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How Democrats’ 2020 Battle Resembles a Basketball Tournament

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There are so many prospective 2020 Democratic presidential candidates that you need a scorecard to keep track. Almost all of them mean to be taken seriously; there’s not a Dapper O'Neil in the bunch.

For those not versed in Boston political lore, Albert “Dapper” O'Neil was a colorful local politician who ran for mayor in 1967, getting less than 1 percent of the vote. But as chairman the Boston Licensing Board, he did put himself in a position to attract hefty donations from tavern owners. By contrast, none of the present-day Democratic presidential hopefuls are in the contest for a shakedown — or a K Street lobbying job or a lucrative turn as a cable television analyst.

How Democrats’ 2020 Battle Resembles a Basketball Tournament

With the first presidential primary more than a year away, it would be grossly premature to try to single out a favorite now. But it’s not too soon to divide the potential candidates into brackets, as for a college basketball tournament, anticipating a contest that winnows down the contenders first within their lanes and then between them.

The Insider Bracket

In one category are established officeholders led by former Vice President Joe Biden. Experienced, knowledgeable, honest and respected across the political divide, Biden’s blue-collar roots and blunt-spoken persona make his fans think of him as the perfect foil to President Donald Trump. He has a deep network of able political operatives and fund-raisers. He's also 76 years old, notoriously gaffe-prone, and has twice flamed out on the presidential stump.

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and owner of Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg Opinion, spent some $80 million to help elect a Democratic House this November. He was a successful three-term mayor, but the ex-Republican faces resistance from party liberals and isn't a gifted retail politician, a premium in the first two nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Terry McAuliffe, former governor of Virginia and national party chair, would bring political charm and is a favorite of Bill and Hillary Clintons, a mixed blessing.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is a liberal who has been in Congress for more than a quarter-century and in elective office since 1974. He could win in purple-red Ohio, but may lack the ambition needed to endure what is sure to be a punishing race.

If Biden runs, which is far from a certainty, he would begin as the favorite in this lane.

The Liberal Bracket

Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are favorites of the party's robust left wing. Sanders built up a core of committed supporters in his unsuccessful nomination challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Warren has the potential for a wider appeal.

Others in this group might include Tom Steyer, a hedge-fund billionaire turned liberal philanthropist, who has thrilled some activists with his drive to impeach Trump. He has never held or run for political office.

More impressive is U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke of Texas, who appeared more liberal than he really is by running a strong challenge this year against the right-wing candidacy of Republican Senator Ted Cruz. O'Rourke excites young voters who see him as an eloquent, optimistic second coming of Barack Obama 12 years ago. That's a nice thought, but it’s also a reach.

Put early money in this bracket on Warren.

The Diversity Bracket

Two freshmen African-American senators, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, have also invited comparisons to Obama. Both appear to be readying a run.

Others in this lane include the former U.S. housing secretary and mayor of San Antonio, Texas, Julian Castro, and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Harris has the most upside potential.

The Outsider Bracket

This lane features a couple of governors, Steve Bullock of Montana and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, and two mayors, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Mitch Landrieu, who presided in New Orleans from 2010 until May of this year.

Given the anti-Washington sentiments of many voters and a history of Democrats winning when they turn to outsiders, if one of these candidates takes off early he could walk in the path blazed in 1976 by Jimmy Carter, who rose to the White House from near-obscurity as a little-known governor of Georgia on the strength of early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

I like the chances of Landrieu, a good retail politician who has appeal to African-Americans, a voting bloc that’s especially critical in the early South Carolina primary, and also appeals to business-oriented Democrats.

In a final four of bracket winners, almost anything could happen. Party power brokers will have less say than ever before after Democrats foolishly downgraded the nominating role of elected officials. So it’s hard to predict any outcome, but here’s one possible new wrinkle. Electability rarely has been a voting issue for Democrats, but this time – more than ideology, age or geography – an edge may go to the candidate seen as best able to end the Trump nightmare.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.