As the Democratic presidential field takes shape, one of the questions we at Brownstein get most frequently is, “What the heck is X-candidate thinking? He has no shot, right?”

We advise clients that while some candidates overestimate their chances, they almost always have a rational basis for their candidacies.

  • The answer to the question, “How the heck does this person think he/she can win” often comes down to geography, i.e., the order in which the primaries and caucuses take place.
  • Corollary: a number of longshot candidates are banking on home court advantages in early states.
  • For many candidates, the goal is something less than the presidency. In other words, not everyone who is running for president is really running for president.

What are they thinking? Casual observers tend to look at the campaign for the nomination as a national contest, but the candidates and strategists see a series of discrete state events. Democrats, unlike Republicans, award delegates proportionately to candidates who earn at least 15% of the vote. That reinforces the importance of home court advantage in candidates’ minds.

The Democrats will hold four caucuses/primaries on four dates in February 2020 before the Super Tuesday primary-palooza. Focusing on the four February contests brings out candidates’ strategies in sharp relief.

Who has home court advantage? Here are the four early and relatively inexpensive Democratic caucuses/primaries and the candidates who have the home court edge:

Iowa Caucuses, 2/3/2020: Amy Klobuchar Amy is a very popular senator from a neighboring state, is running on midwestern values, and over the years probably has spent the most time in Iowa of any of the candidates.

New Hampshire Primary, 2/11/2020: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren Bernie represents the border state to the north, Warren represents the border state to the south. Past N.H. primary winners include Mass. Gov. Mike Dukakis in 1988, Mass. Sen. Paul Tsongas in 1992, Mass. Sen. John Kerry in 2004 (with Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont finishing second), and of course Sanders in 2016. The pressure is on Sanders to win and Warren to place or show.

Nevada Caucuses, 2/22/2020: Julian Castro The former HUD secretary (and congressman from Texas before that) has to put points on the board in a state that is one-third Hispanic. Castro is making immigration his top issue and is banking on his appeal to the rising electorate in Sunbelt states.

South Carolina, 2/29/2020: Cory Booker and Kamala Harris The only early primary state in which a majority of Democratic voters are African-American would seem to create an opportunity for Booker and Harris. Note, however, that Biden is very popular with black voters nationally and is very popular with Democratic voters generally in S.C.

The first event of March 2020 is Super Tuesday, which has changed in one critical way—California, which had been irrelevant in recent cycles because of its late-June primary, has joined the fray. Colorado has joined as well. Super Tuesday was originally structured as a southern state primary day, but over time other states have joined. Where candidates could confine their travel and take advantage of overlapping media markets, they now face make-or-break decisions regarding time, money and strategy.

The Super Tuesday map clearly favors several candidates:

  • California: Harris
  • Colorado: John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet
  • Massachusetts: Warren
  • Minnesota: Klobuchar
  • Texas: Castro, Beto O’Rourke
  • Vermont: Sanders

There is no clear edge in the remaining Super Tuesday states of Alabama, North Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

I’m not going deeper into the calendar, because after Super Tuesday, the field will be considerably smaller. Candidates who have been losing will have trouble replenishing their funds and maintaining grassroots interest. I think that you can see how the schedule from Feb. 3 to March 3 generates the greatest opportunities and the most dramatic hazards for almost every one of the credible candidates.

Some of the candidates are not really running for president. Let me explain with a hypothetical. Let’s say you’re an ambitious young House Democrat from California. You just got re-elected with 70% of the vote. You’re years away from chairing a House committee. The legislative process offers you virtually no chance to offer amendments to legislation, or to speak for more than a minute or two during debate on the House floor. As one of 46 members of that state’s House Democratic caucus, you find it almost impossible to stand out.

Given that context, why not run for president?

Getting up on the debate stage with the contenders will enable you to reach a statewide—and nationwide—audience. And you just might leapfrog formidable potential statewide candidates like Rep. Adam Schiff and Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

In the brave new world of small-donor online fundraising, you’re not depleting your contributor base by running for president—you’re enlarging it.

There are other reasons why someone might run for president with no hope of winning. A great showing could earn you the veep nomination—and a road to the presidency. Likewise, you could find yourself enjoying a stint in the new president’s cabinet. Your increased visibility might position you to run for another office. You can elevate the importance of critical issues like gun control and climate change. And if nothing else, you may be in demand as an author or TV commentator.

I hope this helps to explain the size and shape of the Democrats’ 2020 presidential field. In addition to the obvious motivations, we, like the candidates, see a series of individual state contests and a wide array of individual agendas.

More to come. Much more.