With both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado now officially in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock reportedly announcing in two weeks, there looks to be a field of 22 candidates running.
Large fields of candidates for a party’s nomination tend to reflect two separate realities: 1.) that the nomination is viewed as particularly valuable, with a strong chance that it will lead to a general-election win; and 2.) that there are not one or two candidates so intimidating as to discourage others from getting in.
In 2016, Democrats faced the difficult task of holding onto the presidency beyond eight years. Since the end of World War II, Republicans have been unsuccessful in winning third consecutive terms after eight years of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford, and George W. Bush. Democrats were unable to do it after two terms of John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. The only time it’s happened in three-quarters of a century was George H.W. Bush’s win after eight years of Ronald Reagan.
In addition, most Democrats perceived Hillary Clinton as being in a dominant position. Thus, only Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley chose to take her on. Conversely, Republicans smelled weakness in Clinton and there was no overpowering figure scaring other candidates, so the GOP ended up with a huge field of 17.
The early perception of the value of a nomination is important but not always accurate. After George H.W. Bush hit 89 percent approval in the Feb. 28-March 3, 1991, Gallup Poll, a lot of Democrats passed on the chance to run against him, not the least of which was New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Only former California Gov. Jerry Brown, Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, and of course Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton decided to run. What wasn’t known then was that the economy was about to slump, and with it, President Bush’s approval ratings, which dropped to as low as 29 percent in the July 31-Aug. 2, 1992, Gallup Poll.
President Trump hasn’t had such dramatic peaks and valleys. In both Gallup and Fox News polls, for example, he has had a 10-point trading range, from a low of 35 percent to as high as 45 percent in Gallup, and a bottom of 38 percent and peak of 48 percent according to Fox.
One key factor is whether the 2020 election will be effectively a referendum on President Trump, or more of a choice between Trump (presumably) and the Democratic nominee. Democrats might well prefer that it be the first, Republicans the second (although Trump may also turn it into a referendum on democratic socialism). With many of the Democratic contenders so little known, the basic trial heat is of limited use, so pollsters use variations of the "reelect" question to test an incumbent’s vulnerability.
Five major national polls have tested variations of the reelect question in the last six months. The most recent, by Marist University on April 24-27 for NPR and the PBS NewsHour, found that 33 percent of the 840 registered voters interviewed said that they would definitely plan to vote for Trump, 54 percent would definitely vote against him, and 12 percent were not sure. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 900 adults taken Feb. 24-27 found that 41 percent would definitely or probably vote for Trump, 48 percent would definitely or probably vote for the Democrat, and 11 percent were on the fence. The highly regarded Des Moines-based Selzer & Company’s national poll for Grinnell College found 35 percent would definitely vote for Trump, 43 percent would definitely vote for someone else, and 21 percent were unsure, wouldn’t vote, or would consider someone else.
Fox News last asked the reelect question in its Dec. 9-11 poll of 1,006 registered voters, finding that 38 percent would definitely or probably vote for Trump, 54 percent would definitely or probably vote for someone else, and 8 percent were in the middle.
The Jan. 21-24 ABC News/Washington Post poll of 893 registered voters found that 42 percent were definitely voting for or leaning toward Trump, 56 percent said definitely not Trump, and only 1 percent remained unsure. Pollsters debate the wisdom of indicating the party of the opponent, as in “the Democratic candidate” versus “someone else” or “definitely not Trump,” as each comes up with a slightly different outcome.
Obviously, whom Democrats nominate is relevant, though unknowable at this time. There is the age-old debate about whether it is best to nominate someone with intense support among the base who can guarantee a strong party turnout or someone who is highly acceptable among independents and can resonate with voters in the center. Parties and nominees need to be mindful of both—it is best to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.