Every conversation with any Democratic operative about the 2016 presidential race starts this way: "Well, I mean if Hillary runs...." Which, of course, is to be expected. If Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, former New York senator and former 2008 presidential candidate, runs, then the Democratic race (and the general election, too) revolves around her.
But, of late, those conversations have an interesting addendum to them that goes like this: "Of course, if Elizabeth Warren wanted to do it, she'd have a case to make." Yes, she would. We've long believed that the freshman Democratic senator's combination of hero status among liberals nationally and massive fundraising capacity would make her very formidable if she ran.
To be clear: There's a zero percent chance -- or somewhere in the very low single-digit chance -- that Warren would run for president if Clinton did. It's just hard to imagine. But, if Clinton decides not to run ... well then that would be a different story.
Warren has been adamant about her lack of interest in the race and reiterated that lack of interest in an interview with the New York Times' Jonathan Martin last month. But, things change in politics. Then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was similarly adamant about his lack of interest in running for president in 2008 -- and we know how that turned out. (Worth noting: In the same interview in which she denied interest, Warren told Martin that "this country should not be run for the biggest corporations and largest financial institutions," which wouldn't be a bad message to carry forward in a 2016 Democratic primary fight. We're not saying, we're just saying....)
The simple fact is that Warren's beloved status among rank-and-file Democrats -- and an elite group of very wealthy and very liberal major donors -- means that if Clinton didn't run, she would come under a significant amount of pressure to reconsider. And Warren would have a built-in excuse to explain her past comments; "Well I never thought about it seriously because I expected Hillary to run ... but now that she's not...." That's not all that hard to imagine, is it? No, it isn't.
Because of that upside -- with apologies to NBA draft experts -- we are moving Warren into our second tier of potential Democratic presidential candidates. Clinton remains as the lone candidate in the first tier -- a space she will occupy until she decides whether or not to run.
Our breakdown of the field is below. The candidates within each tier are listed alphabetically.
TIER ONE (If she runs, the other tiers don't matter)
* Hillary Clinton: Everything we hear privately and everything we see publicly suggests Clinton is running -- or at least allowing those around her to put the pieces in place to be ready if/when she flips the switch. Does that mean she is definitely in? No. But it means that with every passing month, we become more and more convinced that the surprise announcement would be that she's not running.
TIER TWO (If not Hillary, then....)
* Joe Biden: Earlier this week, the vice president called state Rep.-elect Brian Meyer to congratulate him on his special election victory a few days earlier. Why would the VP call a not-even-sworn-in-yet state legislator? Because Meyer is from Iowa. And that tells you everything you need to know about whether Biden is thinking about running for president in 2016. We continue to believe Biden wouldn't run if Clinton did. But, if she's out, he's in.
* Andrew Cuomo: Unlike some of the other people on this list -- Martin O'Malley, we are looking at you -- the New York governor is doing the do-as-little-as-possible-to-stoke-2016-speculation thing. (That may or may not be a thing.) Cuomo, the scion of a famous political family, knows that in a field without Hillary Clinton, he is a heavyweight given his name, fundraising abilities and resume as governor of one of the most Democratic states in the country. Cuomo is also a political operative at heart -- he managed his father's gubernatorial campaigns -- and has undoubtedly begun gaming out what a race would look like in his head.
* Martin O'Malley: The governor of Maryland is, without question, the candidate most open about his interest in running for president. "By the end of this year I think we’re on course to have a body of work that lays the framework for a candidacy in 2016," O'Malley told reporters in August. His travel schedule is heavy on trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and O'Malley used his time as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association to build out his national fundraising network. We hear he might be someone who runs no matter what Clinton does, which would put him in a very small club.
* Elizabeth Warren: See above. There's no one not named Clinton on this list who combines the star power and fundraising potential that Warren boasts. And, Warren has one thing that even Clinton doesn't: a rabid following within the liberal base of the party.
TIER THREE (There's a will and a way -- sort of)
* Kirsten Gillibrand: Gillibrand is a sneaky-good politician. Without all that much fanfare, she has turned herself into a liberal champion -- the Atlantic's Molly Ball tweeted that the New York senator got a "big cheer" when she finished a speech at the Center for American Progress on Thursday. She's also someone who has proven she knows how to raise money; she raised $30 million between her 2010 and 2012 Senate campaigns. If Clinton and Warren pass, Gillibrand becomes a genuine contender for the nomination.
TIER FOUR (There's a will but -- probably -- not a way)
* Howard Dean: Dean clearly looks back on his one-time front-running 2004 presidential campaign wistfully and wonders if he could catch lightning in a bottle again. The answer is almost certainly "no," but Dean, never someone who cared much about the party establishment's opinion of him, might be the sort of person who would be willing to wage a campaign against Clinton from the ideological left. And what a campaign that would be.
* Amy Klobuchar: The field above her is probably too crowded for the Minnesota senator to take a flier on a presidential bid. But, she has the resume and the ambition to surprise people if things broke just right. Klobuchar might not run in 2016, but we'd be very surprised if she didn't run four or eight years after that.