Brewery Founder John Hickenlooper Will Not Be President
This morning, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (D) announced his candidacy for the presidency. The beer world was excited to think that Hickenlooper, who founded Wynkoop Brewing in 1988, might become President of the United States. Before becoming governor, he was a popular two-term Denver mayor. He managed to get elected governor during a period of GOP ascendancy, is known for his crossover appeal to Republicans and rural voters, and has an understated, quirky charisma. He was cited as a possible contender for the nomination as early as 2015, and was on everyone’s radar heading into the current cycle.
And he will never be president of the United States.
Hickenlooper will no doubt receive a ton of press, and his biography would ensure him a “credible contender” status most years. But he is the 11th major candidate to join the field, with a few big names still considering a run. And while he may have general appeal, that is worthless without a strategy to win actual votes. It only takes a cursory look at the primary calendar to see that he has no plausible path through the first month of primaries, when 14 states will be contested and much of the large field eliminated.
The Democratic primary electorate is more populist/activist, more liberal, and less white than general-election Democratic voters and voters in general. Hickenlooper is a white moderate and technocrat (the opposite of a populist or activist). There is very little native constituency in the primary electorate for such a candidate. Worse, geography is against him. Not only does his home state vote late, but none of the early states even neighbor Colorado. The West is underrepresented in the early primaries, and he has no shot in California (Kamala Harris’ home state). Nevada is also not a good fit—and he’s planning to ignore it—because the electorate there is heavily pro-union, a weakness for Hickenlooper. In fact, let’s look at the first four states and see what the hold.
New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two front-runners, come from neighboring states within Red Sox nation. The only time Granite Staters spurned one of their own was when Teddy Kennedy ran against incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980–and he still did well.
Nevada. With the largest union population in the nation and a very large nonwhite voting population, Hickenlooper really has no path here.
South Carolina. The Democratic electorate is 60% Black and 37% Black women. He has not built bridges to the Black community (Colorado is 4.5% Black) and will get creamed here.
Iowa. This is where he’s investing all his effort, and it offers his only real opportunity. Iowa is a funny state where caucuses (which have been reformed this year to expand the electorate) can break for unusual candidates. Winners in Iowa always spend a ton of time there glad-handing every Hawkeye who will visit them in a diner. If Hickenlooper spends the next eleven months there, trying to appeal to the most rural Iowans, his plan is to eke out a narrow victory in a crowded field. To do so he’ll have to beat Amy Klobuchar from neighboring Minnesota, Bernie Sanders, who did great there in 2016, and possibly Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown, who will be running in exactly Hickenlooper’s lane, but with far greater name recognition.
Anyone getting more than 15% of the vote will earn delegates, and Iowa has 42 on offer, so if all this pans out, Hickenlooper exits Iowa with perhaps 15-20 delegates. This is his best-case scenario.
Following South Carolina is Super Tuesday, which features five more heavily-Black Southern states in which he won’t compete, as well as Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren’s home state), Vermont (Bernie’s), California (Harris’s), Texas (Beto O’Rourke’s and Julián Castro’s), none of which are viable for him. That leaves Oklahoma, where Elizabeth Warren grew up, as the final possibility. Let’s say he manages to score some delegates there.
in the very best-case scenario, Hickenlooper will wake up on March 4, 2020 with a win in very distant Iowa (a month in presidential politics is forever) and a handful of delegates along the way—let’s generously imagine he’d cobbled together 50. That’s from a total of around 1,400 that will have been allocated by then. He might get a burst of financial support following an (unlikely) Iowa win, but it would quickly wane as he failed to get anywhere near the top of the ballot in state after state. If he hasn’t already dropped out by then, he’ll be trailing the delegate count by miles and will almost certainly be broke. And that’s the best-case scenario. More likely, he’ll finished fifth or sixth in Iowa, lower than that in New Hampshire, and will be out of the race before Nevada.
There is one way Hickenlooper may get to the White House: as Vice President. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that was his calculation all along.
It’s fun to think about a guy riding craft beer all the way to the White House, and you have almost a year to nurture that dream. But when the hard reality arrives with actual votes next February, Hickenlooper will be swamped by higher-profile, better-funded, more liberal candidates. This just wasn’t a good year for him to run.