vision 2020

Long-Shot Hickenlooper Counts On Unconventional Path to the Presidency

The former Colorado governor and Denver mayor is swimming against a leftward tide in the Democratic Party. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

To no one’s surprise, former Colorado governor and Denver mayor John Hickenlooper is announcing his 2020 presidential candidacy this week (beginning with a video and a Good Morning America appearance, and culminating in a formal announcement event on Thursday in Denver). He becomes the 14th Democrat to enter a field that may eventually top 20 candidates.

On paper, Hickenlooper has a decent résumé for a presidential run: two terms each as a major-city mayor and as a governor, but also an abundant pre-political career as an entrepreneur (he was a pioneer in Colorado’s now-thriving microbrew industry) and a reputation as something of a quirky “outsider.” He’s probably best known nationally for running unconventional but effective political ads over the years, like this one from his 2010 gubernatorial campaign illustrating his disdain for negative campaigning:

But Hickenlooper’s well-established ideological reputation as a moderate pragmatist could make his bid poorly timed in a party whose progressive wing is in ascendancy. 2020 may simply be a bad year for a 67-year-old white male who sings hymns from the old-time Clintonian religion of working across party lines to get things done. This remark from his GMA appearance will likely attract widespread derision:

And at a time when Democrats are debating whether climate change is simply the most important challenge facing America or the only challenge that really matters, Hickenlooper’s history as a supporter of fracking is going to disqualify him from the get-go among many of the greener voters.

There’s a reason, in other words, that Hickenlooper’s name first came up in a national political context as the subject of rumors that he might run as John Kasich’s running mate in some sort of third-party “unity” ticket in 2020.

Yes, he’s got some progressive credentials, too, primarily his advocacy of gun-safety legislation and his support for cannabis legalization (after initially opposing it). And he has conventional liberal views on reproductive rights and LGBTQ issues (he cited differences on abortion policy as the main reason he couldn’t even consider that “unity” ticket with Kasich). But there’s too much about him that will annoy if not outrage people on the Democratic left to make him some sort of fallback candidate if others fade. He’s not, moreover, going to have some putative “moderate lane” to himself so long as Amy Klobuchar is running, and particularly if Joe Biden runs. And there is at least one other potential candidate from his Rocky Mountain region, Montana governor Steve Bullock, who can play the moderate-outsider game without having already alienated progressives.

It’s also hard to discern how, mechanically, Hickenlooper can win the nomination, beginning with very low name ID and little-to-no national support. Yes, Colorado is not that far from Iowa, a place where his unwieldy last name is not entirely unknown (a Republican cousin, Bourke Hickenlooper, represented the state in the Senate from 1945 to 1969). But as Politico reports, he was the only candidate at a recent Iowa Democratic political event who felt the need to wear a name badge. And his home region is not well-positioned on the primary/caucus calendar. Nevada’s heavy Latino and labor complexion doesn’t make it a natural Hickenlooper hotbed. Colorado will vote at some point in March, as will Arizona, but that’s it.

Best I can tell, Hickenlooper’s only path to the nomination is better-than-average performance, meaning survival, in the early states, and then a party-wide electability panic that suddenly makes self-identified moderates sexy. Yes, a demolition derby among better-known candidates would help, but at this point, the Coloradan is so far down the list that it would take a small miracle to launch him into the first tier. He does have some high-profile political talent advising him (e.g., Anna Greenberg and Jeremy Rosner from the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner polling firm), but not a whole lot of money. Perhaps the sheer improbability of his candidacy will guarantee him some attention. And he should definitely come up with some more quirky ads. If he does somehow win the Democratic nomination, you can be sure Donald Trump will use his unusual name for an assortment of insults on Twitter.

Hickenlooper Counts On Unconventional Path to the Presidency