The holiday dinner conversations are going to be intense in several high-profile Democratic households in the coming weeks, as potential candidates near decisions on whether to run for president in 2020.
Even as their staffs and political advisers have already begun scouting out office space, interviewing potential aides, and plotting out strategy for the 2020 presidential election, most haven't completely made up their minds about entering what's expected to be one of the most crowded primary contests in history.
"I don't know, and I still don't know," former Vice President Joe Biden told reporters on Election Day. "It will be a family decision, and we have time."
Not too much time, though.
Some candidates view Thanksgiving as the start of the window for making the political and personal calculation to go forward with or take a pass on a run for the White House. Given the likely size of the field, as well as the extended timeline of presidential campaigns, most of the top-tier potential candidates acknowledge they'll have to decide by the end of December, if not sooner.
NPR has interviewed key advisers to nine potential presidential candidates in the days since the midterm elections. Most of the conversations were conducted anonymously, so staffers could speak openly about politically sensitive matters.
Here's a glimpse at the potential 2020 Democratic presidential field:
- Cory Booker of New Jersey
- Sherrod Brown of Ohio
- Kamala Harris of California
- Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
- Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
- Jeff Merkley of Oregon
- Bernie Sanders of Vermont
- Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
- John Delaney of Maryland (declared)
- Beto O'Rourke of Texas
- Eric Swalwell of California
- Steve Bullock of Montana
- John Hickenlooper of Colorado
- Jay Inslee of Washington
- Terry McAuliffe of Virginia (former)
- Deval Patrick of Massachusetts (former)
- Former Vice President Joe Biden
- Businessman and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City
- Attorney Michael Avenatti
- Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles
- State Sen. Richard Ojeda of West Virginia (declared)
- Activist and philanthropist Tom Steyer
The fact that that isn't even the full list of potential candidates speaks to the fact that, with a first-time candidate from the world of reality television in the Oval Office, all previous notions about paths to the presidency have gone out the window.
But it also underscores Democratic optimism about the party's chances in 2020.
Lessons from 2018
Tuesday's election results only confirmed that confidence. Democrats gained more House seats than in any election since the 1974 wave after Watergate, in addition to their statehouse wins and holding down their losses in the Senate, which included flipping GOP seats in Nevada and Arizona.
The political operatives preparing for presidential runs all see last week's outcome as a signal that President Trump would be a vulnerable opponent in two years.
"Trump became president because he lost the popular vote, but he won the Electoral College in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told NPR. "Well, three out of four of those states elected Democratic governors, and all four of those states elected Democratic United States senators. So I think Trump's victories in those very important states may not be longstanding."
Advisers to nearly every other potential Democratic candidate agreed with Sanders on Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, though many expressed concern about both Ohio and Florida – two perennial swing states that have trended increasingly Republican in recent years.
That was tempered by optimism about the Democratic Senate win in Arizona, as well as tight races in other Republican strongholds like Texas and Georgia.
One operative compared the Democrats' margin in the national House vote — approaching 7 points — to Hillary Clinton's two-point margin in the 2016 popular vote. "It's a meaningful indication of [Trump] weakening," the adviser told NPR. "When you won the presidency by 80,000 votes, this does not bode well." (That's the rough combined total of Trump's margins in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan – the three reliably Democratic states Trump peeled away to win the Electoral College.)
In addition to Democrats winning the House, "Republicans had the most advantageous Senate map since 1914 and may end up with a net of two [senators added to their majority]" said another adviser in a different likely campaign. "Talk about underperformance."
"For 2020, it is very positive news that Democrats were able to win statewide re-elects in some of the Midwestern states we lost last year, that would help them get to 270," said Jen Palmieri, a senior aide to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. "And I think that that's the message there — you need to have a progressive agenda that's going to offer solutions for real problems people face. But you need to present this in a way that is going to unite people and bring them together, not further divide."
What's the best strategy?
Does that mean a moderate, bridge-building candidate would fare better than a high-profile Democrat who has made national headlines already going toe-to-toe with Trump? Is the answer appealing to the Democratic Party's base, or offering a moderate, even boring Democrat whom independents and Republicans tired of Trump could feasibly support?
Ultimately, Democratic primary voters will decide.
Another key question, albeit a question that doesn't need to be decided for some time: whether to focus a general election on retaking those Midwestern states, or challenging Trump in Arizona, North Carolina and other Democrat-trending Sun Belt states.
That's where campaign staffers-in-waiting begin to draw different conclusions from last week's results. The more progressive and aggressive camps see Beto O'Rourke and Stacey Abrams' performances in Texas and Georgia as a sign that base mobilization can turn a Republican state blue with two more years of organization and demographic changes.
The more consensus-minded camps – notably, including most of the potential candidates who aren't based in Washington – are more apt to focus on the fact that Democrats flipped the House by running moderate, sometimes cautious candidates who fit their district profiles, which is also how Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema ran in Arizona.
But as more and more Democrats have embraced progressive positions like a $15 minimum wage, the main choice may come down to a matter of tone and framing. Do you run a campaign attacking Trump, or trying to appeal to the middle and win over wary conservatives?
In short, it's the difference between the mindset that New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand laid out on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert last Thursday night, and what Montana Gov. Steve Bullock spelled out on MSNBC's Morning Joe the very next morning.
Gillibrand told Colbert she sees 2020 as a clear, black-and-white divide between good and evil. "I have seen the hatred and the division that President Trump has put into our country," she told Colbert, "and it has called me to fight as hard as I possibly can to restore the moral compass of this country."
Bullock opted for a far more conciliatory approach: "As much as we can bridge some of these divides, and as much as we can make people have a reason to believe government can work in a broken political system, that matters."
Over the coming weeks, staff will keep working behind the scenes to lay the groundwork in case they do run. Gillibrand, Harris and Sanders will all field questions about their potential candidacies while promoting new books hitting stores this holiday season.
But all of that preparation will remain potential, until each candidate makes the deeply personal decision of whether to launch a process that could irrevocably reshape their lives, win or lose.
NPR's Asma Khalid contributed to this report
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some of the big 2018 elections are still too close to call. But dozens of Democrats are already making plans for the presidential election that is two years away. We're hearing that their decisions are coming soon.
In conversations with NPR, advisers to several of the likely top candidates say they'll have to figure out if they are in or if they are out between Thanksgiving and New Year's. And if you haven't realized it yet, Thanksgiving is next week. NPR's Scott Detrow has been reporting on this and joins us now in the studio. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right. So we've heard a lot about a lot of big names for a while now - Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden. The list is so long. What's the deal - they running, they not running?
DETROW: Well, all of these people have been taking a lot of steps to run for president. You've seen a lot of that publicly. They were all all over the country campaigning for Democrats, not only doing that but also working on connections in these key early primary states that they would need.
DETROW: A lot of their advisers are out doing job interviews, tentative job interviews with candidates, scouting out headquarters, taking all these steps. But in the end, this comes down to a key personal decision. And none of these top-tier candidates, according to all the interviews that we've been doing - none of them have made that final decision yet. They're all basically in the same place as former Vice President Joe Biden.
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JOE BIDEN: So I don't know. I don't know. And I still don't know. I have to make my decision what I'm going to do after the first of the year. It will be a family decision. And we have time.
DETROW: So Biden's saying New Year's is his timeline. But a lot of candidates - it's sooner, as early as Thanksgiving. Basically, a lot of big decisions will be made over the next couple weeks.
MARTIN: And we should mention there are already a couple of Democrats who have officially thrown their hat into the ring, right?
DETROW: Yes. Maryland Congressman John Delaney has been running in Iowa for a year already. And Richard Ojeda, a West Virginia state senator, lost a high-profile race for Congress last week. That didn't stop him from already launching a presidential campaign.
MARTIN: There's been some reporting out there that Hillary Clinton is mulling over a possible run. Have you heard anything about that?
DETROW: Saying this, talking to nine different campaigns, talking to other Democrats, her name did not come up once.
MARTIN: So Democrats obviously won big in the midterms. How are those results informing how possible 2020 presidential candidates are thinking about that run?
DETROW: I think one sign of the confidence that Democrats have at their ability to beat President Trump is the fact that you're going to see so many people running - like, maybe close to 20 candidates.
DETROW: The second and third and fourth takeaways that all these Democrats had from Tuesday's results were very different. But it was notable that every single one of them had the first main conclusion. And that was looking right to Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and also Ohio. These are the states that made Donald Trump president. A lot of Democrats echoed what Bernie Sanders told NPR.
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BERNIE SANDERS: Three out of four of those states elected Democratic governors, and all four of those states elected Democratic United States senators. So I think Trump's victories in those states, the very important states, may not be longstanding.
DETROW: Democrats saying this is someone who lost the popular vote, won by about a 80,000-vote margin in key states - they feel like four years into a Trump presidency, they'll have a pretty easy path.
MARTIN: So, obviously, Democrats thought they were well positioned to win in 2016, right? They thought they were well-positioned to win in a big way.
DETROW: Yes. Yes.
MARTIN: And we know how that went down. So even if they believe Donald Trump is vulnerable, do they know how to beat him? Do they think they know?
DETROW: And it's worth pointing out Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, both lost in huge margins in their first midterms and then won pretty easy second terms. So this is not indicative of anything. I mean, there's always a path. I think the key decision that these Democrats have to make is what the strategy is. And that's where there's mixed results from Tuesday.
Some of these camps are saying it's all about being as progressive as possible. We almost won Georgia. We almost won Texas by leaning into progressive approaches. And more moderate Democrats, Democrats not based in Washington right now, are saying it's all about being moderate and presenting an open style that's really welcoming to independents and Republican voters.
MARTIN: NPR's Scott Detrow for us, thanks so much.
DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.