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The 9 least popular Democrats running for president, briefly explained

A broad tapestry of white male politicians — plus Oprah’s spiritual adviser.

Rep. Seth Moulton Begins Presidential Campaign With Campaign Event In NH
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A staggering nine candidates are running at the tail end of the field of 24 Democrats for the party’s nomination, consistently garnering less than 2 percent of public support in every poll.

The Laggard Nine are:

  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
  • Montana Gov. Steve Bullock
  • Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney
  • California Rep. Eric Swalwell
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
  • Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan
  • Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
  • Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton
  • Author and spiritual adviser Marianne Williamson

The weak performance of this crew means that unless they turn it around, they won’t be able to appear onstage in September when Democrats hold their third presidential debate. Only candidates who hit 2 percent or better in four different polls qualify.

But before the great winnowing strikes, it’s worth spending some time on the Sub-2 Percent Club. You’ll note that despite the increasingly diverse Democratic Party and a field that is in some respects the most diverse of all time, this is a bunch that is heavily weighted toward straight white men.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the entire Sub-2 Percent Club as a bunch of stale, pale, male losers. Indeed, the club contains within its ranks a striking array of backgrounds and perspectives that together comprise a rich tapestry of modern American politics.

And hey, if Bran can become King of Westeros, one of these dark horses could win too.

Jay Inslee

Who? Jay Inslee is an experienced — but not incredibly old — politician who has an actual distinctive campaign message. He served in state legislature, then in the US House of Representatives; then, after losing a 1996 gubernatorial primary, he got appointed by Bill Clinton to be a regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency. Then he went back to the House for a number of years before being elected governor of Washington state in 2012; he’s been serving in that capacity ever since.

Huh, that actually sounds like a serious presidential contender: He really does, doesn’t he? Inslee is what we used to think of as a traditional presidential candidate — someone with deep political experience who also isn’t a million years old. Of course, nobody has ever gotten elected president purely on the strength of their résumé. But you’d normally expect to see someone like this get a fair amount of attention as a top-tier possibility and then either rise or fall on the strength of his messaging. Instead, Inslee has really struggled to break out of the “who’s that?” zone.

Why is he running? His message is that America in 2020 needs a climate-focused campaign, which seems like a pretty good reason. Unofficially, Washington’s two Senate seats are both held by Democrats who aren’t going anywhere, and he has until May 2020 to decide whether he wants to run for governor again.

The bottom line: Keep an eye on Jay Inslee! We have seen a number of candidates go through a cycle where they suddenly get more media attention, which leads to a small bump in their approval rating, which leads to a new cycle of positive media attention and a further surge in the polls. Inslee is in the polling cellar right now, but he seems like a very plausible candidate for one of those attention-polling-attention-polling surges.

Steve Bullock

Who? Bullock is a charismatic politician, which you’d expect from someone who’s successful in a small state where voters lean pretty heavily to the other party. He was attorney general of Montana for four years before getting elected governor in 2012 and then getting reelected in 2016.

Why is he running? He’s got an electability message — basically, the pitch is that a Democrat who can win a statewide race in Montana will definitely beat Trump nationally. Bullock is also term-limited as governor, so it makes sense to run for something. Plus, he’s a more conventional liberal on most issues than you might think for a Montana guy. The big exception to this is on environmental issues, where, like other Montana politicians, he’s a big coal booster.

The bottom line: “Electability” often gets tossed around or dismissed in an unprincipled way, but Bullock has a legitimately impressive track record of electoral success. He also achieved that success in part by sharply breaking with the national party on the coal topic that a lot of people think is very substantively important. If he could be tempted to switch lanes and challenge Steve Daines in Montana’s 2020 Senate race, every Democrat in America would be thrilled. As a presidential contender, he mostly serves to show the limits of Democrats’ interest in beating Trump at all costs.

Michael Bennet

Who? Bennet is a smart, thoughtful guy, but nobody can quite tell why he’s running for president. Bennet was serving as head of Denver’s public schools when he was somewhat unexpectedly elevated to the Senate in 2009 to fill the vacancy created by Ken Salazar’s appointment to serve as US interior secretary. He’s won reelection twice since then, and ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during Democrats’ disastrous 2014 cycle.

Why is he running? Bennet is known for two things that are kind of in tension. One is that he crafts smart bills like this Medicaid X plan and the American Family Act that seem more like efforts to pass actual legislation than to articulate a sweeping transformational vision. The other is that he’s really frustrated with how Congress works. The latter is basically “why he’s running,” but the former actually makes him seem like someone who is well-suited to the job of US senator.

Isn’t there another guy from Colorado? Yes, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has a very similar political profile to Bennet — as mayor of Denver, Hickenlooper hired Bennet as schools superintendent and then as governor appointed him to the Senate — and he is also running for president. But Hickenlooper’s polling is a bit too good to merit inclusion in the club.

The bottom line: Michael Bennet has a lot of smart things to say about American politics, but very few of them clearly relate to the idea that he should be president.

Marianne Williamson

Who? She’s a spiritualist, popular author, and self-help figure with a longstanding interest in politics but no experience in government. In a normal world with five or six credible candidates, she’d probably just be someone who gets left off of various lists as America’s assembled editors proclaim her “Not a Serious Candidate.” But there’s no point in leaving her off a 23-candidate list just to cut it down to a 22-candidate list, so in the 2020 cycle, she gets on the lists!

Why is she running? Donald Trump becoming president briefly created a sense that all kinds of nontraditional people with strong communications skills might become successful presidential candidates.

The bottom line: In practice, what’s really happened is that Democrats have gotten more comfortable with the idea of nominating someone like Pete Buttigieg or Beto O’Rourke — charismatic guys who are also politicians, just not “qualified” in a traditional sense — rather than going way outside the lines to pick a non-politician.

Seth Moulton

Who? He’s been the House member from the northeastern corner of Massachusetts since successfully mounting a primary challenge to John Tierney back in 2014.

Why is he running? Moulton is ambitious — the kind of guy who’d mount a primary challenge to an incumbent based on no real issue differences and win — and frustrated with life as a House backbencher. He joined a rebellion against Speaker Nancy Pelosi that fizzled out, so his prospects for advancement in his current job look bleak. He probably should’ve just channeled his ambitions into a 2022 statewide run, but, you know, a lot of people are running for president.

The bottom line: On one level, thinking you can run for president just based on being an ambitious Harvard grad who people think is pretty smart and who served in the military seems ridiculous. On another level, Buttigieg is making it work.

Tim Ryan

Who? He’s been the House member from the northeastern corner of Ohio since his predecessor, Jim Traficant, ended up in jail back in 2002.

Why is he running? He joined a rebellion against Nancy Pelosi that fizzled out, so his prospects for advancement in his current job look bleak. He probably should’ve just channeled his ambitions into a 2022 statewide run, but, you know, a lot of people are running for president.

How is that different from the previous guy? Ryan’s district is centered on Youngstown, so he has a whole gritty post-industrial “how to win in the Midwest” thing going on. He’s also really into yoga and mindfulness. If you were trying to script this story so that it made sense, you’d make the yoga/mindfulness guy be the Harvard grad who represents an upscale district in Massachusetts and you’d make the gritty post-industrial guy the military veteran. But reality, sadly, does not always live up to the standards of good screenwriting.

The bottom line: I really have nothing to say about Tim Ryan.

Eric Swalwell

Who? He’s been the House member from a kind of random swath of the East Bay in California since successfully mounting a primary challenge to Pete Stark in 2012.

Why is he running? Swalwell is ambitious — the kind of guy who’d mount a primary challenge to an incumbent based on no real issue differences and win — and frustrated with life as a House backbencher. He probably should’ve just channeled his ambitions into a 2022 statewide run, but, you know, a lot of people are running for president.

This is the same as the two previous guys! It’s actually totally different, because while Ryan and Moulton are on the outs with Pelosi, Swalwell is a Pelosi ally. If the California Democratic Party had its strategy together, he’d endorse Kamala Harris, the Bay Area politician with an actual shot at the presidency, but evidently they don’t.

The bottom line: “Generic Democrat” polls very well against Donald Trump, and Swalwell is an extremely generic Democrat. He also very much looks like someone who could be plausibly cast in a movie or television show as Young President. If some weird set of circumstances led to him becoming the nominee, he’d probably do well and people would probably be pretty pleased with him. There are worse reasons to run.

Bill de Blasio

Who? He’s the mayor of New York City.

Why is he running? In the words of one de Blasio aide, “I don’t really know.” The interesting thing about being mayor of New York is that since the New York metropolitan area contains a very large fraction of the overall national population and the majority of the national news media, you invariably wind up being well-known. Which means you can’t really tell yourself that you’d be way more popular if only people had heard of you. The fact that de Blasio can’t even convince his own team that this is a good idea (“Ugh, don’t ask,” another de Blasio aide told me when I asked about the campaign) probably should have been a hint.

Why not just run for a third term as mayor? This is a weird one. When Michael Bloomberg got the city council to change the charter to allow him to run for a third term, they literally changed it so that only Michael Bloomberg could run for a third term. With his third term done, the city reverted to the old rule and de Blasio has to leave office when this term is over.

The bottom line: New York-based media hates de Blasio, and since they often end up setting the trends, it means everyone dunks on him. The fact that his campaign makes little sense doesn’t help. But he has a pretty solid track record of achievement — keeping crime falling while backing away from some of the NYPD’s most controversial practices, delivering a universal prekindergarten program, and becoming a national leader on labor issues like sick leave and paid vacation. Progressives keep looking for a credible left-wing primary challenger to incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and de Blasio would make a lot of sense.

John Delaney

Who? He used to be the House member from a district that combines some affluent DC suburbs with the kind of Appalachian part of Maryland.

Why is he running? Delaney actually started running a long time ago, back when it seemed like Bernie Sanders might be the frontrunner and the other major contenders would all be chasing him on the left. Delaney himself always seemed like a kind of random long shot, but the idea of standing up for the view that Hillary Clinton ran too far left rather than not far enough to the left seemed like a reasonable premise for a campaign. But the actual current frontrunner is Joe Biden, and we have Amy Klobuchar and Hickenlooper and Bullock and Bennet to stan for moderation.

The bottom line: I nearly submitted this piece to my editor and then rechecked my candidate count only to discover I’d forgotten about Delaney.

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