Chasing 2020 Part 2 of 4: Comparing the Candidates for the Democratic Nomination

AFGE  | Flickr Creative Commons

AFGE | Flickr Creative Commons

General Introduction

The Democratic Party of the United States has undergone profound change since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 which has nudged the party farther to the left and engendered crises of identity and confidence among its adherents. Indeed, since the end of Barack Obama’s second term and the disgraceful exit from mainstream politics of his intended successor, Hilary Clinton, the Democratic Party has been scrambling to reinvigorate itself. The party’s alignment with socialist doctrine has so far led the re-identification effort while wholesale admonition of the policies of the Trump administration, encapsulating the feeling of the majority of the Democratic electorate, has become a virtual litmus test for potential candidates. 

The lack of clear leadership and the supposed imperative of defeating Trump has led nearly two dozen Democrats to throw themselves into the 2020 contest, each advertising that their candidacy will prove to be the definitive challenge to what is understood as Trump’s wanton demagoguery. While many are seasoned politicians with established political portfolios, many others are either relative newcomers or have never been elected to office. Furthermore, while the progressive playbook features prominently in most of their platforms, the central issues advanced in each of their campaigns differ significantly and imply that each potential president would pursue different central goals if elected.

This article will serve as the second in a four-part series aimed at examining the many candidates’ backgrounds, platforms and chances of winning the Democratic nomination for the 2020 Presidential Election. Each article will use a formulated methodology to group candidates into four tiers based on their likelihood of winning the Democratic Party nomination in 2020, with Tier One candidates demonstrating the highest probability. By dividing the candidates in this fashion, these articles will present readers with a more informed view of their favorite candidate’s campaign and, taken together, will illustrate the sometimes hidden divisions between Democratic politicians. In doing so, the articles will also help paint a more complete picture of the state of the Democratic Party and anticipate the direction the eventual winner will take it.

Implementation of Weighted Scoring

Introducing weighted scoring to the methodology enables us to better project the power of each of the more realistic candidates based on their perceived acquired characteristics. As such, each acquired characteristic will be assigned a numbered score, with a candidate’s total numbered score leading to placement in their respective tier. Simply put, the higher the score received by the candidate, the higher level tier they will be placed into. By incorporating numbered scoring, this analysis will be able to make a more objective comparison of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and make a more compelling case for their placement in the various tiers. Furthermore, by scoring candidates in this manner their improvement on the campaign trail over time can be quantified, enabling a lesser candidate with a particularly high score in their tier to advance into yet a higher tier.

A central aspect to this method is that the scores are weighted to reflect the fact that the Essential Requirements characteristics are of higher value than the Experience and Support Network characteristics, which are in turn of higher value than the Personality and Platform categories. As such, each of the acquired characteristics in these different groups will be scored differently, with greater weight (i.e., higher numbered scores) given to those characteristics that are more important to have for the successful execution of a political campaign. Recalling the subdivision of each characteristic into four “acquisition levels,” the scoring method will assign ascending numbered scores for each acquisition level acquired by the candidate so that those candidates’ better qualified obtain higher scores.

Weighted Scoring in Practice

In order to determine a candidate’s total score, the weighted scoring system will proceed as follows. Each acquisition level for each characteristic in the Essential Requirements category will be given a score of three (3) with the highest acquisition level being awarded a score of nine (9). For example, regarding the “name recognition” characteristic, a local name will be given a score of three and a household name will be given a score of nine (with an incognito name naturally being assigned zero). As such, the highest score a candidate can receive in each Essential Requirement characteristic is nine (i.e., 3 x 3) with the maximum score for the entire category being twenty-seven (27) (i.e., 9 x 3). 

Similarly, the “Experience and Public Record” and “Support Network” categories are also weighted (albeit at a lower value than the Essential Requirements category) since they are considerably more important than the mere personal traits of a candidate. As such, each acquisition level for each characteristic of these two categories will be given a score of (2) with the highest acquisition level being awarded a score of six (6). For instance, regarding the “political experience” characteristic, a candidate with local political experience will be given a score of two and a candidate with federal political experience will be given a score six (a candidate with no experience will naturally receive a score of zero for this characteristic). Thus, the highest score a candidate can receive in each characteristic is six (i.e., 2 x 3) with the maximum score for each category being eighteen (18) (i.e., 6 x 3). 

Finally, each of the characteristics in the “Personal Traits” category is considered to be the least important and most difficult to objectively evaluate (with a qualitative analysis being inherently subjective). However, these traits remain important and cannot be discarded since many candidates possess skills that outdo their rivals (e.g., public speaking). As such, each acquisition level for each characteristic of this category will be assigned a score of one (1) with the highest acquisition level being awarded a score of three (3). Thus, the highest score in this category is nine (i.e., 3 x 3), making it of significantly lower value than the others but not without its merits. Similarly, while a platform is important its quality is not the most important facet of a campaign and is liable to elucidation, evolution and improvement. As such, the quality of a platform (which is also subject to subjective analysis) is also ranked from one to three (3) and will be largely determined based on the quality of a candidate’s official website.

Understanding this improved methodology based on numbered scores enables us to better understand the placement of the candidates in their respective tiers. With the total maximum score being seventy-five (75) (27 + (18 x 2) + 12) this method argues that a perfect candidate who is able to demonstrate excellent acquisition of all traits would achieve a score of seventy-five and be almost guaranteed to win the nomination. To better explain this system, a look at the scores of the worst candidates can be helpful. As previously seen, the tier four candidates (those without a chance to win) each only had acquired characteristics in the “Personal Traits” category and possessed poorly presented or outlandish platforms. As such their maximum score would be twelve (12), while each of them received less than ten (10). Thus, based on these tier four candidates it would seem that tier four includes candidates who receive scores lower than twelve, which would reflect the idea that personality traits and the quality of one’s platform alone are not enough to seriously contest an election.

Similarly, tier three candidates are those that have at least some combination of the Essential Requirements with a Support Network and/or relevant Experience. As such, their score is expected to be substantially higher than the candidates in tier four, but still lower than those candidates in tier two that can demonstrate more solid acquisition of any of the Essential Requirements characteristics. As such, tier three qualifying scores will be between 12 and 41. Tier two candidates, those posing a challenge but unlikely to win the nomination due to a lack of solid acquisition of all the essential requirements, are expected to score high without coming close enough to be considered exceptional candidates. Therefore, their scores will range between 41 and 65 in order to place those scoring above 65 into tier one. Since perfection is difficult to achieve, tier one candidates must be given a margin of error (in this case 10 points) while still demonstrating a high acquisition of characteristics. Thus, tier one candidates will be those scoring above 65.

Tier Three Candidates: The Long Shots

The tier three candidates differ from those in tier four by each demonstrating a tenuous acquisition of at least one essential characteristic along with a host of ancillary characteristics in addition to their personal traits. These candidates range from a career politician with federal experience to a local politician with a successful partisan record to a non-political but wealthy self-made individual. As such, these candidates all have potential to become standouts but remain long-shot contenders due to a lack of higher characteristic scores. With that being said, each possesses their own unique strengths which make them interesting to follow and should future developments improve their acquisition of essential requirements or ancillary characteristics, make them potential significant contenders.

Tulsi Gabbard

Without a doubt, the most qualified among the tier three members, Tulsi Gabbard is a unique candidate. Hailing from a multi-ethnic and multi-denominational family, Gabbard has been a member of Congress since 2013 and holds the distinction of being the first Hindu to be elected to the chamber. A career politician since college whose tenure was only interrupted to serve successive tours as a combatant in Iraq, Tulsi Gabbard was unknown outside her native Hawaii until her support for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign made her a progressive belle and a symbol for minority women with political aspirations. While she remains a progressive icon, she has also experienced her share of scandal as her past anti-LGBTQ activities and sympathy for Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad have resurfaced and challenged her progressive image.

Curiously for a Presidential candidate with her level of experience, Gabbard’s platform is poorly presented to the American people and difficult to find. Completely absent from her official campaign website as of this writing, her probable political program is best seen by reviewing her general election website (used during her successive bids for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District) where her major national policy positions are outlined alongside her political goals for Hawaii (e.g., improvement of the local economy and emphasizing native Hawaiian issues). However, based on the limited textual references on her campaign website and her public speaking events so far, her signature issues seem to be the environment and foreign affairs, specifically the limitation of foreign interventionism by the United States.

Based on her profile and platform and working with the weighted scoring rubric established above, Gabbard can be considered a long-shot for the Democratic nomination. While she is a nationally known and, for many Democrats, a popular politician (6), she lack significant media coverage (3) and has had limited success in her fundraising efforts (3), only raising an estimated $1,000,000 and failing as of yet to reach the 65,000 individual donors needed to qualify for the DNC debates in June. Furthermore, while she has significant federal political experience being a member of Congress (4), she is neither a Senator nor in a leadership position and has faced recent criticism which has undermined her reputation as a successful partisan (2) which is unlikely to be counterbalanced by her campaign experience which until now has been purely local (2). Despite these setbacks, Gabbard does benefit from a historically receptive progressive base which could greatly expand her grassroots support network (4) and has received numerous endorsements from private organizations, NGOs and business/trade organizations (6), even if her political endorsements have only come from her father (Hawaii State Rep.) and a local California mayor (2).

Finally, Gabbard’s personal traits are promising as she has activist and philanthropist credentials (2), is a career politician and veteran (3), and has demonstrated a charismatic touch and a capacity to reach an audience outside her state while suffering from a reputation of being over-ambitious which has made her slightly un-relatable (2). In summary, with her platform being difficult to access and apparently little tailored to the office of President (1), Gabbard has a score of 40 which falls just below the 41 point threshold to tier two but still close enough to be considered a semi-significant candidate. However, due to her low profile in the race (which has made some speculate as to the real purpose of her run), low fundraising numbers, and sloppy progressive record (a potential liability for a candidate in this climate) she cannot be considered a major contender. With that being said, even a small change in her situation could provide her with enough momentum to close the gap and rise to tier two as a significant challenger.

Wayne Messam

Wayne Messam is the current mayor of Miramar, Florida, a city part of the Miami metro area with an estimated 140,000 residents. A first generation black American with Jamaican immigrant parents, Messam was a renowned student-athlete before starting a successful construction company involved in local public infrastructure projects. He began his political career in 2011 as a city commissioner for Miramar before successfully winning the mayoral contest in 2015 to become the city’s mayor, a post he retains today after having won reelection in Nov. 2018.

Wayne’s platform as presented on his campaign website is generically progressive and rife with the typical suggestions of abolishing the electoral college and the filibuster, taking an aggressive approach to “rival the New Deal in scope” towards climate change and improve the humanity of the immigration system. Interestingly, however, his approach to healthcare is non-committal to progressive ideology, preferring to address rising prescription drug costs than call for universal health-care, all the while maintaining that healthcare constitutes a “basic human right.” In addition to the progressive flair, Messam’s signature issue is student loan reform, specifically the elimination of America’s $1.5 trillion in student loan debt and creating a plan for an affordable college education.

Wayne Messam as a candidate is a self-declared “long-shot.” Indeed, he scores low in the essential requirements since his name is barely recognizable locally (3), he has not benefitted from more than sporadic mentions by the media (3) and has failed to amass significant contributions unlikely to be offset by his official $43,000 mayoral salary (0). Furthermore, while Messam does have local political experience (2) and possess a rather successful partisan record both legislatively (e.g., raising Miramar’s minimum wage) and symbolically (e.g., signing the infamous letter by mayors across the country decrying Trump’s pullout from the Paris Agreement) (6), he lacks campaigning experience outside his constituency (2), any discernible support outside of Miami (2) and has received no significant signs of private support (0). However, while no political endorsements have been made public, Messam serves as the President of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials which may pay dividends in terms of political support across the country (4).

Finally, on the personal front Messam has demonstrated significant community engagement in helping to improve public infrastructure and education facilities through his construction firm (2), has demonstrated a successful private career in business and rising success as a politician (3) as well as an ability to reach out to constituents if nothing else (1). In summary, since Messam has limited name recognition and media coverage as well as very little money, his low acquisition of the essential requirements alone demonstrates that he is not a major contender. Indeed, with the inclusion of his platform which, despite his popular central message, is generically progressive in a crowded field of progressives (2), Messam scores 31 points which is far from the 41 point threshold to be considered a major candidate.

Andrew Yang

The final tier three candidate is Andrew Yang, a highly educated (Brown University and Columbia Law School), first-generation Asian-American entrepreneur. After brief stints in corporate law and internet entrepreneurialism, Yang became a start-up entrepreneur and progressed to venture capitalism. The founder of numerous philanthropic start-ups, his most well known, Venture For America, works to create jobs in depressed urban areas (e.g., Detroit) in order to promote economic revitalization.

Yang’s platform centers around one signature issue: the provision of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) of $1,000/month to all American citizens between the ages of 18 and 64. According to his campaign website, his UBI scheme is to be funded by a Value Added Tax (VAT) that would harness the supply chain value gain by big tech companies to provide UBI in order to counterbalance the job displacement caused by their innovations. In addition to UBI, Yang’s lengthy political program contains familiar progressive ideas (e.g. universal healthcare, 18 year terms for SCOTUS justices, etc.) as well as more unique policies that range from economic overhaul (e.g., “human-centered capitalism”) to political reform (e.g., statehood for DC) to quirky policies such as getting rid of the penny and extending daylight savings time. While visionary, Yang’s platform illustrates his idealistic view of how policy is formulated in America (e.g., he claims that his UBI scheme will commence immediately after his inauguration, ignoring the typical lag that even a mundane piece of legislation requires - let alone the most ambitious social policy in the world) raising questions as to how effective his presidency would really be.

Andrew Yang is an interesting candidate in this election because he is an individual with absolutely no name recognition (0) that has exploded onto the national scene due to favorable media coverage that began with small time podcast interviews (e.g., Joe Rogan Experience) and gradually evolved into features on more widely consumed media channels such as Fox and CNN (6). Furthermore, while his resources are still modest compared to the headliner candidates (his net worth is estimated at roughly $2 million with an equal amount received in campaign contributions), his growing popularity and the fact that he is the only non-major candidate to have qualified for the DNC debates through the individual donor route demonstrates that his resource base is likely to grow into something more competitive (6).

Despite his rather solid grasp of two of the Essential Requirement characteristics, Yang possesses no political (0) or campaign experience (0), and as a result, has no public record to speak of (0). However, he has received public support from a host of celebrities (e.g., Nicolas Cage) with many other powerful business leaders (e.g., Elon Musk) having demonstrated exuberant support for his UBI policy that may extend to his candidacy in the near future (4). This potential private support could work to counterbalance his lack of discernible political endorsements (0) and serve a motivation for many who would seek to expand his grassroots support network (2).

Finally, Yang’s philanthropic and activist start-ups demonstrate his leadership in community engagement, with his positive effects being felt across the country (3). Furthermore, he is a highly educated business success (3) with entrepreneurial skills and a proven ability to successfully market his vision, demonstrating considerable rhetorical and outreach abilities (3). Thus, with his high scores in the Essential Requirements category and remarkably helpful personal traits, Yang is able to overcome his lack of experience and undeveloped support network to present himself as a promising candidate with a powerful central message (3). In many ways, despite being the self-proclaimed physical and temperamental antithesis of Donald Trump, Yang’s candidacy shares many similarities with that of the incumbent’s such as a quick hold over the media and a hammering of a powerful central message (i.e., UBI for Yang v. border wall for Trump), that is helping him to overcome the hurdles that the current President overcame in 2016. Furthermore, while at 30 points Yang’s score still makes him a long-shot for the nomination, should his performance at the DNC debates exceed expectations he will likely gain a recognizable name along with increased media coverage and financial contributions, enabling him to potentially rise into tier two.