Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced on Monday that he is running for president, saying that he “can bring people together to produce the progressive change Washington has failed to deliver.”
Since being laid off from his job as a geologist in 1986, Hickenlooper’s luck has only improved. He and three friends founded a craft brewery in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood, helping bring development to a now-thriving part of the city. In 2003, Hickenlooper used that success as a springboard to be elected mayor, and then won re-election in 2007 with 87 percent of the vote. He then steered Colorado through disasters, tragedy and a recession for two terms as governor, leaving office earlier this year with an enviable legacy and a solid approval rating to boot. Now, he’s hoping to channel that success into becoming president of the United States. But in a field of Democrats who are both better known and have more obvious constituencies, is this where Hickenlooper’s climb stops?
Hickenlooper’s campaign is basically starting from scratch. In early surveys of the Democratic field — which mostly reflect name recognition at this point — he is polling between 0 and 1 percent.5 Only 22 percent of Democratic respondents even have an opinion of him, according to an average of national favorability polls since the beginning of the year. And he’s not on the radar of many Democratic activists in early states, either.
What Hickenlooper does have going for him is that he may be more skilled than most at getting his name out there. He’s run some of the best political ads in recent memory, including endearing spots about parking meters and his humble wardrobe, which helped him stand out in a wide-open field (sound familiar?) during his first run for mayor. And later ads in which he went skydiving and took a shower — fully clothed — were nothing if not memorable. His quirky personality was his secret political weapon in Colorado, but it’s unclear how it’ll shake out on a national stage, where his demographics — older, white, male — may pigeonhole him as a retread.
Although his tenure as governor was marked by economic success and liberal wins on social issues, his style of getting things done was undeniably bipartisan (perhaps out of necessity, given that Republicans controlled one chamber of the legislature during six of his eight years in office). Indeed, the only time Hickenlooper’s popularity as governor faltered was when he swerved left in 2013, signing those gun-control bills and staying the execution of convicted murderer Nathan Dunlap. He pivoted back to the center for 2014 and became Colorado’s only statewide Democrat to survive that year’s Republican wave. As he was preparing to leave office in late 2018, his approval/disapproval spread stood at 49 percent to 30 percent, giving him a +18 PARG — Popularity Above Replacement Governor. That’s nerd-speak for “a very high approval rating in a politically divided state.” Clearly, Hickenlooper is a consensus-builder, but it’s hard to imagine his motto of “there’s no profit margin in making enemies” resonating with the current mood of the Democratic electorate.
Even more troubling, it’s hard to point to a clear base for Hickenlooper — at least one big enough to propel him meaningfully in a national primary. Contrary to his folksy image, the former big-city mayor doesn’t have a great track record of appealing to rural areas. As governor, his administration’s renewable-energy and gun policies alienated some rural counties so much that they symbolically voted to secede from Colorado. And he doesn’t do very well in our five-corners formulation of thinking about the Democratic primary field either:
Perhaps his penchant for viral videos will make him a favorite among millennials; the craft beer lover and banjo player already has a touch of hipster cred. A smarter strategy might be leaning into being the “cannabis candidate.” As governor of the first state where marijuana sales became legal (in 2014), Hickenlooper oversaw the law’s implementation and has nurtured a thriving cannabis industry. But while he hasn’t been shy about touting the benefits of recreational pot, activists may not be willing to forget that he initially opposed legalization in 2012.
Perhaps the strongest card in Hickenlooper’s hand is his status as a former governor; historically, they have better track records than members of Congress at being nominated for and elected president. But that is no guarantee of future success, and Hickenlooper starts the campaign a clear underdog. Once again, the self-made man will have to lift himself up from nothing to prevail.
But being on an indie label has its upsides and downsides. On the one hand, there’s perceived authenticity and the ability to build momentum from modest expectations. On the other hand, there’s the question of whether your product can get into the hands of consumers without having major-label marketing muscle behind it — and, if so, whether it can expand beyond a niche audience.
So this article is meant to provide a relatively comprehensive assessment of Klobuchar’s strengths and weaknesses — rather than being either a “devil’s advocate” argument or a best-case scenario. It’s informed by conversations with Klobuchar’s campaign as well as with unaffiliated Democrats, but the opinions and analysis are my own. As you’ll see, I think Klobuchar’s upsides outweigh her downsides, but there’s plenty of material in both columns.
Four potential advantages
1. Electability. Democrats really, really want to beat President Trump. A recent Monmouth University poll found that 56 percent of Democrats “prefer someone who would be a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues,” compared with just 33 percent who held the opposite view.
What it means to be “electable” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder — the term sometimes seems to be a euphemism for a good-looking white guy who isn’t too liberal (hello, Beto).
But Klobuchar can make some good, data-driven arguments for her electability. One of them is simply the overall electoral importance of the Midwest — particularly the Upper Midwestern states of Minnesota (which Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning), Wisconsin and Michigan (which Trump won). Winning those three states plus Pennsylvania (or Ohio, or Florida, or North Carolina) would have given Hillary Clinton the presidency. And if the midterm elections were any guide, they still probably represent the path of least resistance for Democrats to retake the White House.
There’s also Klobuchar’s strong performances in Minnesota to consider. She was first elected in 2006 by a 20-point margin and then re-elected in 2012 by 35 points and in 2018 by 24 points. In each case, she performed well statewide and not just in the Twin Cities, winning 79 of 87 counties in 2006 and 85 of 87 in 2012. That declined to 51 of 87 counties in 2018, but given the massive swing toward Trump and Republicans in rural counties elsewhere in the Midwest, Klobuchar still did better than many Democrats.
Class I Democratic senators such as Klobuchar have been blessed not to face election or re-election in a “red wave” cycle — 2006, 2012 and 2018 have all been blue years. Nonetheless, Klobuchar has performed strongly relative to other Democrats in the same elections. Below, for example, is the output from a regression analysis that calculates an expected result in each 2018 Senate race based on every state’s partisan lean (how much more Republican or Democratic it is than the country as a whole2) and whether either party had an elected incumbent running. According to this analysis, you’d have expected Klobuchar — a Democratic incumbent in a blue year, but in a purple state — to win re-election by 14 percentage points. Instead, she was re-elected by 24 points, beating the model’s expectations by 10 points:
Klobuchar was one of the strongest Democrats in 2018
Margins of victory or defeat for Democratic Senate candidates vs. their forecasted margins based on incumbency and the state’s partisan lean
Margin of Victory or Defeat
Actual less expected
That rates as the third-strongest performance for a Democratic candidate for Senate last year, slightly behind West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders3 and just ahead of Texas’s Beto O’Rourke. Among other actual or potential Democratic candidates who ran Senate races in 2018, New York’s Kirsten GIllibrand also performs relatively well by this metric, whereas Ohio’s Sherrod Brown gets an average rating, and Massachusetts’s Warren a poor one.
That’s not to say you should expect Klobuchar to tout her own electability on the campaign trail, which can seem uncouth. (The first rule of electability is: Don’t talk about electability.) But it’s an argument we’re liable to hear a lot from her surrogates.
2. Potential strength in Iowa, and in the debates. As compared to candidates such as Harris and O’Rourke, who might hope to blitz their way to victory on the basis of strong fundraising and early delegate accumulation in California and Texas, Klobuchar is probably playing a long game. But doing so requires hitting two important mile markers. First, success in the debates. And then a strong performance in the Iowa caucuses.
Klobuchar’s team believes she should have two advantages in the debates. First, like Harris, Klobuchar is a former prosecutor — having been county attorney in Minneapolis’s Hennepin County — a skill that should translate well into the sharp-elbowed stage of the debates. And second, she can be candid and funny, potentially allowing her to surpass expectations among voters who expect Midwestern blandness or “Minnesota nice.” It’s a credible-enough case, but Klobuchar, who starts out with name recognition well below 50 percent, will need some big moments in the debates.
Her potential to succeed in Iowa is more obvious. She will probably be the only major candidate in the race from a state that borders Iowa and one of relatively few Midwesterners in the field. And in her statewide races in Minnesota, she relied heavily on a retail approach to politics, something that should translate well to Iowa. Looking at past results from the Iowa caucuses makes it pretty clear that there’s a regional advantage in this contest, although other politicians who are not from the region but have strong retail skills (a description that might fit Booker and O’Rourke, for example) can also perform well there.
Beyond Iowa, Klobuchar’s path is less clear. In New Hampshire’s open primary, voters typically favor liberal New Englanders such as Sanders and Warren.4 And the electorates get much less white after Iowa and New Hampshire, whereas Klobuchar’s strengths with nonwhite voters are less than obvious. So she’d be hoping for a polling bounce out of Iowa, something that used to occur regularly but has been more fleeting in recent years.
3. The beer track … without the baggage? Klobuchar’s campaign is likely to emphasize her working-class Midwestern roots, her staff said; you’ll hear stuff about how her grandfather worked as an iron-ore miner, for instance. It will also pitch her to voters on candor, honesty, pragmatism, an ability to “get stuff done,” work ethic and so forth. It’s going to lean pretty heavily into her Midwesternness, in other words.
The idea is to draw a contrast — probably softly at first, and maybe more explicitly if the campaign grows more combative — between Klobuchar and more left-wing candidates from the coasts, particularly Harris, Warren, Sanders and perhaps Booker. In some ways, this will recall the old distinction between “beer-track” (“flyover-state” moderates) and “wine-track” (coastal liberals) Democrats. However, Klobuchar isn’t likely to have the beer track to herself; Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown could be playing in the same lane, and, more significantly, so could former Vice President Joe Biden. There’s also what you might call a “craft-beer track,” consistenting of candidates who are from the middle of the country but whose appeal might be stronger among college-educated voters, such as O’Rourke and (craft brewery founder!) John Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado.
Does that mean Klobuchar is liable to run explicitly as a moderate — campaigning, for instance, against policies such as “Medicare-for-all”? Her campaign wouldn’t quite say as much, instead describing her as a pragmatist and a realist — but that’s a fussy distinction at best.
But there is an interesting twist to Klobuchar’s triangulation: Although she has a relatively moderate voting record, it’s fairly liberal relative to Minnesota, which (despite its reputation as a bastion of liberalism) is a purple state. Of the 13 Democrats who are either already running for president or are clearly telegraphing a run and who served in Congress during President Trump’s tenure, Klobuchar has the 12th-highest Trump score, meaning she’s voted with Trump comparatively often (31.5 percent of the time, trailing only former Maryland Rep. John Delaney among the presidential contenders). But she has the 10th-lowest Trump plus-minus rating, meaning that she’s voted with Trump much less often than you’d expect from someone from a purple state or district. Only Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, and Brown and Rep. Tim Ryan from increasingly red Ohio have a lower Trump plus-minus among the potential presidential candidates. By contrast, O’Rourke, although he voted with Trump slightly less often than Klobuchar, has the highest Trump plus-minus in the field because he represents an extremely blue district in El Paso.
All of that is to say: Klobuchar may well try to finesse the distinction between being a moderate and a realist, however meaningful that distinction might or might not be to Democratic voters. And she’s likely to express support for at least some decidedly liberal goals, having signaled support for the Green New Deal, for instance.5
Klobuchar looks moderate in the Democratic primary field
Trump score, predicted Trump score and Trump plus-minus for likely and declared Democratic candidates for president who have served in Congress under Trump. Klobuchar’s voting record is moderate relative to other Demoratic candidates for president but liberal relative to a purple state.
Klobuchar also has some other arguments to make against the rest of the beer-track candidates. Or at least, she arguably has less baggage than the rest of them. Her credentials — 20 years in public office — are sound by presidential standards (unlike O’Rourke’s). She isn’t 76 years old, as Biden is, and she doesn’t represent a state that is heavily invested in the financial industry, which is a problem for Biden and for all of the New York and New Jersey Democrats. The beer track will likely also be dominated by men — including possible candidates Biden, O’Rourke, Brown, Hickenlooper, Ryan and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock — so Klobuchar could have a lot of strength with working-class women, an overlooked and important part of the Democratic base.
4. A reasonably clear contrast to Trump. Before I started researching and reporting out this story, I thought one Klobuchar strength was that she could formulate one of the clearest contrasts to Trump. It’s almost always helpful for candidates in the primaries to draw stylistic and substantive contrasts against the other party’s president, as Trump did against Barack Obama, as Obama did against George W. Bush, and as Bill Clinton did against George H.W. Bush. My thinking was that Klobuchar’s mild-mannered Minnesota-niceness and long career as a public servant — and the fact that she’s a woman — would look to Democratic voters like the antidote to Trump’s bombast and braggadocio.
I still think that theory is mostly true and that Klobuchar is an above-average Democrat in her degree of not-Trumpness. But I want to hedge against it a little bit. The version of Klobuchar we see in debates and on the campaign trail may be scrappier, blunter, more sarcastic and more emotive than people are expecting (and reports of angry and abusive behavior toward staffers may facilitate those perceptions). Moreover, to the extent that her campaign is drawing distinctions between her beer-track persona and the wine-track elites from the coasts, she’ll in some ways be echoing arguments that Trump might make about Democrats.
Overall, this is an impressive list of strengths, even if some of them are quite hedged. They’re why Klobuchar has a considerably better chance of winning the nomination than you might guess given her relatively low profile. But she also has a couple of significant weaknesses.
Two potential problems
1. Lack of a clear path with nonwhite voters. Minnesota is not quite as white as you might think. It’s home to several immigrant groups, including some relatively smaller ones such as Somalians and Laotians. And its nonwhite population has grown significantly since 2000. Nonetheless, as of 2017, about 80 percent of Minnesota’s population was non-Hispanic white, compared with 61 percent for the U.S. as a whole. And since many of those nonwhite Minnesotans are recent immigrants, the share of whites among the electorate is even higher, at about 89 percent.
That’s not to say that white politicians can never find appeal with nonwhite voters. John Kerry did quite well with African-Americans, for instance, and O’Rourke was elected to Congress three times from one of the most Hispanic congressional districts in the country. This year’s Democratic field features several people of color, however, and Klobuchar doesn’t have any obvious strategy to appeal to black, Hispanic and Asian voters, which together will make up around 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. Instead, several of her likely strategic choices — running on the beer track, heavily investing in Iowa and (perhaps) New Hampshire — would emphasize trying to capture as much of the white vote as possible before turning to minorities.
Klobuchar also isn’t likely to have a lot of initial appeal to the left. She may subtly and selectively push back against some left-wing policy proposals while embracing others — or she may run more explicitly toward the center, depending on who else enters the race. (Biden’s decision about whether to run could significantly affect her calculus.) But either way, the left will have candidates such as Sanders, Warren and Brown as their first choices. That means Klobuchar doesn’t perform well according to our “five corners” heuristic, which regards black voters, Hispanics and The Left as three of the five major constituencies within the Democratic Party:
The five corners don’t capture everything. In particular, they don’t account for voters’ gender, even though around three-fifths of the Democratic electorate will be women.
But it does mean that Klobuchar’s campaign will need to proceed in stages, without necessarily having a lot of margin for error. First, she’ll have to perform well in debates and town halls to boost her name recognition. Second, she’ll need to win Iowa — or at least beat expectations there — to vault herself ahead of the other beer-track candidates. Third, she’ll need to heavily emphasize electability to win the slugfest against the wine-track candidates. Each stage holds risks for Klobuchar, and she doesn’t have a lot of shortcuts or detours at any point along the route if she gets knocked off track.
2. Staffing a campaign and building support among insiders. Articles published by HuffPost and BuzzFeed News have included allegations of abusive behavior by Klobuchar toward her staff, citing both statistics showing her high turnover and heretofore largely anonymous accounts of bad behavior from former staffers.
These rumors have been widespread for a long time. (To insert myself as a barometer here, as someone who doesn’t live in Washington and who is sort of ambivalent to political gossip, I’d heard about them several times.) In some ways, the HuffPost and BuzzFeed stories are relatively gentle in that they don’t contain that many details and are largely anonymous. Furthermore, this criticism can be gendered: A woman who exhibits the same behavior as “tough” or “demanding” male boss might be typecast as as “b—-.”
They also reek of inside-baseballness. Having a reputation as a bad boss can be problematic within your industry. But without salacious details, it’s not the sort of scandal that voters are liable to care all that much about.
At the same time, the nomination process is to some extent an inside game. If, as the HuffPost story claims, Klobuchar has trouble recruiting the layers of highly talented staffers that the other candidates have because of a reputation (well-earned or not) for being an abusive boss, that will hurt her. It will hurt her more if it signifies a general wariness about Klobuchar among Washington insiders, which could yield fewer endorsements and less willingness by “party elites” to rally around her if the field has been winnowed down to two or three candidates.
So I’ll be looking to whether Klobuchar is able to gather a few endorsements in the early stages of her campaign, especially from outside of Minnesota. There’s an extent to which a measured amount of pushback from Beltway elites could play into Klobuchar’s brand as a tough, no-BS outsider. But it’s really hard to go it completely alone in the primary, especially when your strategy involves winning over one faction of the party first (the beer track) and then building bridges to the other factions later on.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who officially said she is running for president in an announcement on Good Morning America on Monday, has the potential to be among the strongest contenders in the 2020 Democratic field. There may be no other candidate who better embodies how the modern Democratic Party has changed over the last few decades in identity and ideology.
Her biography and record make it easy to imagine Harris doing well with African-Americans, who likely will represent about one-in-five primary voters in the Democratic primary electorate, as well as Asian-Americans. Harris narrowly lost the Latino vote in her 2016 election to a fellow Democrat1 who is Mexican-American (Loretta Sanchez), but there isn’t any particular reason to think she is disliked by Latino voters. The way Harris is likely to position herself on policy issues during the campaign — liberal as any candidate on noneconomic issues but not as liberal on economic issues as, say, Bernie Sanders — echoes Hillary Clinton’s platform in 2016 (Harris’ sister Maya was Clinton’s policy director.) So I’m sure party loyalists, particularly black voters and older women, who backed Clinton will give serious consideration to Harris. The California senator is not particularly young (54), but you could imagine millennials galvanizing around electing the first Asian and first female president in the same way they embraced Obama in 2008. (We’ll come back to The Left in a moment.)
Moreover, looking at the current primary calendar,2 I’m not sure about her prospects in Iowa and New Hampshire (more on that in a bit), but the order of the states is set up well for Harris after that. The third contest is in Nevada, a state that borders California, so voters there may more familiar with Harris than other candidates. South Carolina is next, and African-Americans will likely constitute a majority of voters there.
After those four early contests, nine states are currently scheduled to vote on March 3, and that could be a great day for Harris. Those nine primaries and caucuses include California — Harris’ home state, which also has a large Asian-American population — as well as four states in which the Democratic electorate will likely be more than a quarter black:
The racial breakdown of the March 3 primaries
Percentage of Democratic voters by race according to 2016 exit polls
Also in terms of her strengths, Harris has stood out among colleagues during Senate hearings, putting her prosecutorial skills on display with her sharp and quick questioning of witnesses. Debate performances can really matter in primaries, and the hearing performances suggest she might be strong in debates.
She’ll need to be. To be clear, all of Harris’ strengths outlined above are really potential strengths. In most national primary polls conducted so far, she’s been in the single digits. Those polls mostly reflect a lack of national name recognition, but Harris will have to build her support almost from scratch. And a lot could go wrong for her.
The biggest potential problem for Harris may be that her campaign simply never really catches on with voters. Despite seeming to reporters like me to be a strong candidate on paper, Harris could be the 2020 Democratic version of Marco Rubio or Scott Walker, who bothstruggled in the GOP’s 2016 primary despite being hyped for years as potential GOP nominees because of their potential to appeal to a broad swath of their party.
After all, Harris likely will be competing for attention with a lot of candidates. And if she doesn’t do well in one of the first two contests, in mostly white Iowa and mostly white New Hampshire, then I don’t think there is any guarantee African-American voters or even California voters will get behind her. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey or former Vice President Joe Biden (his close relationship with Obama will help) could become the top choice among black voters — or African-Americans could split their votes among several candidates. I think a candidate who won Iowa and another early state and had momentum could carry Harris’ home state of California.
Harris’ performances in Iowa and New Hampshire are also relevant in regard to a second challenge for the California senator: Overcoming doubts from some Democrats about her “electability.” As I have written before, research on elections does not support the idea that female candidates do worse than male ones. Black and Latino candidates seem to do slightly worse with white voters but boost turnout among their identity groups, so the story is complicated there too. But discussions of electability are often used as a cudgel against candidates who are not male, Christian and/or white, because such candidates are perceived as having less appeal to swing voters. Right now, some prominent Democrats are publicly fretting about nominating a woman in 2020, fearing the American electorate is too sexist to elect a female candidate and voters with sexist views will find Trump’s persona and politics appealing, as they did in 2016. And some Democrats privately say they are even more concerned that swing voters in the Midwest won’t embrace a black woman. Harris has to worry that Democrats might decide she is too “risky” and embrace one of the male candidates mainly for this reason.
To be clear, this is a surmountable problem. Some African-American voters were doubtful of Obama’s viability in a general election in 2008 — until he wonthe Iowa caucuses. This is both an unfair part of the process (why should a minority candidate have to do well in a state with basically no minorities to prove viability) and kind of an odd one (winning the Democratic caucuses in Iowa does not tell you that much about a candidate’s ability to win the general election.) But I tend to think Democratic voters will be much less focused on Harris’ perceived electability if she wins a lot of voters in Iowa or New Hampshire.
Harris can overcome The Left if she is strong among other blocs of the party. But if she wins a few primaries, I can see liberals casting her as too establishment and opposing her fiercely, similar to how this bloc unsuccessfully tried to stop Clinton in 2016.
Overall, I would not be surprised if Harris won the nomination. But I don’t see her as the favorite. She ranks No. 1 in some betting markets, but with so many candidates, “the field” is really favored against any individual contender.
On Saturday, Democrat Julian Castro held an event in his hometown — San Antonio, Texas, where he served as mayor for five years — to announce he is running for president. But Castro’s campaign might be a bit a of a long shot considering he’s polling between 0 and 2 percent in state and national polls. That said, he has all the makings of an inspirational candidate — he’s young and ambitious, he overcame a childhood of poverty to attend Stanford and Harvard Law, and if he wins the nomination, would be the first Latino presidential nominee on a major-party ticket. But he also disappeared from the national spotlight after 2016 and now faces an uphill battle to convince voters that he is the strongest choice to oppose President Trump in what could be a very crowded 2020 primary field.
Just 44 years old, Castro first held public office at the age of 26 when he won a seat on the city council in San Antonio. He then went on to run for mayor in 2005, but narrowly lost that race before handily winning in 2009. He was re-elected as mayor twice and made his first big national splash when he was selected as the keynote speaker of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Castro was the first Latino to fill that vaunted speaking slot, and was labeled a “rising star” as a result. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama chose him to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and in 2016, Hillary Clinton seriously considered Castro for her vice presidential pick, but she ultimately opted for Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine instead.
Following his tenure at HUD, Castro founded the political action committee Opportunity First to plan his next steps and promote candidates in the 2018 cycle. Leadership PACs such as Castro’s are often used as fundraising vehicles to build a foundation for a future campaign as well as a way to donate to other politicians’ campaigns. Opportunity First probably did more of the former than the latter — it only donated 10 percent of the money it raised to candidates and parties at the federal, state and local level. Castro also published a memoir in 2018 about his upbringing in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in San Antonio with his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, and their Chicano activist single mother and Mexican-born grandmother. Julian Castro has a story to tell voters. But it remains to be seen if he can sufficiently raise his profile to that of a real contender.
How Castro Wins
FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver recently broke down the five main constituencies of the Democratic electorate, and it seems that Castro’s path to victory likely involves gaining support from some mix of Hispanics voters, Millennials and Party Loyalists.
Much of Castro’s political career has been built on support from Latino voters. San Antonio’s population is more than 60 percent Latino, and in his successful 2009 mayoral race, Castro won the nonpartisan election by 27 points over his closest challenger,1 principally by running up the margins in San Antonio’s heavily Latino neighborhoods, particularly in the southern half of the city. In a cluster of precincts northeast of Lackland Air Force Base, for example, as much as 90 percent of the voting age population was Hispanic at the time of the election, and Castro won many of those precincts by more than 80 points. Conversely, in some majority-white precincts north and east of Shavano Park, a small independent city surrounded on all sides by San Antonio, Castro’s chief opponent won by more than 20 points.
Castro has also been vocal in his support for a renewed push by Democrats to reach out to Latino voters. Turnout among Latinos is traditionally low, but given how Obama energized turnout among African-American voters in his presidential bids, Castro’s candidacy could similarly boost Latino participation. But winning the Latino vote probably won’t be enough. Castro will also need to make inroads among millennial voters.
An NBC/Generation Forward poll released in October 2018 found that the personal quality millennials were most likely to say they wanted to see when deciding who to vote for was a candidate could bring about change. And, arguably, what could be more of a change from Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric than a Latino candidate of Mexican descent?
As a young Latino man from a San Antonio — a fast-growing, youthful and diverse city — Castro could try to make the case that his experience leading the nation’s seventh-largest city could be the right step for America’s future. And as a former member of the Obama administration, Castro could also play up his White House connection with Party Loyalists, who tend to be an establishment-friendly group. The former president remains incrediblypopular among Democrats, and Castro can use his time in Obama’s Cabinet to claim some of that legacy in his own campaign. Among potential Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden might be the only one with a more obvious connection to Obama than Castro.
The challenges Castro faces
The Democratic Party is increasingly diverse and its voters show decreasing levels of racial resentment — a measure of racial attitudes, especially how whites feel toward nonwhites — particularly among younger Democrats. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily mean voters are ready to elect a Latino candidate. For example, 2016 primary voting patterns show that Clinton was seen as the “Obama candidate,” meaning Clinton’s support among Democrats with racially conservative views fell sharply compared to how she performed in 2008, when she was running against Obama and won many of those voters. What’s more, there’s a supposed “electability” argument that Democrats needa white (and probably male) nominee in order to defeat Trump in the general, so we shouldn’t underrate how race and ethnicity could affect the primaries.
Castro’s level of political experience is also a double-sided coin. On the one hand, he is a relatively fresh face and Democrats may want someone new and young to face Trump. However, Castro might have too little experience. Although he served as San Antonio’s mayor for five years and Obama’s HUD secretary for two and a half years, he’s never run for statewide office in Texas and it’s unclear where he stands on a lot of major issues. His relative lack of experience probably played a role in Clinton’s choice to not pick him as her running mate in 2016, and it could be an issue for him as a presidential candidate, too.
Castro will also need to gather the resources to mount a serious campaign. With his Texas connections, Castro could have access to lots of campaign cash. But it’s possible that another noted Texan, Beto O’Rourke, could pull away many Texas donors who could help jumpstart Castro’s campaign. O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign captured national attention that could translate into a presidential campaign. O’Rourke raised nearly $80 million for his Senate race, and among contributions large enough that their origins are reported by Federal Election Commission, a bit over half of his total cash came from the Lone Star State.2 An O’Rourke bid would also put two young Texans in the field, so Castro and O’Rourke could find themselves stepping on each other’s toes and making appeals to similar parts of the electorate.
If he gains traction, Castro might also take hits from The Left. When he was in contention for Clinton’s 2016 vice presidential nod, progressive groups attacked Castro for being too friendly toward Wall Street firms when dealing with delinquent mortgages and for not fighting hard enough for minority communities. Castro also improved his political fortunes in San Antonio by building a better relationship with the city’s business community, which had been skeptical of him in his first mayoral bid in 2005. Such coziness would not win him support from The Left.
It will be a while before we know if Castro is a true contender. But what we do know now is that he’s running and that his candidacy could make history.