WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The 2016 election is hardly in the rear-view mirror, but that hasn't slowed the rumor-mill churning out possible 2020 contenders. A weekend pit-stop in Iowa from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has renewed ongoing speculation that the 33-year-old tech titan may be laying the groundwork to run for president.
On Friday, Zuckerberg arrived in the politically consequential Hawkeye State as part of his personal goal for 2017, to meet people in all 50 states. In Iowa, Zuckerberg talked to local residents in a handful of small towns, drank a chocolate malt in the historic Wilton Candy Kitchen, and then dropped by the World's Largest Truckstop in Walcott before traveling on to Nebraska.
The national tour is not about political ambitions, the CEO has said. It's about connecting to people, "to get out and talk to more people about how they're living, working and thinking about the future."
And of course, he has been documenting many of his non-campaign stops on Facebook.
In small-town Iowa, Zuckerberg observed the "divergence" of economic opportunities available for rural America compared to big cities. He spoke to truck drivers about self-driving cars and the future of the trucking industry. Before that he sat down with Somali refugees in Minneapolis, talked about gun violence with prep-school students living in Chicago's South Side, met with recovering addicts in Dayton, Ohio, and even did some farm work in Blanchardville, Wisconsin.
"Some of you have asked if this challenge means I'm running for public office," Zuckerberg said in a post last month. "I'm not."
But it wouldn't be the craziest idea.
After the successful campaign of billionaire real-estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump, the field for unconventional politicians and Washington outsiders has been thrown wide open.
In recent months, Oprah Winfrey has joked about her qualifications to run for office. Billionaire entrepreneur and host of Shark Tank, Mark Cuban has been floated as the Democrats' reality-TV president. Actor and former pro-wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson feigned a presidential bid with actor Tom Hanks on the season finale of Saturday Night Live.
And of course there's Kanye West who announced at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, "I have decided in 2020 to run for president." For those keeping track, yes, that would mean First Lady Kim Kardashian.
Presidential historian and author Jane Hampton Cook noted that over the last 40 years, Americans have been trending more towards presidential candidates who are "outside of Washington and now outside of politics."
Given the success of Trump's bid as a political outsider, Cook noted, "It's not surprising that the Democrats might look to someone who is successful in business and outside of politics for potential talent."
Zuckerberg's national tour is not the only signal that he could be considering public office, just ask the SuperPAC that has started raising money for his campaign.
Disrupt for America began its effort to "Draft Zuck" in May and has been raising money since. The group is allied with the anti-Trump resistance movement and described its mission as "convincing the American people to convince Mark Zuckerberg to consider a Presidential run in 2020, or at least join the conversation."
The group believes Zuckerberg will be a "viable opponent to Donald Trump in 2020," because he is a "wealthy, anti-establishment outsider unbeholden to special interests." Essentially, all the qualities that attracted voters to Trump, but in a progressive Democrat.
Zuckerberg formally disavowed the activities of Disrupt for America in a Federal Election Commission filing earlier this month.
The 33-year-old — who will technically be old enough to run for office by May 2019 —has made news as a family man, an entrepreneur and a champion of numerous social causes. But what about religion? The American electorate has never favored an atheist candidate, which is how Zuckerberg identified himself, at least on his Facebook profile page.
In a holiday message in December, Zuckerberg casually distanced himself from the label. He responded to a question about his atheism saying, "I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important."
Another possible sign the social media mogul is interested in a political career came in December 2016. A Facebook filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revealed a clause in Zuckerberg's contract that would allow him to retain full control of the company if he steps aside to serve in "in a government position or office."
Forbes first reported on the story, noting that under normal conditions, Zuckerberg would lose his controlling share of the company if he voluntarily resigned. But the SEC filing shows that "Zuckerberg's public office exemption would let him keep control of Facebook while serving in elected office or an appointed position or civil service job."
Facebook has already found itself pushed to the center of public policy issues, including working on fixes to stop the spread of fake news and misleading content. The company has also been pressed to counter online radicalization by cracking down on content promoting violence or acts of terrorism.
Combined with Zuckerberg's own stated interest in issues like medical research, education, criminal justice reform and connecting communities with economic opportunities, there may be other government positions the 33-year-old CEO could fill. But it probably won't be in a Trump administration.
Facebook was noticeably absent from the latest White House forum, where 18 executives at America's leading technology companies sat down with the president to talk about the impact of emerging technologies on the U.S. workforce and opportunities for public-private partnerships. A Facebook spokesperson cited scheduling conflicts when asked by media outlets why no one from the company attended the June 19 summit.
It wasn't the first time Zuckerberg snubbed an invitation from the president. Zuckerberg was also a no-show at Trump's first tech summit in December 2016.
After Trump took office, Zuckerberg immediate started to speak out against the president's executive orders on immigration. "We need to keep this country safe, but we should do that by focusing on people who actually pose a threat," he wrote in a January Facebook post. "Expanding the focus of law enforcement beyond people who are real threats would make all Americans less safe by diverting resources, while millions of undocumented folks who don't pose a threat will live in fear of deportation."
On top of Trump's immigration policy, Zuckerberg has also criticized the travel ban and Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.
Some early critics of a possible Zuckerberg candidacy have pointed out that Donald Trump's alleged conflicts of interest would pale in comparison to what the tech mogul would face. There are also concerns about the amount of personal data collected by the social media empire which has 216 million U.S. subscribers and 1.9 billion monthly active users worldwide.
The platform has also increasingly been the source of news for American adults, 44 percent of whom got their news from Facebook in 2016. The company already found itself in the center of a controversy last year when the social media site was accused of censoring conservative views by omitting them from its trending news list. The company addressed the issue by replacing its human editors and automating the platform's trending news.
All of that would be assuming the tech mogul and philanthropist actually has political ambitions and wants to give up the life he has now. If you take Zuckerberg at his word, the 50-state tour is simply about connecting people, reaching out to people "you should know - mentors and people outside your circle who care about you and can provide a new source of support and inspiration."
2020 is still a long way off, but with Trump opening the political field to all kinds of players, it's hard to rule out any candidate.