They’ve been running all along

      2 Comments on They’ve been running all along

My Gracious Host posted a link to Who’s Running for President in 2020? It’s a New York Times interactive page by Alexander Burns, Matt Flegenheimer, Jasmine C. Lee, Lisa Lerer and Jonathan Martin, and it lists three dozen or so of what it calls prospective contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination. It seems like a good opportunity to talk about what we mean when we talk about running for President.

The NYT gang break down their list into Running, All But Certain, Likely to Run, Might Run, Unlikely to Run and Not Running. I object to the terminology, because the distinction between running and not running isn’t always clear. In their terminology, f’r’ex, Cory Booker is All But Certain to run for President, while in point of fact, Senator Booker is indeed running for President and has been for months. Their primary criterion for running seems to be a formal declaration—and there are lots of legal reasons, and even rhetorical reasons, why those formal declarations get made when they are made that have nothing to do with whether a person is running or not.

Josh Putnam (of FHQ, which is an excellent, excellent resource for presidential primary politics) uses terminology that distinguishes between running for 2020 and running in 2020. Lots of people started running for 2020 in 2017, and some of them earlier. Most of them will drop out of the race without ever officially announcing their candidacy. That doesn’t mean they didn’t run, just that they lost. This terminology matters (to me) for a variety of reasons—first and prospectively, if Cory Booker is running now, then party actors of various kinds should treat him like he’s running now, including demanding policy commitments in return for support. If your particular organization or organizations—labor unions, interest groups, policy advocacy networks, political action committees, regional coalitions, religious associations, whatever—wait until he formally declares his candidacy in order to get started on that business, you will have fallen well behind those who treat his candidacy as the actual, if unofficial, thing it is. And then retroactively, it’s terribly misleading to think that (f’r’ex) Joe Biden did not run for 2016. He ran and lost, as did half-a-dozen other impressive candidates who are running now.

Another reason why it’s helpful, I think, to conceptualize the candidates as already running for 2020, and some as already having lost, is that an awful lot of what Jonathan Bernstein (among others) calls winnowing happens well before voters cast votes. And there’s a tendency, I think, to look at the people who are still running in the election year and be dissatisfied with the choices. There are plenty of choices! You have plenty of opportunity right now to have some influence on which of those choices will still be around when votes get cast. You will not have anywhere near as much opportunity in 2020, when most of the people who were running for 2020 will have been winnowed out.

So what does it mean to run for 2020? If the official announcement is just one criterion among many, what are the others? Well, essentially they are the things that candidates do—if someone is doing the things that candidates do, then I’m calling them a candidate. Those include (but aren’t limited to) releasing campaign books, visiting or arranging visits to New Hampshire and Iowa (and South Carolina and Nevada), raising money (including pledges in advance from major donors or groups), taking speaking engagements at gatherings of party factions, hiring or getting commitments from staff, commissioning polls, seeking endorsements (or pledges of future endorsement), landing profiles in newspapers and other news sources, and of course getting on to the national and local broadcasts.

It’s worth keeping in mind that not all prospective contenders walk in to this process with the same resources. If John Kerry, for instance, announces his candidacy in April or May or June, he will start with a bit of a disadvantage, but he’ll probably be able to recruit staff away from other candidates, and it’s likely that many donors who have already picked a candidate would go back in to their pockets. He will already know many of the people in New Hampshire and Iowa who someone like (f’r’ex) Beto O'Rourke does not—and pretty much any group that’s inviting candidates will happily make room for him. So the fact that he’s not running (to the point that he doesn’t appear on most of the lists) should be taken along with the fact that he has a new book and has been making the kinds of book tour stops that a candidate makes. The NYT calls him Unlikely to Run, which I think is accurate, but it’s an edge case. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that he done enough to keep open the possibility of running, and that’s not really all that different from running, for John Kerry.

Another kind of edge case is Chris Murphy—he raised a ton of money for House candidates in 2018, which was totally a thing that positioned him to run for 2020, but he didn’t do much else on the list that anyone has been reporting on. I mean, it was the invisible part of the invisible primary, so I am totally willing to believe that after the election he attempted to hire pre-exploratory-committee PAC staff and found that everyone he wanted to hire was already committed to Warren or Harris or Booker. Or maybe he called up a bunch of donors and was told not to bother calling back. Will we eventually say that he ran and lost, or that he didn’t run? At this point, I think he ran and lost, but maybe you would say otherwise.

The other people that the New York Times says are Not Running mostly ran and lost, in my opinion: Bob Casey, Richard Ojeda, Deval Patrick and Tom Steyer. I don’t think Oprah Winfrey actually ran and lost, but then I wouldn’t have even mentioned her name on the list, so there’s that.

Speaking of lists, here’s a list of people who have probably been running for the 2020 Democratic Nomination:

  • Michael Avenatti
  • Michael Bennet
  • Joe Biden
  • Bill de Blasio
  • Michael Bloomberg
  • Cory Booker
  • Sherrod Brown
  • Steve Bullock
  • Pete Buttigieg
  • Bob Casey
  • Julián Castro
  • Andrew Cuomo
  • John Delaney
  • Tulsi Gabbard
  • Eric Garcetti
  • Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Kamala Harris
  • John Hickenlooper
  • Eric Holder
  • Jay Inslee
  • Tim Kaine
  • Jason Kander
  • John Kerry
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Mitch Landrieu
  • Terry MacAuliffe
  • Jeff Merkley
  • Seth Moulton
  • Chris Murphy
  • Martin O'Malley
  • Beto O'Rourke
  • Richard Ojeda
  • Deval Patrick
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Howard Schultz
  • Tom Steyer
  • Eric Swalwell
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Marianne Williamson
  • Andrew Yang

I took this list from Seth Masket’s list, and added a couple of people who have been mentioned as running but didn’t make his. A large number of those people have impressive credentials, too. Frankly, it’s a terrific Party.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

2 thoughts on “They’ve been running all along

  1. Michael

    This is an interesting difference between lived experience and documented history. As documented history, the people who ran should be the people who filed the appropriate formal papers or got on state ballots for primaries or some other objective measure. As someone who follows political news a lot, I don’t know how tuned-out people feel, but I suspect that hearing that people ran and lost before there was ever an actual election sounds rather like smoky-back-room party-machine anti-democratic shenanigans. But yeah, I don’t see much functional difference between “positioning themselves to run in 2020” and “running.”

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      The thing about history is that if history shows that, f’r’ex, in 2016 the only Democratic candidates were Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Bernie Sanders, then history will miss that Joe Biden ran and lost, that many other Dems were preparing to run in 2013 and 2014 and found that they had no staff, endorsements or network of Party insiders and advocacy groups to collect. That misunderstanding made the ‘smoky-back-room party-machine anti-democratic shenanigans’ take very persuasive, when in fact the candidate who won, did so in a fairly ordinary way.

      And in fact, the great and democratic thing about the Invisible Primary stretch is that you and I can, by joining forces with other like-minded people in organizations, have a real influence on the outcomes, largely in proportion to how much effort we want to put into it and how many people agree with us. Planned Parenthood, or the gun-control PAC, or the criminal-justice-reform-league, or the environmental justice society can really push for policy commitments, and throw around their weight, and we can join those groups very easily! That feels very democratic to me.



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