Every presidential primary ends with one winner and a lot of losers. Some might argue that one or two once-little-known candidates who overperform low expectations get to enjoy a form of moral victory. (Ben Carson and Rick Perry might be happy how the 2016 cycle ended, with both taking roles in Trump’s cabinet. Bernie Sanders might be, too.) But running for president and flopping is a deep disappointment, and while the occasional figure can emerge from a failed bid to move on to different victories — Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole became senators, Jerry Brown became governor again, Howard Dean became chair of the Democratic National Committee — a lot of failed presidential candidates fade away into the private sector and obscurity beyond occasional cable-news appearances: Bill Bradley, Tommy Thompson, Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt, Alan Keyes, Bob Graham, Bill Richardson, Evan Bayh, Michele Bachmann.
The 2020 Democratic primary is going to end with about 23 campaigns falling short of actual victory and any moral victories. Perhaps two candidates will end up in a unity ticket, and perhaps one or two will have set themselves up for another run for another office someday. But the coming year will bring a lot of anticlimax, frustration, and disillusionment for a lot of once-promising figures in the party.
Here are the 24 Democratic presidential candidates, more or less in order of their position, although outside the top four or five, the ranking barely matters.
Joe Biden: Former vice president and senator from Delaware. Biden is the current front-runner by a considerable margin. You know him — the gaffes, the self-regard, the windy speeches. He’s the old reliable, the known quantity, the one that a lot of Democrats see as the safest bet to beat an incumbent President Trump. Interestingly, it’s not just name recognition that has built up Biden’s lead. He’s polling 42 percent among the Democrats following the race “a lot.”
Bernie Sanders: Senator from Vermont. Sanders started strong, particularly in fundraising, and is still regularly finishing second in polling, but he’s now well behind Biden. He is within four points of Biden in Iowa. In 2016, Sanders had the advantage of being the only serious option to a not-all-that-beloved establishment front-runner; running against twenty-some other candidates is tougher.
Kamala Harris: Senator from California. National Journal Josh Kraushaar argues that she’s been the most self-destructive candidate, veering way too far to the left and deemphasizing what ought to be one of her strengths as a tough prosecutor. But she may be playing the long game. Remember that the Golden State allows early voting this cycle, and a big win there, with California’s 416 delegates, would put Harris a long way toward the 1,885 she needs to win.
Elizabeth Warren: Senator from Massachusetts. Warren is enjoying a little bit of a resurgence and earning some positive buzz for having the most white papers and putting the most thought into how her policies would actually work. But she’s running a campaign that is thematically similar to Hillary Clinton’s — “Whenever I meet a little girl, I say: ‘I’m running for president, because that’s what girls do,’” — and that’s the one kind of candidate we’ve seen Trump beat in a general election.
Pete Buttigieg: Mayor of South Bend, Ind. The candidate closest to that “moral victory of punching above his weight and making a splash” category, although it’s likely that Buttigieg’s early success spurred a lot of other little-known Democrats to look in the mirror and say, “Why not me?” It’s fair to wonder if Buttigieg’s style and persona are more popular with the media covering the Democratic primary than with the people who vote in the Democratic primary.
Cory Booker: Senator from New Jersey. Booker is somewhat less partisan than most of the rest of the field, focusing on sunny optimism, whether the Democratic primary electorate wants it or not. His supporters are starting to chafe a bit at the development that Buttigieg is getting the press for being a young dynamic mayor of a city that has seen better days.
Amy Klobuchar: Senator from Minnesota. Klobuchar was known for being collegial with GOP Senate colleagues despite a voting record that shows her loyalty to her party. Now she’s better known as a hellacious boss — and she may need to flash a little of that emotion to stand out in this extremely crowded debate stage.
Julian Castro: Former mayor of San Antonio, former secretary of housing and urban development. Castro is easy to overlook and forget, but he remains the lone Latino candidate in the field. You’re already hearing murmurs that he’s running for vice president.
Kirsten Gillibrand: Senator from New York. May go down in history as the first presidential candidate whose efforts in Iowa were derailed by a woman who just wanted to get some ranch dressing. Sputtering out of the gate, Gillibrand may also be demonstrating that what members of the Democratic-friendly media think they want on paper — accomplished woman, capable of connecting with both Wall Street and small-town Hudson Valley voters, running on a “driven working mom” persona — is not what they actually want.
Beto O’Rourke: Former congressman from Texas. Along with Gillibrand, O’Rourke is watching a once-somewhat-respected reputation and bright future fading away in the noise of the campaign. Day by day, O’Rourke demonstrates that he was the creation of a media hype machine that saw exactly what it wanted to see in him because they loathed Ted Cruz with a passion. We won’t know until the debates how well his inspiring “unite everyone” persona holds up when other candidates are taking shots at him.
Tulsi Gabbard: Congresswoman from Hawaii. Stands out for being a veteran, a surfer, and a young woman as far as presidential candidates go. Getting some grief for using the term “fake news” in the context of support from Russophiles.
John Hickenlooper: Former governor of Colorado. In another time, this persona and résumé would get him serious consideration. In this time and place, he’s one of the least-noticed and least-discussed candidates.
Steve Bullock: Governor of Montana. Bullock is running to remind Democrats that they may want to try to win a red state or two.
Jay Inslee: Washington governor. Running entirely on the issue of climate change, which is another way of saying that he’s running to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the next Democratic administration.
John Delaney: Maryland congressman who’s been running for president since May 2017 with almost no one noticing. Sounds like a stock background character in a fictional presidential race.
Michael Bennet: Senator from Colorado. Late start, but at least he’s demonstrated a past ability to win a hard-fought race. Perhaps we should start with a smaller goal, like getting everyone to remember that his surname only has one t. MSNBC, C-SPAN, Vox, NPR, and the Sierra Club, among others, have gotten it wrong over the years.
Seth Moulton: Congressman from Massachusetts. On paper, a Marine combat veteran of Iraq who challenged Nancy Pelosi and who’s focusing on national security should stand out in this field. Then again, that was more or less the persona and pitch of Wesley Clark in 2004, and he flopped.
Tim Ryan: Congressman from Ohio. The Democrats’ ambassador to blue-collar America, Ryan is closest to the demographic that most Democrats believe they must win back in order to win Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. But because Ryan echoes Trump in some ways — opposition to free trade, talk about “forgotten Americans,” opposes the Green New Deal and Medicaid for All — most Democrats won’t give him a second look.
Eric Swalwell: Congressman from California. Perhaps no candidate has done more to pitch himself to the Twitter Left, touting himself as the “guns and Russia” candidate. But despite relentless focus on these issues, he’s still extremely little-known. He’s not even listed in the 16-candidate RealClearPolitics national polling average.
Mike Gravel: Former senator from Alaska who left office almost 40 years ago. He’s 89, which makes Bernie Sanders look young. His campaign manager is an 18-year-old high-school senior. This is a good setup for a Hollywood comedy, not an actual presidential campaign.
Bill de Blasio: Mayor of New York City, workout commuter, father of subway delays, slayer of groundhogs. Openly detested by left-of-center members of the national media who live in New York City and who blame him for the declining quality of life. Wants to ban steel-and-glass skyscrapers, declaring that “they have no place in our city or our Earth anymore.” This is like banning the Yankees, but some may argue this is what New York City gets for electing a Red Sox fan.
Andrew Yang: Entrepreneur. The guy with a million and one policy ideas, and the stylish choice for the heterodox. We’ll see whether Democrats gravitate to a tech-industry millionaire who’s never been elected to any position before.
Wayne Messam: Mayor of Miramar, Fla. The most recent Quinnipiac poll found 3 percent of registered voters surveyed had a favorable impression of Messam and 8 percent had an unfavorable view. One can strongly argue he doesn’t belong on a list of serious candidates . . . but if Messam isn’t serious, you can label a bunch of this field unserious as well. The 88 percent who didn’t know enough about Messam to have an opinion isn’t all that much higher than the 79 percent who said the same about Bennet, Ryan, and Hickenlooper; the 83 percent who said the same about Bullock, the 84 percent who said the same about Moulton.
Marianne Williamson: Author and activist. In case you’re wondering, only 83 percent of respondents told Quinnipiac they didn’t know enough about her to have an opinion — better than several congressmen and a senator! Unfortunately, she’s got a 5 percent favorable and 10 percent unfavorable split among those who do have an opinion. In her CNN prime-time town hall she declared, “Or gun policies in the United States are not driven by Second Amendment. That’s just an illusion. That’s just propaganda. This has nothing to do with the Second Amendment.”
Oh, and Stacey Abrams, the gubernatorial candidate from Georgia, says she will run “for something” but hasn’t decided whether to run for president yet.