NEW YORK (MainStreet) — A beloved tradition in American politics has gotten underway. No, not the giant wheel of cheese, nor open tubs of beer at the polling place. It’s not even the deep fried Twinkies at Iowa’s caucus. (We really have a thing for political gastronomy in America.) It’s the Invisible Primary, that Napoleonic campaign when future candidates start jockeying for position and all discover a heretofore unknown passion for granite and corn.

At this point the primary field is still up in the air, with few candidates having declared and even fewer official policy statements out in the wild. Any attempt to figure out who’s in, who’s out and what each stands for would be to some extent speculation.

But MainStreet has evaluated potential Democratic candidates based on three of the biggest issues that stand out from their platforms or, more often, records in office. The criteria are:

  • Big Picture: This is the elevator pitch. In as little time as possible, what will a candidate mean for your life and wallet?
  • Long Shot: What does the candidate really want to do that probably won’t happen?
  • Dark Horse: Ronald Reagan took naps when things were slow, and if Bill Clinton were still in power the Lincoln Bedroom would be on Airbnb. What’s one surprise that our future candidates have in store?
First up...

Hillary Clinton

  • Big Picture – Center-left economics. Taxes are the biggest takeaway from Clinton’s platform, from using them to promote profit-sharing for middle class workers to expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. Could she get all of these? Not without running the table on Congress, but there’s enough on the wish list to get something done.
  • Long Shot – Capital gains taxes. The IRS is the biggest tool in Clinton’s equality arsenal, and Clinton's idea to start taxing investment income at the same level as labor may be one of her best. Still, while making traders pay the same rate as their secretaries is sound economic policy, it’s also a political non-starter in any Congress without a Democratic supermajority. This one’s not going anywhere any time soon.
  • Dark Horse – Sheer, mind-numbing, unrelenting boredom. Seriously, is there anything less surprising than the prospect of a Clinton campaign? Most Democrats approach her candidacy with the enthusiasm of their first colonoscopy: it’s better than the alternative.
Beyond that, Larry Summers is the author of Clinton's recent policy paper released at the Center for American Progress, a document in which he positions himself and the campaign to the left on issues like wage stagnation and inequality. Yet Summers has long been a champion of banking deregulation and free market principles, and believing a guy like him will start thinking like an Occupier is like believing the Titanic could have pulled a hockey stop. Don't look for life for banks to get any harder under a Clinton presidency.

Elizabeth Warren
  • Big Picture – Warren has officially disclaimed a run for President in 2016, but her shadow looms large over the race. Maybe no one’s running against her, but the entire Democratic field is certainly running against the idea of her. And that idea is banking reform all the way. A hypothetical Warren presidency would crack down on banking regulation something fierce. Bad news for bankers, probably good news for everyone else.
  • Long Shot – “We need to make it easier for workers who want to organize to have the chance to do so,” Warren writes on her website. “If people want to work together for better wages, for better health care, and for better working conditions, they should have the right to do so.”

A stronger National Labor Relations Board could have all sorts of ripple effects across the American economy, but for better or worse, this one would probably be a pipe dream. A president reversing 36 years of labor decline in one administration? Color me skeptical.

  • Dark Horse – Old Diet Coke ads notwithstanding, infrastructure just isn’t sexy. It doesn’t get a lot of play, because it’s one of those things we don’t want to think about; we just want it to work. Well, Warren has done a lot of thinking, and is full-bore behind an upgrade to roads, bridges and mass transit.

If Warren ever decides to make an actual run for the White House, she could probably start with an epic rally on the ride in from JFK

Bernie Sanders

  • Big Picture – The Senator from Vermont is one of the few who has actually announced that he'll be running in the 2016 primary, and the biggest theme we expect from President Sanders is a national upgrade to 12 herbs and spices.

Sorry, wrong Sanders… As a Senator, Sanders has made income inequality one of his biggest causes, and that would almost certainly continue in the White House. Launching his campaign with a promise to fight “obscene levels” of wealth disparity, this is the candidate for anyone who wishes he could get a long term lease in Zuccotti Park.

  • Long Shot – Sanders’s second biggest issue is campaign finance reform. It’s a good idea, one that probably could find a lot of support from a nation weary of their favorite shows getting interrupted by drifting, grainy pictures and ominous voiceovers. Where it won’t find any support is in Congress. The rules have done just fine by those guys, and they’re in no hurry to fix what ain’t broken.
  • Dark Horse – We might have a repeal and replace candidate on our hands, albeit one of a different stripe. Sanders has long supported single payer health care reform, the preferred option of the left wing. It’s been quietly percolating with Senator Sanders for some time, and President Sanders might try to pull it off.

Martin O’Malley

  • Big Picture – Are you under 35 and in crippling debt? Could you have bought a house already with the money you’ve shoveled out to student loans, or at least one hell of a weekend in Vegas? (Which, ironically, would be dischargeable in bankruptcy.) When someone talks about ending Social Security, do you nod along and kind of think, “Well, they screwed me, so…”

Then Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley might be the candidate for you. A lesser known politician considering a run for the 2016 seat, O’Malley has made pushing back on student debt one of his calling cards. Author of a Washington Post editorial calling for an absolute cap on payments, this man may be the voice for a new generation.

  • Long Shot – Overtime pay is one of the most important silent issues in the nation. Once it offered fairly reliable protections to the average worker, guaranteeing his either extra money or a 40-hour workweek. These days, that protection has slipped more to the status of “bad joke,” with lots of promises from the NLRB that action will soon be taken.

O’Malley deserves credit for calling this issue out, but it would be hard for him to make much progress. Unless Congress gets an overhaul in 2016, it will probably remain implacably opposed to expanding workers’ rights, meaning that overtime would make for a great campaign speech and a lot of headaches behind the scenes.

  • Dark Horse – O’Malley wants to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, which would actually be an absolutely fantastic idea. This relatively obscure law was passed in 1933 after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and enforces the idea that investment banks and commercial banks should be separate entities. In other words, the same banks that hold your money and float housing loans shouldn’t be the ones that can lose their (read: your) shirt playing the market.

This law is quiet, wonky and successfully kept America out of any major banking crises for nearly 70 years. Then Congress repealed it in 1999, under the theory that if no one’s getting wet, we don’t need all these umbrellas lying around. If only we knew how that story ended

-Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website A Wandering Lawyer.