Predicting How SNL Will Cast the 2020 Presidential Hopefuls

Elizabeth Warren and Kate McKinnon. Photo: Getty Images

The Democratic Party’s nominating process for its 2020 candidate is shaping up to be a lollapalooza or a shitshow, depending on your faith in overcrowded acts of political theater. The sheer volume of candidates who have announced their bids, launched exploratory committees, or vaguely mentioned to some friends at a party that it might be fun to ride around in a motorcade and pardon turkeys is immense. We’ve all been subjected to three rounds of Democratic debates already, full of high-school Spanish and sundry Marianne-isms, with a fourth scheduled for October. Front-runners have emerged, but there’s still a vast sea of Tim Ryans out there to try and keep straight.

So what’s a national, weekly, late-night variety show to do with all of this information? Vulture writers and editors pitched in our best guesses as to which candidate will be played by which Saturday Night Live cast member — and given that SNL has been packing its cold opens with more and more star power, we’ve speculated about which names SNL might reach out to first. The show has already brought Jason Sudeikis to reprise his handsy Uncle Joe Biden. Given the sheer size of the field, it’s hard to know which candidates will get significant airtime, so we’ve picked the personalities likely to make the writers giggle. (We will update this post as new candidates announce their presidential runs.)

Bernie Sanders

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Cast: Pretty, pretty, pretty slim chance.

Celeb: Larry David is Bernie Sanders. Or, maybe, Larry David is Bernie Sanders as Larry David. David’s self-aware impression during the long run-up to the 2016 election (including SNL’s crossover parody, “Bern Your Enthusiasm”) all but cemented their strange twin act. If SNL tried to cast someone else, no doubt there would be a Curb episode featuring the pair of curmudgeonly old dudes grousing about it.

Were we right? Yes. Larry David returned to his hit SNL impersonation during the season premiere.

Elizabeth Warren

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Cast: Okay, so this one’s a gimme. Kate McKinnon has whipped up a menagerie of characters while at SNL and executed a number of canny impressions of both men and women in politics. Some are accurate (see Hillary Clinton), some are bananas (see Jeff Sessions), and all are entertaining. She has already played Warren on “Weekend Update,” endowing her with a folksy tenacity while nailing that subtle lilt of a mostly dormant Southern accent. As a front-runner, Warren is going to be a big part of the nomination process, so McKinnon’s sure to regain the screen time she lost when Clinton slipped out of sight.

Celeb: The only way to replace a beloved SNL cast member is with a beloved SNL cast member. While never a ferocious impressionist, one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players Jane Curtin has the look and wry delivery that would make her a great Warren backup. Curtin was also trending on New Year’s Eve for an expressed interest in ending the Republican Party, so there’s some fun crossover there, too.

Were we right? Of course. Kate McKinnon was destined to play Warren and reprised the impersonation during the season premiere.

Joe Biden

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Cast: Better luck next time, fellas. There’s no way it won’t stay Jason Sudeikis, short of Olivia Wilde forbidding him.

Celeb: You just know Biden himself is going to make a hokey cold-open appearance. It’s only a matter of time.

Were we right? Not yet. Host Woody Harrelson portrayed Biden during the season premiere, but we have a feeling that not all hope is lost for Sudeikis just yet.

Kamala Harris

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Cast: Now that Leslie Jones is gone, SNL might tap featured player Ego Nwodim, who hasn’t had an excessive amount of screen time, but she’d surely have to prove herself a doppelgänger for the California senator.

Celeb: There’s a few celebrities that might make for a good Harris, and yet another SNL alum comes to mind: Maya Rudolph. Rudolph could certainly bind the former prosecutor’s evil eye and grander oratory style into a formidable impersonation.

Were we right? Yes. Maya Rudolph returned to SNL to play Kamala Harris during the season premiere, which made the real Kamala very happy.

Beto O’Rourke

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Cast: With Beto O’Rourke a decent possibility and one of the more interesting characters in the lineup, surely Alex Moffat is somewhere now practicing his O’Rourke in the mirror. There’s a decent visual similarity, but I mean, come on, a guy who wears a flower-print frock on his old punk band’s album cover? A man who drives cross-country and writes sad blogs after losing the election to Ted Cruz? It’s an impression that lends itself to a number of possibilities, and Moffat could have a star turn if O’Rourke picks up momentum.

Celeb: Fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey will naturally be the one to step in for any SNL cast members. Something about their laid-back manner of comportment — Beto himself tweeted a photo of himself with McConaughey with the caption, “When bae’s feelin alright alright alright” — is an indication that the McConaughey magic would suit O’Rourke fine.

Were we right? Yes. Alex Moffat portrayed O’Rourke during the season premiere.

Cory Booker

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Cast: Though it was only a small part in a big sketch, Chris Redd played Cory Booker in what could be his first ongoing political SNL impression during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. In a 13-minute sketch filled with characters that SNL hadn’t ever featured, Redd’s appearance is but one line and a bit of mugging. (Booker refuses to dignify the Kavanaugh hearings with words, instead providing a disapproving pout and head shake that he calls “the Booker look.”) It isn’t enough time to see if he’s got Booker’s emphatic patter down, but Redd certainly has the simmering, wide-eyed intensity to make it work.

Celeb: Redd will probably get the shot, but if not, maybe Donald Glover, because he understands sketch and he’s Donald Glover? Keegan-Michael Key has the driving energy and angular, clean-shaven look, plus he’s already at work on a Booker impression — something he hinted at when he was on Larry King.

Were we right? Yes. Chris Redd played Booker during the season premiere.

Amy Klobuchar

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Cast: When looking directly at current cast members, the best pick for this outwardly pleasant, midwestern centrist would be Aidy Bryant. Surely with Bryant’s endearing smile and sweet, ingratiating demeanor, she’s already halfway there. Who would be better standing in front of a podium, turning into a snowwoman while trying to give a speech? SNL will also play on Klobuchar’s reported terrorizing of employees behind the scenes, and it’d be nice to see a blast of Bryant’s nasty side.

Celeb: In the aforementioned Kavanaugh sketch, Klobuchar was played by SNL alum Rachel Dratch, who looked the part and got the stamp of approval from Klobuchar herself. If there is going to be a recurring role from an outside, former cast member, it would be wonderful if it were Dratch. She’s underutilized on TV these days.

Marianne Williamson

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Cast: As the longtime L.A. spiritual guru of choice for a certain celebrity set, including Oprah, Williamson (and her candidacy) will prove irresistible to SNL writers. Recently announced SNL newcomer Chloe Fineman is a very, very talented impressionist, and she’s coming into the show with a spot-on Williamson all ready to go. When Williamson ran for Congress in 2014, she said, “If everyone with a yoga mat in this district voted for me, I’d win.” These sorts of telling, offhanded quotes convince us that Fineman would have a lot of fun playing Williamson.

Celeb: Tina Fey must be happy with her track record of political impressions — or, more to the point, she must be proud of her influential and lasting take on then-vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This part would be a bit sillier and present lower stakes for Fey — and Williamson’s chance of making it past the primaries isn’t all that good — but if Fey felt it was time to toy with another inexperienced political hopeful, this would be a good one.

Were we right? Yes. Chloe Fineman’s Williamson impersonation made its network-television debut during the season premiere.

Tulsi Gabbard

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Cast: The congresswoman and Army vet from Hawaii is not the most animated of the candidates, but she has grabbed her fair share of headlines. A Samoan-American Hindu often pegged as an Assad sympathizer, Gabbard maintains a pretty unflappable and stoic exterior, regardless of circumstance. Presuming that SNL finds some time for her onstage, her steady monotone might be replicated by either Cecily Strong or Melissa Villaseñor.

Celeb: Seeing as the stage could be nearly full of SNL cast members, it would be nice to see casting directors bring Nasim Pedrad back to try on Gabbard. Given the levels Pedrad brought to Arianna Huffington, surely she’d be able to find some nuance here.

Pete Buttigieg

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Cast: The current mayor of South Bend is a notable candidate for a number of reasons: He’s young, he’s a vet, and he’s openly gay. While these details might rattle the Establishment, his onscreen personality is sweet and soft-spoken. If nothing else than the fact that he’s baby-faced, can look into the camera while nodding pleasantly, and shares the same first name, Pete Davidson will probably be the one to take on Buttigieg. If and when Buttigieg gets a little more traction, it’ll be fun to see whether Davidson can craft a full-fledged impression.

Celeb: SNL may also call on another baby face, John Mulaney. He’s been back at 8H more and more since he left his writing gig there, and as a performer more often than not. Mulaney, who once joked that he was “just sitting in a room on a chair eating saltines” every day before popping onstage, might be the perfect pick for a candidate with such a gentle exterior. Given that Mulaney and Davidson are buddies, maybe they can take turns playing Buttigieg.

Were we right? Nope! With Pete Davidson away filming the new Suicide Squad movie during SNL’s season premiere, “Weekend Update” anchor Colin Jost filled in for Buttigieg.

John Delaney

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Cast: For this Maryland representative who looks like a goofy uncle about to whip out his best Elmer Fudd routine, SNL will need someone who can go a little cartoonish. Of the current cast, Mikey Day is that guy. Slap a balding wig on him and let him go.

Celeb: Delaney already looks a bit like Will Ferrell’s wide-eyed and silly characters, such as Harry Caray, so there’s that. If SNL wanted to give Delaney an over-the-top treatment for contrast, Ferrell could make that happen in his sleep.

Andrew Yang

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Cast: SNL recently announced that writer Bowen Yang will be joining the cast this season, and we think the Las Culturistas co-host would be great at playing this thoughtful entrepreneur. It doesn’t hurt that Andrew Yang appears to be something of an Andrew Lloyd Webber head, and Bowen has hosted entire episodes of his podcast centered around Cats.

Celeb: Yang’s parents are Taiwanese and Randall Park’s are Korean; still, Park has the makings of a great Yang. As his cheerful, dorky dad in Fresh Off the Boat shows, Park can do straitlaced and silly; a balance of both will be necessary in creating an impression of this political outsider who jokes that he is “the opposite of Donald Trump — an Asian man who likes math.”

Were we right? Yes. Bowen Yang stepped in to play the candidate during the season premiere, which earned some congratulations from Andrew Yang on Twitter.

Julián Castro

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Cast: As the only Latinx cast member, it’s nearly an obligation to put Melissa Villaseñor in drag to play this former San Antonio mayor and Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. It just so happens that this is also an excellent idea. Villaseñor is an incredibly versatile and canny impressionist who will no doubt find the straight-faced Castro’s hook.

Celeb: The Rock. Why not? SNL often hopes that any given celebrity will raise the status of the cold open and the show in general, so maybe they’ll offer Castro up to Dwayne Johnson’s abs.

Tom Steyer

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Cast: Tom Steyer is concerned about the “corporate takeover of government.” He wants to “return power to the people” and thinks he is the man to do it. He’s also a literal billionaire. This sort of kooky, illogical wrongperson (one word) is tailor-made for Heidi Gardner, who excels at walking enigmas like the Bad-Taco-Math-Surgeon or teen YouTube film reviewer Bailey Gismert. Just wacky enough to play a billionaire who thinks it’s okay to be a billionaire in 2019! 

Celeb: Alan Ruck, a.k.a. Cameron from Ferris Bueller, a.k.a. Hubble from Bunheads, a.k.a. Connor Roy himself, would make a great Steyer, who’s not exactly the sort of high-profile candidate you can saddle an A-list guest with.

Michael Bennet

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Cast: Much like casting Bowen Yang as Andrew Yang, we defer to name-math here, which makes Beck Bennett the obvious choice for his last name-sake. Not to mention, Bennett excels at playing confident suits.

Celeb: Just look at that shmooshy face. Just listen to that froggy voice. Just watch this interview where he talks about Jell-O. We think John C. Reilly would do a bang-up job portraying the Mr. Cellophane of candidates.

Steve Bullock

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Cast: Look, we never thought we’d say this, but … we’re running out of white dudes on SNL. We have to start double-dipping. Let Alex Moffat play the Montanan presidential hopeful on the off chance they need him as meat in the room in a political sketch.

Celeb: How rude would it be to bring on a celebrity guest, only to have them play Steve Bullock? Why would they do that? That being said, Dennis Quaid.

Tim Ryan

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Cast: Beck Bennett again!

Celeb: Fellow Tim, I Think You Should Leave’s Tim Robinson, can play this thumb-man.

Joe Sestak

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Cast: Kyle Mooney is eerily good at playing reedy afterthoughts, so Sestak will be right in his wheelhouse.

Celeb: Zach Woods in a wig, I say!

The Dropouts

A few of our predictions have already been knocked out of the running by dropping out of the race. As the campaign season narrows down, we’ll move the leftovers here just in case SNL decides there’s a reason for a, uh, Jay Inslee appearance.

John Hickenlooper

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Cast: The latest addition to the field just finished two terms as governor of Colorado and will be appealing to centrist Dems with a track record of business-minded policies. Again, there’s not enough that’s odd or unusual about him to guarantee he’ll make it into an SNL cold open. If he does make it, the erstwhile brewmaster feels like a strong possibility for Alex Moffat.

Celeb: As the world of Donald Trump implodes, it’s likely that Steve Martin will be back on to play Roger Stone, as he did in January. But so long as SNL has a line out to its brightest honorary cast member, he may as well be back to play this friendly, silver-haired white guy.

Jay Inslee

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Cast: Former member of Congress and current Washington governor Jay Inslee is running on a one-issue platform: climate change. Inslee’s personality, pleasant though it may seem, won’t be enough to get him airtime; if SNL decides to put him onstage, it’ll likely be to lean into this issue. As far as who would play him, it could fall to Kyle Mooney or Mikey Day, depending on which party doesn’t already have his hands full playing someone else.

Celeb: Tom Hanks, in his stoic-yet-still-warm Sully mode. If Inslee is just a blip on the electoral radar, it’ll be easy because they’ll just need to borrow America’s everyman for 30 minutes on a Saturday night.

Kirsten Gillibrand

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Cast: To date, Heidi Gardner’s characters have proven her a subtle observer of physical tics and social trends. While she has great takes on personalities such as Allison Janney and Kristen Schaal, her best work on SNL revolves around characters she invents, e.g. Angel, Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Boxing Movie Ever. Gardner will have a chance to prove her chops in the political arena if and when she gets assigned the role of Kirsten Gillibrand. It’s not a perfect physical match, but it makes enough sense given the current cast. And it’d be interesting to see Gardner take on the proud mom with the distant and sometimes artificial smile.

Celeb: Amy Poehler did a great ambitious and robotic Clinton, and Gillibrand will be the Clinton of the 2020 election. If Poehler is in town, she’d be a great backup.

How Will SNL Cast the 2020 Presidential Candidates?