Hillary and the 9 dwarves

May 17, 2013

Writing about the 2016 Democratic presidential race really means writing about two races.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The first race isn't a race at all. It's Hillary Clinton's internal debate about whether she wants to run for president or not.  The signals are mixed. While Clinton has publicly eschewed speculation about a return presidential engagement, she has done nothing to stop members of her political world -- Harold Ickes chief among them -- from joining a super PAC aimed at preparing for said candidacy. (Make no mistake: If Clinton didn't want Ickes to join that organization, he wouldn't have.)

The second race is among everyone not named Clinton -- a race to see who can grab the small amount of political oxygen that the former Secretary of State leaves behind. (If Clinton doesn't run, obviously the oxygen supply goes WAY up and makes this a much more wide open contest.)

The leader of that second race is, at the moment, Vice President Joe Biden -- by dint of his current job and his (underrated) appeal with the Democratic presidential primary electorate.

The biggest wildcard among the nine people not named "Clinton"?  Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren who has three big things going for her if she decides to get interested in running: 1) She has proven that she can raise tens of millions of dollars 2) the party's liberal base loves her and 3) the New Hampshire presidential primary is in her political backyard.

Still, the gap between Clinton and the  rest of the field is FAR larger than between those who occupy spots two through 10 in our rankings. Don't believe us? Check out the latest PPP poll that showed Clinton at 63 percent to 13 percent for Biden. No one else scored double digits.

To be clear: The supremacy of Clinton in the field isn't a reflection on the other possible entrants. Rather it's a sign of the political power she wields. There just isn't another figure like her in the political space -- in either party -- right now.

Below are our latest rankings of the 2016 Democratic presidential field. Agree? Disagree? The comments section awaits!

10. Mark Warner: We are still somewhat baffled as to why Warner, who was then the popular governor of Virginia, didn't run for president in 2008. Had he done so everything might have been different as he would have occupied the "not Hillary" space and left less room for the newly elected Sen. Barack Obama to fill that void. It feels like Warner's moment to be a serious candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination has passed since he has aligned himself with the center of the Senate -- not exactly the best launching pad to win a primary. That said, Warner will be in the VP mix for almost anyone who winds up as the nominee. (Previous ranking: 6)

9. Brian Schweitzer: Yes, we expect the former Montana governor to run for (and likely win) the open Montana Senate seat in 2014. But, people keep telling us that Schweitzer sees himself as an executive -- as in the chief executive. (Who doesn't?)  His natural charisma and ability to effectively talk about "those people in Washington" would serve him well. His disinterest in staying on message would not. (Previous ranking: 9)

8. John Hickenlooper: If you believe that the West is the next critical battleground for the two parties, then the governor of Colorado has a real case to be considered as a Democratic candidate for president. Not only has he been the mayor of Denver but he's a popular governor on the verge of cruising to a second term in November 2014 in a swing state. Hickenlooper is, by his own admission, an awkward politician. Still, if you are looking for a dark horse, you could do worse than throwing your lot in with Hickenlooper. (Make sure to read Ryan Lizza's terrific New Yorker profile of Hickenlooper and the "will he, won't he" speculation about 2016.) (Previous ranking: N/A)

7. Deval Patrick: Patrick handled himself well during the Boston Marathon bombings and their frightening aftermath.  He will be out of a job in early 2015. And, he is perhaps the most prominent African American elected official not named "Barack Obama" (possible exception: Cory Booker) in the country. As Obama demonstrated in 2008, a consolidated black vote is a very powerful thing in a Democratic presidential primary. (Previous ranking: 5)

6. Elizabeth Warren: Here's the deal with the freshman Massachusetts Senator: If she shows real interest in running, she moves way up on the Line.  Her reception at the Democratic National Committee last fall proved that she is the "heart" candidate for lots of the party base. Warren's work to reign in big banks since coming to the Senate has only cemented her image as a speak-truth-to-power populist.  From a profile perspective alone, she belongs in the top four contenders. But, everyone around her -- including Warren herself -- insists she really, truly isn't interested in running. (Previous ranking: 10)

5. Kirstin Gillibrand: On paper, the New York Senator is the most obvious person to fill the void left if Clinton decides not to run.  Gillibrand now holds the seat Clinton once occupied in the Senate and has steadily moved into a leadership role on issues -- gay rights, for instance -- that play very well with the base.  Gillibrand has also proven she can raise money (a New York base is helpful in that regard) and that she has the ambition and drive to push herself into a national figure. (That ambition and drive should not be underestimated when analyzing a candidate's chances.) Still, races are rarely won on paper and it's an open question as to how she would wear on the campaign trail. (Previous ranking: 8)

4. Martin O'Malley: No one this side of Joe Biden has done more to signal his interest in running in 2016 than the Maryland governor. And, to his credit, O'Malley has taken advantage of the fact that he represents a very Democratic state with a very Democratic state legislature to build a record of accomplishment -- a tightening of gun laws, repeal of the death penalty -- that will play to his advantage when (oops, if) he runs. The problem for O'Malley is that we keep hearing him compared to Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who looked like a top tier candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination until he actually, you know, ran for it. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Andrew Cuomo: After lots and lots of buzz earlier this year for a Cuomo candidacy, chatter about a bid has quieted. But, it's hard to imagine Cuomo taking a pass on the race if Clinton doesn't run.  Cuomo has built a nice resume as governor of the Empire State and raising the money necessary to compete in the early voting states wouldn't be a problem. The question for Cuomo?  He has been successful in a state in which campaigns are determined by the size of television ad buys. Iowa and New Hampshire are retail political states where voters prize meeting candidates face to face. How will Cuomo, a New Yorker through and through, play in Cedar Rapids? Or Portsmouth? (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Joe Biden: Biden is the frontrunner in the race if Clinton doesn't run. He's not a dominant frontrunner but he's the frontrunner. Why? Because, through his four-plus decades in national politics, Biden has touched almost every corner of the Democratic party. And, he would be running as the sitting Vice President of an administration that seems likely to be extremely popular with Democratic base voters. Biden's tendency to veer of message is the stuff of legend at this point and would clearly be a problem for him -- particularly if he had the "frontrunner" label attached to him.  But, Biden is far more resilient than people give him credit for. Would anyone, literally anyone, have predicted in 1988 that 20 years later Biden would be the vice president? No way. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Hillary Clinton: To use our least favorite cliche: It is what it is. If Clinton runs, there is a very high likelihood she will be the nominee. Will she run? She hasn't told us yet. But, we are sticking to our long held theory, which goes like this: If Clinton has any desire left in her to be president, it would be nearly impossible to say "no" to the 2016 race given how the contest is shaping up. (Previous ranking: 1)

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · May 17, 2013