Two Colorado Democrats are spending some time in Iowa this weekend assessing support for possible presidential runs.
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet are both campaigning in the state that will hold the nation’s first presidential nominating contest — the Iowa caucuses — while trying to make up their minds whether to jump into an increasingly packed pool of candidates hoping to deny President Donald Trump a second term.
It’s looking like there will be an outsized number of Democrats seeking the 2020 nomination — probably at least as many as the 17 Republicans who ran in 2016 and more than the 16 Democrats who ran in 1976.
Democrats with insight into both potential presidential candidates’ thinking say they’ll be considering a number of factors before deciding whether to throw their own hats in the ring — from fundraising potential to whether or not they’ve got the proverbial fire in the belly.
Hickenlooper said during a recent swing through early primary state New Hampshire that he was “determined” to decide whether to run within the next month, “or let’s say six weeks” — putting his self-imposed deadline as late as the last week of March.
Bennet hasn’t set a timetable for his decision, but in a recent appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he told moderator Chuck Todd, “We’ve got a million people that are going to run, which I think is great. I think having one more voice in that conversation that’s focused on America’s future, I don’t think would hurt.”
And even if one or both get in, odds are decent they might not make it to next February’s Iowa caucuses. Particularly with so congested a field, there are plenty of off-ramps and opportunities to run out of gas between now and then — from underwhelming fundraising to lackluster performances in the multitude of debates and other forums that kick off in June and will continue through the winter.
Those close to both Democrats say they are still very much exploring whether to run, though all signs point to a Hickenlooper candidacy.
The PredictIt odds-making site as of Feb. 20 put the former governor’s chances of running at 87 percent, down slightly from his peak but also the best chances of any potential candidate included in the betting market’s roundup.
That’s higher than former Vice President Joe Biden’s 76 percent chance or former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 74 percent, and gives Hickenlooper better odds than Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose 85 percent ranks him as the second-most likely to get in the race.
Bennet’s name hasn’t been included in the PredictIt tallies, but a recent “guesstimate” compiled by the New York Times put his chances of running in the lowest tier of potential candidates, at 25 percent. The paper noted that Bennet doesn’t have the national profile of some of his fellow senators but is “weighing whether there is room in the field for a less fiery Democrat.”
If either of them gets in, history could be on their side when it comes to having a shot at the nomination.
Political data guru Nate Silver took a look ahead of the crowded 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest at whether early primary polling — conducted during the first six months of the year before a presidential election — did a good job predicting the eventual nominee.
Silver examined elections since 1972, when something at least resembling the modern nominating process took shape.
The two parties, it turns out, operate differently.
Over a span of decades, in years when GOP incumbents weren’t seeking re-election, Republicans have nearly always wound up nominating their early front-runners.
The only exception was in 2008 when John McCain ran second in early polling behind Rudy Giuliani, who tanked once it came time to cast ballots. In every other race, early polling advantages translated to nominations for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and George W. Bush.
(Silver’s analysis pre-dated the tumultuous 2016 Republican primary, but eventual nominee Donald Trump led plenty of polls conducted during the first half of 2015 — before he entered the race — with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush offering the most competition. Once Trump made his campaign official, he led in nearly every survey.)
On the Democratic side, it’s been a different story.
Using the same metric — presidential primaries without an incumbent unopposed for another term — Silver found that Democrats were as likely to opt for someone who polled back in the pack as they were to pick the early favorite.
And in a few cases, candidates who bear a resemblance to Hickenlooper and Bennet wound up taking the prize — and even winning the presidency.
In 1972, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern was barely a blip in early polling — averaging 5 percent support, enough for fifth place among 13 candidates included in polls — but went on to win the nomination.
The next time around, an obscure moderate governor, Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, pulled in 1 percent support in early polls, good enough to tie for 12th place in a field that saw 20 Democrats included in early surveys.
In 1988, Mike Dukakis, another moderate governor, this time from Massachusetts, came in third place in early polling with 7.5 percent support and went on to win the Democrats’ nomination.
Four years later, Bill Clinton of Arkansas — yet another moderate governor — was only showing 1.7 percent support in the first six months of 1991, tied for 13th place in a field that included lots of Democrats who didn’t wind up running. He took the nomination and unseated an incumbent president.
In other elections over the years, Democrats have nominated their early front-runner — former Vice Presidents Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000 — or tapped the candidate who was running a strong second a year ahead of balloting, including Sens. John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. (The same pattern held true in 2016, when former Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the early favorite, won the nomination.)
It’s worth noting that the Democratic Party is constantly evolving and, in many ways, bears little resemblance to the party that nominated McGovern, Carter, Dukakis and Clinton, though there are also echoes of each of those elections in the current environment.
As well, if they run, Hickenlooper and Bennet will likely face a bevy of similarly situated rivals — centrist white guys trying their darnedest to stand out from the crowd.
But as the two Colorado Democrats approach their decisions, they can at least be confident that there's precedent for candidates resembling them to go the distance and have a shot at the brass ring.