white male may lose vote share among white males, but benefit from specific turnout increases, as Obama did with black voters. None of the identity categories is noted below.

Several categories of personal risk are fairly common. One is personal scandal. While any Democrat’s personal scandals should pale next to even one of Donald Trump’s many scandals, we know that Republicans, not worried about hypocrisy, will raise them anyway, and the press, ever interested in balance, will attempt to portray any Democrat’s minor scandal as the equal (at least) of all of Trump’s scandals combined. A second category involves positioning and defection. Imagine the largest possible coalition against Trump. Some potential voters from that coalition will choose not to vote, some will defect on the right, to Trump or a third-party candidate (especially the Libertarian nominee), and some will defect on the left, to a third-party candidate (especially the Green nominee). The left defectors may also, as they did in 2016, participate in the Democratic nominating process, and thus secure slots as convention delegates or even electors, and engage in disruptive defection from those positions. So any Democratic nominee is likely to lose potential voters on one side or the other due to political positions, past actions, or candidate perception. And candidate perceptions, as we’ve seen, cannot be controlled with any amount of fact.

The section on opportunity costs intends to be thorough and objective. The section on personal risks has a different purpose: to present the facts most likely to affect each candidate’s ability to assemble a winning coalition for the general election. Thus, a candidate with a few small risks will have those risks listed; a candidate with the same small risks but numerous larger risks may not have the small risks listed at all. By listing risks for all candidates, I am by no means suggesting that each candidate’s risks are equivalent. Nor am I suggesting these entries are disqualifying, or morally objectionable. I am simply saying that these are the issues I would expect the candidates to face as nominee. Again, I have left off identity matters; a female nominee or one from a racial, cultural, or sexual minority would face additional risks. Given the last two nominees, Democrats appear willing to accept these risks, as they should be.

Not addressed here is the possibility that the Democratic nominee will not face Donald Trump in 2020, whether because he is removed or resigns, chooses not to run, or loses in the primaries. This is yet another reason Democrats should focus on governance over electability, since candidates who are particularly suited to running against Trump may not do as well against Pence, Kasich, Haley, or the like.

(Entries are updated, and moved from one category to another, as the campaign progresses.)

Announced candidates

These candidates have formally announced that they will run, or that they are taking steps to prepare a run (an exploratory committee, a “listening tour”).

Joe Biden

US vice president (2009–17), US Senator from Delaware (1973–2009), New Castle County councilor (1970–2).

Age in January of 2021: 78

Opportunity cost: None. He holds no elective office, and is unlikely to run again in Delaware, where there are, in any case, plenty of potential Democratic candidates.

Personal risks: Biden is famously loose and undisciplined in public speaking and interviews. The press would likely play up every single misstatement, gaffe, and inadvertent admission. Biden’s long record in public service provides, as with Hillary Clinton, numerous points of attack from left and right; he has voted or been responsible for many things controversial either at the time, or now, such as the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, and his overly-familiar physicality in interactions with women could further dampen enthusiasm among women voters. In 2018, Biden praised Republican US representative Fred Upton in a paid speech in his district just before the midterms.

Mike Bloomberg

Mayor of New York (2002–13), owner and CEO of a large eponymous corporation. Initially declined to run but later declared.

Age in January of 2021: 78

Opportunity cost: Very little. He holds no political office, and there is no shortage of other Democrats in New York. Theoretically, his wealth would give him the ability to mount a last-minute campaign for a New York office under improbable circumstances. If anything, nominating Bloomberg would reduce risk, since his massive wealth means he is the person most able to mount an independent bid and spoil the election, and he has entertained an independent bid before.

Personal risks: As a multibillionaire, Bloomberg would certainly alienate a segment of the left; the harassment of and anger towards Hillary Clinton as a supposed agent of Wall Street, if it was sincere, would presumably hit Bloomberg much harder. His business career has never been vetted by the national press. As someone who left the Democratic Party to run for mayor as a Republican, then left that party as well, and finally rejoined the Democratic Party just in time for what would be a presidential run, he would inspire zero loyalty among party regulars.

Tulsi Gabbard

US Representative from Hawaii (since 2013), Honolulu city councilor (2011–2), Hawaii state representative (2003–5), Hawaii Army National Guard officer (since 2003).

Age in January of 2021: 39

Opportunity cost: More likely are direct costs and opportunity benefits. If Gabbard leaves the House in 2021, there will be a new, presumably Democratic, and almost-unquestionably-superior representative for Hawaii’s second district. On the other hand, that would mean that Gabbard is in some other, higher office, which would be a disaster. The only, very limited, value to nominating her for president is that she would not then pursue a third-party spoiler bid. The best outcome by far is that she lose both nominations and also fail to get nominated by any other party.

Personal risks: Where to begin? Gabbard holds a number of outrageous positions, which no one else in the party would want to defend, and to nominate her would potentially bring the Democrats closer to Trump-era Republicans than they’d like to believe, in which voters are embracing and officials are advocating positions that they found abhorrent not long before. She’s an ardent apologist for the world’s strongmen, provided they claim to be fighting Islamic terrorists. This has included essentially cheering on Assad and Putin in Syria, and denying Assad’s atrocities. She would alienate much of the cultural left with her apparent animosity towards Islam. Some of her past positions are also quite bad, a brand of social conservatism that few Democrats still embrace, and which Gabbard has backed away from in a dubious way. For example, she now supports gay rights, but her stated reason is only that she thinks the government shouldn’t impose morality; that is really not where most Democrats are. Also, nominating Gabbard is a lot like running Trump against Trump. Why wouldn’t people just vote for Trump?

Amy Klobuchar

US Senator from Minnesota (since 2007), Hennepin County attorney (1999–2007).

Age in January of 2021: 60

Opportunity cost: Klobuchar was just reelected in 2018. Democratic governor Tim Walz would appoint her replacement for two years. Minnesota is slowly trending away from the Democrats, though, and Klobuchar was an unusually-successful politician statewide, likely better than any replacement. The Democratic nominee for the 2022 special election would also face a midterm environment under a Democratic president, so the risk to Klobuchar’s seat in that election would be very real.

Personal risks: As a long-time, big-city prosecutor, Klobuchar potentially has made many decisions that would draw anger from the left, particularly as expectations have changed since her tenure. As a lower-profile potential candidate than Kamala Harris, she has yet to draw the same scrutiny, but that scrutiny would appear in time to sour her relationship with elements of the left in the general election. Klobuchar has been accused of mistreating staff, which could affect her ability to staff a general-election campaign, and lead to bad headlines, especially in the event of a mid-campaign resignation.

Bernie Sanders

US Senator from Vermont (since 2007), US Representative (1991–2007), mayor of Burlington (1981–1989). Sanders is an independent and self-described socialist who caucuses in the Senate with the Democrats, and finished second in the 2016 Democratic nominating process.

Age in January of 2021: 79

Opportunity cost: Sanders was just reelected in 2018. While not a Democrat officially, he caucuses and generally votes with the Democrats, so his presence keeps the seat effectively in Democratic hands through 2025. If he leaves the Senate in 2021, his seat will be filled temporarily by whoever is elected governor of Vermont in 2020 (a position currently held by Republican Phil Scott, who is free to run for reelection). A special election must be held within three months, and a Democrat (a real Democrat, in fact) would be heavily favored to win. Of course, given Sanders’ track record statewide in Vermont, he could challenge Scott himself, and then appoint his own successor — but that person could well be a self-identified independent also.

Personal risks: Sanders describes himself as a “socialist”. Whether he fits a broader definition of ‘socialist’ or not, he has opened himself to attacks based on the general unpopularity of “socialism”. The greater acceptance of the term among young voters of the left will hardly make a difference in a general election, where its cost is untested and unknown. Sanders won’t release his tax returns; as the press runs a double standard for Trump and everyone else, this may be a controversy, particularly if Trump’s returns are acquired and released by the House by then. [Edit: On 2019 April 15, Sanders finally released ten years of returns.] Because of his role in 2016 — attacking the eventual nominee after the race was clearly over, promoting outsiders who hold the party in contempt — Sanders has alienated many party loyalists. Though as a younger man Sanders took an interest in foreign affairs, he largely ignores national security and was unimpressive on the subject in 2016. His past views on foreign policy were also radical, showing tolerance for and even sympathy with outright anti-US expressions and actions. As with Klobuchar, there are reports of maltreatment of staff; he’s abnormally impatient with the public as well. And while previous candidates are often safer, having been vetted by opposition and the press, Sanders was never really a threat to Hillary Clinton and thus largely spared the customary attacks.

Elizabeth Warren

US Senator from Massachusetts (since 2013), White House special advisor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (2010–11), chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP (2008–10).

Age in January of 2021: 71

Opportunity cost: Elizabeth Warren was just reelected in 2018, ensuring a Democratic Senator through 2025. If she leaves in 2021, Republican governor Charlie Baker will appoint a Republican replacement, but a special election must be held within 160 days. Special elections are not exactly safe for the Democrats in Massachusetts (see: Scott Brown), but it is very unlikely in the Trump era for a Republican to win a national (rather than state) office. So the cost if Warren leaves is about six months with a Republican Senator, and a small risk of a full two years.

Personal risks: Trump would of course spend the entire campaign calling her “Pocahontas”. Before, the taunt was probably a net plus for Warren, since it was widely considered racist by non-Trumpists. But the DNA test was badly received by many in the left, and any use of the taunt may simply remind the left of the incident.

Potential candidates

These candidates are known or thought to be considering a run. It’s not an exhaustive list, of course.

Brian Schweitzer

Governor of Montana (2005–13), nominee for US Senate in 2000.

Age in January of 2021: 65

Opportunity cost: As with his successor, current governor Steve Bullock, Schweitzer has a proven ability to win statewide in Montana; he was reelected in 2008 by a 31% margin. And he has run for Senate before. He could challenge Steve Daines in 2020 and bring the Democrats a second US Senate seat from Montana.

Personal risks: Schweitzer aborted an expected Senate run in 2014 when the press began investigating a questionable fundraising arrangement intended to support his candidacy. Having served only as governor, Schweitzer has no national-security experience.

Former candidates, or declined to run

These assessments are archived here on the expectation that many of the potential candidates will be considered for vice-presidential or cabinet nominations, where many of the same costs and risks apply.

Stacey Abrams

Georgia state representative (2007–17) and state House of Representatives minority leader (2011–7), Atlanta deputy city attorney (2002–7), 2018 nominee for governor. Declined to run.

Age in January of 2021: 47

Opportunity cost: She currently holds no elective office. Her unusual success in a statewide race, against Brian Kemp for the governorship in 2018, losing by 1.4% (versus 7.8% for previous nominee Jason Carter in 2014, 5.1% for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and 13.7% for US Senate nominee Jim Barksdale in 2016), as well as her legislative experience, make her the obvious candidate for the next statewide race, for US Senate against Republican David Perdue; her strategy could be duplicated, but her personal appeal cannot, and there is no way to parse the effect of each.

Personal risks: As someone without national political experience, her qualifications would be questioned by the press and opponents, particularly as Trump has already attacked her qualifications for the governorship. Abrams admitted in 2018 that she owes $170,000 in various debts and $50,000 in back taxes. She has also written novels that could be used to embarrass her.

Michael Bennet

US Senator from Colorado (since 2009); superintendent of Denver public schools (2005–9). Declared; dropped out after New Hampshire.

Age in January of 2021: 56

Opportunity cost: Bennet is up for reelection in 2022. If he leaves early in 2021, his replacement would be appointed by Democratic governor Jared Polis. In his 2016 reelection, Bennet significantly overperformed.

Personal risks: Bennet is a very recent (2019) cancer survivor.

Cory Booker

US Senator from New Jersey (since 2013), mayor of Newark (2006–13). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 51

Opportunity cost: Booker’s Senate seat is up in 2020. If he doesn’t run for reelection, another Democrat will likely win in his place. However, a new law would allow Booker to run simultaneously for president and Senate. If he runs for both, gets both nominations, and wins both elections, he can serve briefly in the Senate and resign, leaving Democratic governor Phil Murphy to appoint a replacement, and New Jersey would likely elect a new Democrat to serve the remaining four years in 2022. The risk is that by running for president, Booker will hurt his chances on the Senate ballot (whether he is or is not nominated for president), with a Republican arguing that he doesn’t actually want the job; this effect will probably be real but very small and unlikely to change the outcome.

Personal risks: Despite a consistently-liberal voting record, Booker’s electoral risks come mainly from the left. Given his real and perceived ties to Wall Street, he may face a Clinton 2016-style revolt of the left — disruptions at the Democratic National Convention, abstention and third-party defection in November.

Sherrod Brown

US Senator from Ohio (since 2007), US Representative (1993–2007), Ohio secretary of state (1983–91), Ohio state representative (1975–82). Declined to run.

Age in January of 2021: 68

Opportunity cost: Stated plainly, nominating Sherrod Brown for any other position in 2020–1 will probably cost the Democrats a Senate seat permanently. Brown was just reelected in 2018, ensuring a Democratic Senator through 2025. If he leaves the Senate in 2021, governor Mike DeWine will appoint a Republican to take his place for the next two years. The 2022 election for the final two years of Brown’s term would be a midterm election under a Democratic president, which would boost the Republican on its own, and the Democratic nominee would not have incumbency. And Ohio is moving steadily towards the Republicans, while Brown has performed considerably better than other Democrats statewide recently; he won in 2018 by 6%, while gubernatorial nominee Rich Cordray was losing by 4%, and two years after Hillary Clinton lost Ohio by 8%. There is no obvious Democrat who can take his place.

Personal risks: During their divorce proceedings, Brown’s first wife accused him of physical and emotional abuse, and while she later largely retracted these claims and supports Brown politically, the claims have been used against him in recent campaigns and would be again.

Steve Bullock

Governor of Montana (since 2013), Montana attorney general (2009–13). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 54

Opportunity cost: Montana is not competitive in presidential elections, but it is very competitive for statewide office. Democrats have won the last four gubernatorial elections, and hold one of the US Senate seats (Jon Tester). But Republicans hold the other Senate seat (Steve Daines, since 2015) and the at-large House seat (since 1997), so not every Democrat can win in Montana. Daines’ seat is up in 2020, and running a popular Democrat against him is better than running an unknown.

Personal risks: Despite being a Westerner, Bullock is safely in the mainstream of the party; but as a politician with little national attention, his record has not been subject to much press scrutiny. He also, like other state politicians, has no national-security experience.

Pete Buttigieg

Mayor of South Bend Indiana (2012–20), US Navy officer (since 2009). Declared; dropped out after South Carolina.

Age in January of 2021: 39

Opportunity cost: Buttigieg’s term expired at the beginning of 2020; he passed up a run for a third term to pursue the presidency instead. All mayors have been Democrats since 1972, so the position is not itself likely at risk. But there are intermediate offices between mayor and president that Buttigieg could pursue instead. The second Congressional district to which South Bend belongs has a Republican representative, Jackie Walorski, reelected in 2018 by 9.6%; it elected a Democratic representative (Joe Donnelly) as recently as 2010, and Walorski’s original election in 2012 came with a margin of just 1.5%. The statewide offices are reaches for Democrats, but Donnelly did win the Senate in 2012 (losing reelection in 2018); the other seat is up in 2022. Democrats won the governorship four straight times from 1988 to 2000; the office is up in 2020.

Personal risks: As a small-city mayor, Buttigieg has little experience that would prepare him for the presidency. Several times as mayor, he dealt with a controversy involving the police and race, and on two of those occasions, Buttigieg opted against transparency; in June of 2019 a white police officer killed a black man in a shooting unrecorded by existing dash or body cameras. Buttigieg’s past work as a business consultant has already drawn attack from the left, as have his efforts to soft-pedal Trumpism.

Julián Castro

US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (2014–7), mayor of San Antonio (2009–14), San Antonio city councilor (2001–5). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 46

Opportunity cost: Castro holds no elective office. He is, however, a potential statewide candidate for office in Texas, and Texas has a US Senate seat up for election in 2020, currently held by Republican John Cornyn. Given Beto O’Rourke’s close finish in 2018 and Texas’s changing demographics, Democrats will want a serious nominee.

Personal risks: Castro’s cabinet position gives him experience with administration, as does his mayoralty, but neither demonstrates policy experience in any of the major fields of the presidency, apart from, peripherally, economics.

Andrew Cuomo

Governor of New York (since 2011), New York attorney general (2007–10), US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (1997–2001), Assistant US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (1993–7). Declined to run.

Age in January of 2021: 63

Opportunity cost: None. Cuomo’s lieutenant governor and constitutional successor is Democrat Kathy Hochul, who would then appoint a Democrat to succeed her as lieutenant governor. As Democrats are plentiful in New York and win most of the elections, his replacement would be easy enough and, given his years working to prevent a Democratic state senate, arguably preferable from a partisan perspective.

Personal risks: While Cuomo has, relative to his predecessors, moved New York ahead on notable issues important to the left (gay marriage, for example), he has generally done less than New York politics would permit, and until just recently he used a breakaway faction of Democrats to give control of the state senate to Republicans, and thus thwart liberal policy priorities. This, and the fact that his New York position involves the regulation of Wall Street, would potentially risk defections on the left.

Bill de Blasio

Mayor of New York (since 2014), New York public advocate (2010–3), New York city councilor (2002–9). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 59

Opportunity cost: De Blasio is term-limited; his current and final term expires at the end of 2021. In the event he left office in early 2021, his position would be taken by the public advocate, Jumaane Williams, chosen in a February special election. There is no shortage of Democrats to run for office in New York, though prior to de Blasio’s first election, Democrats had lost five straight mayoral elections, and de Blasio won with two landslides, so his electoral ability could conceivably be missed.

Personal risks: De Blasio has been the subject of federal and state investigations for selling access and bribery, though never charged. New York is larger than thirty-nine states, and Rudy Giuliani, a previous mayor, ran for president without significant doubts about his experience, but as mayors have not historically been elevated directly to the presidency, de Blasio may face questions about experience anyway. While broadly on the left of the party, some of de Blasio’s mayoral decisions have been unpopular with the left. De Blasio promised, when campaigning for his current term, to serve the entire term.

John Delaney

US Representative from western Maryland (2013–9). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 57

Opportunity cost: None. He holds no elective office and has no special appeal for other possible offices in Maryland; his old district was retained in 2018 by a new Democrat with the same margin.

Personal risks: His short tenure in the House, and failure to distinguish himself nationally, leave him vulnerable to charges of inexperience. Since he has not had a high national profile, his political and business careers have not been truly vetted.

Eric Garcetti

Mayor of Los Angeles (since 2013), Los Angeles city councilor (2001–13) and council president (2006–12). Declined to run.

Age in January of 2021: 49

Opportunity cost: None. Los Angeles and California have tons of Democrats waiting to run for every open position, and the next mayor of Los Angeles will be a Democrat.

Personal risks: Los Angeles has four million people, more than twenty-three states, so its mayor is at least comparable to the governor of Vermont (population 630,000). In a contest with Donald Trump, Garcetti’s lack of conventional experience shouldn’t matter. But it would probably matter to the press.

Kirsten Gillibrand

US Senator from New York (since 2009), US Representative (2007–9). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 55

Opportunity cost: Very little. Gillibrand was just reelected in 2018, ensuring a Democratic Senator through 2025. But if she leaves the Senate in 2021, Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo (or, should Cuomo also leave office, his Democratic successor, current lieutenant governor Kathy Hochul) will appoint a Democratic replacement, to serve until a November special election, in which a Democrat would be heavily favored, drawing from a huge Democratic bench.

Personal risks: Having once represented a more conservative district in upstate New York, Gillibrand previously took more conservative positions, which she has changed since being appointed to the Senate. This inconsistency itself exposes her to attacks. Coupled with her swift call for Al Franken’s resignation, which was consistent with her previous advocacy on sexual misconduct but led to a cascade against Franken, these inconsistencies can be painted into a picture of opportunism and self-interest. As a New York politician, she would be hit from the left for her ties to Wall Street. She promised not to run for president just last year, as part of her Senate campaign, when she certainly would have won anyway. As someone who has only served in Congress, Gillibrand has no public administrative experience.

Kamala Harris

US Senator from California (since 2017), California attorney general (2011–7), San Francisco district attorney (2004–11). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 56

Opportunity cost: None. Her replacement would be appointed by Democratic governor Gavin Newsom, drawing from a deep, hungry bench of younger Democrats, and the next election to the seat in 2022 would almost certainly go to a Democrat as well (in fact, in California’s top-two primary system, the last two Senate general elections have been between two Democrats).

Personal risks: Her main electoral vulnerability comes from the left, due to her past as a prosecutor, which she is openly embracing in her run. Generally, the most disruptive part of the left, and those most likely to abstain or vote third party, are less focused on criminal-justice issues than economics, but Harris has received a lot of negative attention from leftists since announcing, and it appears that, if she beats Sanders to the nomination, his followers will disrupt her candidacy as they did Hillary Clinton’s. She also has only two years in national politics (four years, come 2021), and her administrative experience is limited to law enforcement.

John Hickenlooper

Governor of Colorado (2011–9), mayor of Denver (2003–11). Declared but dropped out; running for US Senate.

Age in January of 2021: 68; turns 69 within weeks

Opportunity cost: Some, but not much. Hickenlooper holds no office. A Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner is up for reelection in 2020. Hickenlooper would be a strong candidate for that race, but there are other Democrats in Colorado, the state is likely to go to the Democratic nominee in the presidential election, and the Senate seat will probably go with it, with or without Hickenlooper.

Personal risks: As someone who has only served in Colorado, Hickenlooper has no national-security experience.

Eric Holder

US Attorney General (2009–15), US Deputy Attorney General (1997–2001), US Attorney for the District of Columbia (1993–7), DC Superior Court judge (1988–93). Declined to run.

Age in January of 2021: 69; turns 70 the day after inauguration

Opportunity cost: None. He holds no elective office, and has shown no inclination to pursue a different one. In any case, he makes his home in Washington and originally comes from New York, two cities with no shortage of Democratic politicians.

Personal risks: As Obama’s attorney general, Holder would be held (and to some extent was) responsible for acts and policies controversial to the right or left — the legality of the War on Terror, the prosecution of leakers, the non-prosecution of Wall Street after the financial crisis, and especially a botched gun-smuggling sting, Fast and Furious, which ended up arming Mexican drug gangs.

Jay Inslee

Governor of Washington (since 2013), US Representative (1993–5, 1999–2012), state representative (1989–93). Declared but dropped out; running for reelection.

Age in January of 2021: 69; turns 70 in weeks

Opportunity cost: The governorship of Washington is up for election in 2020 and has no term limits. While Democrats have long held the governorship, Inslee’s first election was by just a 2% margin, so an incumbent may be safer than a different Democrat. The two US Senate seats are currently held by Democrats (Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell).

Personal risks: In Congress, Inslee opposed the Iraq War, but supported the intervention in Libya.

Terry McAuliffe

Governor of Virginia (2014–8), chair of the Democratic National Committee (2001–5), campaign chair for Bill Clinton (1996) and Hillary Clinton (2008). Declined to run.

Age in January of 2021: 63; turns 64 in weeks

Opportunity cost: None to speak of. McAuliffe was limited to one term as governor, and two of his term-limited Democratic predecessors hold the US Senate seats, so there are only lower offices that he could run for.

Personal risks: He is easy to caricature as an old-style wheeler-dealer politician. As a long-time associate of the Clintons, and a pragmatist of the center-left, he would excite much the same animus from segments of the left. His career in business and finance and his prolific fundraising for the party would have a similar effect. McAuliffe’s only governmental experience is his term as governor, which of course excludes national security.

Jeff Merkley

US Senator from Oregon (since 2009), Oregon state representative (1999–2009) and House speaker (2007–9). Declined to run.

Age in January of 2021: 64

Opportunity cost: Merkley’s seat is up for reelection in 2020. Under current law, he cannot run for president/vice president and Senator simultaneously, but he has asked the legislature to change that. If he does not run for Senate, another Democrat is likely to run and win in his place. If the law is changed and he runs for and wins both, his Senate seat could only be filled by a special election, which Democrats would also be likely to win. There is a slight risk that a Republican challenger would find success in the Senate race if Merkley is also running on the presidential ticket, arguing that Merkley is not serious about representing Oregon. But most likely Oregon would not elect a Republican to the Senate, particularly in a presidential year.

Personal risks: As a consistent member of the left wing of the party, Merkley would be most likely to face defection on the right.

Seth Moulton

US Representative from northeast Massachusetts (since 2015), US Marine officer (2001–8). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 42

Opportunity cost: Very little; if anything, a replacement in the House would be a more reliable Democrat.

Personal risks: Moulton has little experience, at the start of only his third term. He’s also, like Tim Ryan, a leader in the House of an anti-Pelosi faction, who has burnt bridges with party loyalists and would not inspire turnout.

Richard Ojeda

West Virginia state senator (2016–9), US Army officer (1988–2013, retired as a major), nominee for US House in 2018. Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 50

Opportunity cost: While defeated in his run for the US House by 12%, he overperformed the previous nominee, who lost by 44%; he also massively overperformed Hillary Clinton in his state senate district. As a combat veteran and a populist, he has some crossover appeal that might work statewide in West Virginia, which, while deep red at the presidential level, just reelected Democratic US Senator Joe Manchin, and has also elected Democratic governors continuously since 2000 (including current governor Jim Justice, who switched parties in office). Justice and West Virginia’s other US Senator, Republican Shelly Moore Capito, are both up for reelection in 2020. Ojeda has virtually no chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, but could run again for US House, or challenge Justice or Capito.

Personal risks: Ojeda supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries, and Donald Trump in the general election, meaning he is unlikely to inspire much enthusiasm from the party base. His lack of experience would be an issue for the press; Trump had even less experience, but doesn’t exactly make a good case for inexperience, and he won’t be inexperienced in 2020.

Beto O’Rourke

US Representative from western Texas (2013–9), El Paso city councilor (2005–11), nominee for US Senate in 2018. Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 48

Opportunity cost: O’Rourke currently holds no political office. But he does have a proven record running statewide in Texas, overperforming significantly in his 2018 loss to Ted Cruz. Texas has another Senate race in 2020, against John Cornyn. O’Rourke may be the best Democrat to face him, perhaps the only one who can win.

Personal risks: O’Rourke has been arrested twice, once for burglary for a petty trespassing incident at age 22, and once for driving while intoxicated on the night of his 26th birthday; the former charges were dropped, the latter dismissed after completing a program. He also spent time in a punk band, which opponents have used to ridicule him. His refusal to support the Democratic nominee (Gina Ortiz Jones) in a neighboring Congressional district, and his effective endorsement of the Republican incumbent (Will Hurd), may strain his relationship with the party base. Finally, his failure to win statewide office and his low profile while in Congress may lead to Republican and press attacks for lack of experience.

Deval Patrick

Governor of Massachusetts (2007–15), US Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights (1994–7). Declared; dropped out after New Hampshire.

Age in January of 2021: 64

Opportunity cost: Little to none. Currently holds no office, and term-limited for the governorship, while both US Senators from Massachusetts are Democrats, and one already has a credible primary challenger.

Personal risks: His time with Bain Capital after he left office would put him squarely in the category of potential nominees who could alienate the economic left.

Tim Ryan

US Representative from northeast Ohio (since 2003); Ohio state senator (2001–2). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 47

Opportunity cost: He has won his seat handily in every election but the two where former representative Jim Trafficant ran as an independent; but his margin has been shrinking, and Republicans perform even better in the district in other races (Rob Portman won it in his 2016 US Senate race and John Kasich in his 2014 governor’s race; Trump finished just 6% behind Hillary Clinton), so a replacement candidate may not fare as well. Ryan’s overperformance in his district may indicate an ability to compete statewide, as for governor or US Senate in 2022.

Personal risks: Ryan ran against Nancy Pelosi for the House leadership in 2016, and supported a challenge in 2018 as well, so he is unlikely to inspire or command the loyalty of many Democratic voters.

Joe Sestak

US Representative from eastern Pennsylvania (2007–11), US Navy officer (1974–2005; retired as vice admiral). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 69

Opportunity cost: Sestak was elected by a 13% margin in a district with a significant Republican advantage, then reelected by 19%, and ran 9% ahead of the gubernatorial nominee for his 2010 US Senate run, so he has evident crossover appeal, which he could use in either of two eastern Pennsylvania US House districts currently held by Republicans.

Personal risks: Sestak has a history of bad relations with national Democrats in his two US Senate runs.

Tom Steyer

Hedge-fund manager, activist. Declared; dropped out after South Carolina.

Age in January of 2021: 63

Opportunity cost: As he holds no office, the primary opportunity cost for his run in general, as long as it lasts, is monetary. He has shown a willingness to spend money on causes that further Democratic goals, and is spending that money instead on a presidential run.

Personal risks: He has no government experience. As a billionaire from the financial markets, he would face serious risk of defection by the economic left. His long advocacy for impeachment of Donald Trump would conversely pose a risk to the attraction of some centrists.

Eric Swalwell

US Representative from northern California (since 2013), Dublin city councilor (2011–3). Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 40

Opportunity costs: Swalwell defeated an incumbent Democrat (Pete Stark) in a top-two primary in 2012 to win his first race, and has since won reelection with 69% or better, so his replacement would likely be a Democrat as well, of which there are many in California eager for opportunities; the sole cost would be a vacancy until a special election.

Personal risks: While he has risen into House leadership and holds conventional views for a California Democrat, as someone who primaried a sitting member of Congress, he could conceivably lose some party loyalists.

Marianne Williamson

Spiritual personality. Declared but dropped out.

Age in January of 2021: 68

Opportunity cost: None to speak of. She holds no office, and her political base in California is a Democratic stronghold.

Personal risks: She has no government experience, and holds views that, while not dramatically less rational than common religions, are, because they are uncommon, much easier to caricature.

Andrew Yang

Entrepreneur and business executive. Declared; dropped out after New Hampshire.

Age in January of 2021: 46

Opportunity cost: Very little. He holds no office. As a person with decent personal wealth, he could self-fund a run for Congress, though New York is not short of such people.

Personal risks: Young and with no government experience, Yang would be open to significant attacks on his lack of preparation for office.



O.T. Ford

Analyst, generalist, rationalist. PhD, geography (world culture/politics), UCLA. Complete archive at