Ranking the Top 5 Democrats in the 2020 race

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CNN's Chris Cillizza breaks down the latest movement in CNN's rankings of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

Posted: Jan 16, 2020 7:50 PM
Updated: Jan 16, 2020 7:50 PM

You can pore over every national and early state poll. You can interview dozens of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. You can talk to all the campaigns about their detailed voter ID and turnout efforts.

What none of that digging will produce is this: Any clear sense of who is going to win the Iowa caucuses in 18 days' time. Or really, anything else that happens after that.

Now, there's always some level of uncertainty built into this presidential nomination fight. Until voters vote -- or, uh, caucus -- all polls do is give us a rough sense of where things stand. (Remember: Polls are built on past voter turnout; if lots more -- or lots less -- people turn out than expected, the polling will miss the mark.)

But the level of not-knowing-what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen is much higher in this race than any we've seen in modern memory. Just four in 10 Iowa Democrats said they were locked in on their candidate choice in a CNN/Des Moines Register poll earlier this month. That's significantly lower than the 59% who said they had made up their minds about a candidate at the same time in 2016.

The simple fact is that voters still aren't sold on any of the candidates just yet. Former Vice President Joe Biden is regarded as the safe choice -- the known commodity that appeals to voters' heads but not their hearts. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have excited liberals but there are still doubts about whether either of them are the right profile to beat President Donald Trump. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the hot new thing. But he's young (late 30s) and people question whether he needs more seasoning before being given the biggest job in the country.

How to resolve these doubts? Simple: Voters vote. The act of choosing forces a clarity that will then give us some sense of where this race is headed. Until that happens? We wait, acknowledging we are flying more blindly than we have in a long time.

Below, our educated guess of the five hopefuls most likely to wind up as the Democratic nominee. Don't see your preferred candidate? Think someone should be ranked higher or lower? Never fear! We do these rankings every two weeks. So we will be out with one more set just before Iowa!

5. Amy Klobuchar: The Minnesota senator wanted (needed?) a star turn at the debate earlier this week in Iowa to close the gap between herself and the four top candidates in Iowa. She didn't get it. Klobuchar was good but not great; her inability to remember the name of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly bordered on Rick Perry territory and likely was her most replayed moment of the night. But it's also impossible to entirely write Klobuchar off. She's got a real organization in Iowa and her Midwestern pragmatism could be a nice fit for people who don't want to be for Biden or the two liberal candidates. (Previous ranking: 5)

3 (tie). Elizabeth Warren: We're moving the senior senator up on our list for two reasons. First, although Warren is arguably in a worse position than Buttigieg in Iowa and New Hampshire, she is in a better position than he is nationally. Secondly, it's not really clear Warren is in a worse position in Iowa. She was within the margin of Buttigieg in two Iowa polls out this past week. We're also uncertain how recent skirmishes involving Sanders and her will play out. (Previous ranking: 4)

3 (tie). Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg is, weirdly, the most divisive candidate in the field. Just take his debate performance on Tuesday night as an example. Chris wrote that he came across as well-versed on the issues, authoritative and possessing the necessary gravitas to serve as commander-in-chief. Others thought he sounded like nothing more than a very good high school debater, with a set of memorized talking points that he proved effective at reciting. What's undeniable is that Buttigieg is very much in the mix in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And if he wins either one, he has a plausible path to be the party's nominee -- and even if he doesn't. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Bernie Sanders: We've both written about how it's not far-fetched at all that the junior senator from Vermont could win the nomination. Polls taken in 2020 show Sanders is clearly near the top of the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. And while most non-Biden candidates do significantly worse in states with sizable nonwhite populations, Sanders is holding his own in Nevada polling. If Sanders can win the first three contests of the primary season, then it's going to be very difficult to stop him. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Joe Biden: The former vice president has the easiest path to the nomination. If Biden wins in Iowa, he is the heavy favorite to be the nominee. An average of polls has him right at the top of the field in the Hawkeye State. That would give black voters little reason to abandon Biden. He currently leads among black voters by about 30 points nationally. Even if Biden were to lose in Iowa and New Hampshire, he's still up by over 20 points in South Carolina. The question is what would happen to that lead if he is unsuccessful in the first few contests. Biden is, as he has been for a while, a vulnerable but still frontrunner. (Previous ranking: 1)

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