The 2020 Democratic candidates, ranked

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CNN's Chris Cillizza ranks the top five Democratic candidates for president one week before Americans begin to vote in Iowa.

Posted: Feb 2, 2020 4:00 AM
Updated: Feb 2, 2020 4:00 AM

There's an assumption in politics that all will be known -- or at least much clearer -- in the 2020 race after the Iowa caucuses on Monday. Voters will have voted, er, caucused! We won't have to rely just on polls anymore!

Here's the thing: There's a not-small chance that such wished-for clarity won't be coming -- for two major reasons:

1) Polling in the run-up to Iowa is all over the place. While it broadly suggests Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has some momentum and former Vice President Joe Biden is his major competitor in the state, the only predictable thing in all of the Iowa polling is how many people say they either haven't decided or could change their mind about their preferred candidate before Monday night.

2) The Iowa Democratic Party will report not just which candidates won the most state delegates as a result of the caucuses (as they have in the past), but also the raw vote total after the first caucusing and the final raw vote total after the backers of non-viable candidates (those receiving less than 15% in any individuals caucus) regroup themselves. (Watch this video for a full Iowa caucus explainer.)

Combine those two factors and you can see why those searching for clarity out of Iowa may have to wait until New Hampshire eight days later -- or even Nevada and South Carolina later in February -- to get a true sense of how the race is shaking out and shaping up.

Below, the five candidates with the best chance of winding up as the Democratic presidential nominee.

5. Michael Bloomberg: It's tough to ignore the national polls showing the former mayor of New York City averaging close to 10%. Bloomberg's ads do seem to be buying him support. Additionally, the rise of Sanders gives a higher likelihood that the first primary states either split their vote, or Sanders emerges as the top candidate. These scenarios are the types that could allow the moderate Bloomberg to be a player on Super Tuesday and beyond. (Previous ranking: Unranked)

4. Elizabeth Warren: The Massachusetts senator enters the Iowa caucuses as the decided second choice for liberals, which is not where she wants to be. Warren spent much of her campaign building a reputation as the policy candidate, but has pivoted in the final weeks of the campaign to argue that she is best positioned to beat Trump in the fall. Warren's saving grace? If there is one, it's the Rolls Royce organization she has built in Iowa. (Previous ranking: tie for 3)

3. Pete Buttigieg: We'll know soon enough if the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is a real contender for the Democratic nomination. It all comes down to Iowa, where the latest polling shows Buttigieg behind but in contention. A strong showing in Iowa will keep Buttigieg alive for the foreseeable future. A poor showing in Iowa, however, would be devastating. If Buttigieg can't win in a Midwestern state that's majority white, how the heck can Buttigieg win in the places needed to win the nomination? (Previous ranking: tie for 3)

1 (tie). Bernie Sanders: Sanders is peaking at the right time. Polling in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally all reflect the surge of his candidacy. There now exists an utterly plausible path for the Vermont senator to wind up as the nominee, particularly given that a Sanders sweep in the first two states is not out of the realm of possibility. One remaining question: If Sanders is looking like the nominee, will the party establishment line up to stop him? And maybe more importantly, could they even stop him at that point? (Previous ranking: 2)

1 (tie). Joe Biden: The former vice president is so close to the nomination, you can almost taste it. A win in Iowa would make Biden the clear favorite to win. The problem is that it seems that Sanders is the one ahead in most of the higher quality polls coming out of the state. But a loss in Iowa would not be the end for Biden. He still should have strong support once the primary turns to states with more diverse populations. But he would be behind the eight ball in a way he wouldn't be if he were to win Iowa. (Previous ranking: 1)

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