WASHINGTON — Look, there’s a Maryland congressman at the Iowa State Fair just being a “normal person enjoying the fair with my family.” And there’s the mayor of Los Angeles stumping for a candidate in what just happens to be Manchester, New Hampshire. Oh, and over there, a billionaire former reality TV star (sound familiar?) is beating the president in polls.
Just six months after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and more than two years out from the first 2020 presidential nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, every Democrat seems to think he or she could be the next president.
“The old saw that every senator wakes up humming ‘Hail to the Chief’ now includes just about any Democrat who isn’t a convicted felon,” quipped Jonathan Tasini, a progressive activist.
Even a fairly conservative list of potential candidates stretches beyond two dozen names and next year’s midterm elections are likely to further swell the ranks of White House hopefuls.
The lengthiest primary ballot that New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner can remember was back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was one of 36 names on a list that also included Democrats Jerry Brown and Eugene McCarthy.
But in 2020, Granite State Democrats may have to print their ballot on rolls of butcher paper to keep up.
Beyond the party’s blue chip names — roughly 11 senators, six governors, and one former vice president make most serious 2020 lists at this time — there’s a flight of lower-profile but interesting Democrats who are generating some very early White House buzz.
Whether they’re just trying to raise their profiles or are actually serious about running is impossible to tell, and many of them likely don’t know where their testing of the waters will lead.
Typically, being mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana is not a stepping stone to the presidency. Nor would losing a Senate race in Missouri be considered a key qualification for the Oval Office.
But there’s nothing typical about 2017.
Trump’s upset win shattered all the old “rules” about who can be a credible contender for commander in chief, while Hillary Clinton’s loss left no heir apparent to shoo away the pretenders. So seeing only upside, Democrats are rushing to test the unguarded waters.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., may stand out, but only so much.
How about Pete Buttigieg, the compelling young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who will headline the Progress Iowa Corn Feed next month, along with Sen. Jeff Merkley, the mild-mannered but fiercely progressive senator from Oregon.
Jason Kander, the in-demand former Missouri Secretary of State and failed Senate candidate, recently hired Bernie Sanders’ former Iowa caucus director and spoke at the Iowa Wing Ding dinner, a classic presidential stopover.
Next month, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who challenged Nancy Pelosi’s House Democratic leadership, and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., an outspoken soldier-scholar, will headline the Iowa steak fry, where Clinton made her first 2016-related political appearance.
Eric Garcetti, the Jewish-Italian-Mexican-American mayor of Los Angeles, is making his first trip to New Hampshire Monday to campaign for a mayoral candidate there. And Julian Castro, Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, just launched a PAC this month to support his widely known presidential ambitions.
And some of 2016’s also-rans are hoping for better luck next time.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has made multiple visits to Iowa and New Hampshire this year, telling NBC News he “just might” run. Ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, whose 2016 campaign launched with an appeal for the metric system, left the door open as well. “Americans are going through difficult political times now. I do have a proven resume of leadership as a Governor, U.S. Senator, and Mayor,” he told NBC News.
More interesting to some are the real outsiders who have made noises.
Actor Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson recently told GQ, “I think that it’s a real possibility,” and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently hired Clinton’s former top pollster.
Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner who famously got under Trump’s skin last year, was happy to engage reporters on 2020 after a poll showed him besting the president.
“It’s not a dream of mine to hold office. But if I think I can bring people together, reduce their stress and solve some important problems, then I have to give it serious consideration,” Cuban told NBC News.
Rep. John Delaney, the little-known Maryland congressman who visited the Iowa State Fair, just formally announced his candidacy — earlier than anyone else in history. “I said to myself, I want to do this, and if I’m going to do it the right way, I need a lot of time to do it the right way,” he said.
The bigger names have so far stayed away from Iowa or New Hampshire, but rumors are already swirling about who the state party has lined up for its big fall fundraiser.
“My guess is after the Iowa primaries are over in June of 2018, you will see a flood of better known candidates. Other than Sanders, no one can claim to have any organizational leg up over anyone else and it will turn into a free for all,” said Grant Woodard, a former state party official.
Either way, the field is shaping up to be a full-employment program for both Democrats and the Republicans looking to confound them.
America Rising, the Republican opposition research group, says its already actively tracking around 15 Democrats and expect it could reach into the dozens.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has about 20 operatives split between its war room and opposition research shop who are monitoring speaking engagements and filing public records requests for various prospective Democratic candidates.
“With no clear leader on Democratic side, and a progressive base demanding strict adherence to ultra-liberal positions, the RNC’s research and rapid response teams will have plenty of material to show how extreme and out-of-step these folks are,” said RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens.
For many Democrats, the driving question about running seems not to be “why?” but “why not?”
After all, their party has a history of electing outsiders. Jimmy Carter was almost entirely unknown beyond his native Georgia until he essentially invented super-early, retail-style campaigning in Iowa — the way everyone now does it, noted University of Iowa Prof. Tim Hagel.
“It’s a good idea to come here, because you just never know,” Hagel said.
CORRECTION (Aug. 28, 2017, 11:56 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of South Bend’s mayor. It is Pete Buttigieg, not Buttiegige.