2020 Democratic presidential candidates. (Reuters)

By the time Iowans head to their caucuses early next year, there may be as many as two dozen Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nominations.

Well, that’s not really true. There will probably be far more than that, given that 227 individuals have already submitted paperwork to the Federal Election Commission setting up presidential campaign committees. Most of them, like Dustin Ryan Shewbert Sr. of Maryland, you’ve never heard of and may never hear of again. Some, though, are major candidates, people who might actually have a shot at the nomination and who will probably get some votes at those caucuses.

But: Which ones? Who counts as a “major candidate”? Who, therefore, should voters pay attention to and who should the media cover?

Every four years, we grapple with this question, a question made more complicated because the group of major candidates is often in flux. Three months ago, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg wasn’t a major candidate. He likely is now. Or is he?

FiveThirtyEight established a robust set of guidelines for determining who counted as a major candidate, including that the candidate actually be running (so no Joe Biden), how they’re faring in the polls and more esoteric concerns such as how often they appear on television.

Those may not be the qualifications you’d use. They may not be the ones we use. To illustrate the complexity of this issue, we created the interactive below that lets you tweak various measures to determine who should and shouldn’t be classified as a major candidate. (All data are from this week but may change over the long run.)

A major candidate is one who…
• Has experience in
as long as they represented
0 people
has experience in .
• Has raised at least
from at least
• Is at at least
in the polls.
• Is known by at least
of Americans.
• Had at least
as much search interest as the most-searched candidate.
• Was discussed at least
as much on cable news as the most-discussed candidate.
• Has at least
followers on Twitter.

Not major

Maybe major


(Mouse over or tap-and-hold the “maybe” candidates for an explanation of the data we’re missing that prevent our assigning them to a category.)

It’s easy to see how setting hard metrics for determining major candidacies quickly ices some people out. Does their elected position matter? Their fundraising? Having experience in the private sector (defined above as any non-politics/government job). Their public exposure? There are probably some metrics that are more intangible and which might be included, such as crowd size or ability on the campaign trail. But it’s hard to contrast those across candidates.

It’s more art than science is what we’re saying, not entirely without some defensiveness. Or perhaps you’ve figured out the perfect balance. If so, please do let us know.

Quick note: Poll data is from the RealClearPolitics polling average. Percent of the country that knows candidates are from Gallup, CNN and Marist. Contribution data are from the campaigns. Search data is from Google Trends. Cable coverage is from the Internet Archive’s database of closed-captioning on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.