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Does the Field Really Need More Democrats?

AWalter Head
November 15, 2019

You can say a lot of things about the 2020 Democratic primary field, but you can't say it's not diverse. A total of seven senators, seven former and current congresspeople, three governors, five people of color, six women, four current or former mayors, one former vice president and two multi-millionaires are running or were running but have since dropped out. There are candidates who want a political 'revolution' and those who promote a political restoration to a time of unity and political comity. There are candidates who boast of electoral success in red states (Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana) and purple ones (Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado). We've got young. We've got old. We've got GenXers.

But, until now, we didn't have a billionaire former New York City mayor or a former Massachusetts Governor and managing director at the private equity firm Bain Capital in the mix. Apparently, they believe they can do what this very big, diverse and credentialed group of Democrats can't do: win the Democratic nomination AND beat Donald Trump.

Color me skeptical — extremely, extremely skeptical — that they can do so.

Look, there's nothing new about the party out of power freaking out about the weaknesses — real or perceived — of their announced candidates.

However, while there may be a lot of hand-wringing among elite, activist and establishment Democrats, there's no evidence that actual Democratic voters are disappointed with their current crop of candidates.

CNN Senior Writer and Analyst Harry Enten dug through the polls and found that 70 to 80 percent of Democrats are satisfied with their choices of candidates, and fewer than 30 percent say they want more choices. Compare that to when other 'last-minute' candidates parachuted into a primary process that was already well underway. For example, when Gen. Wesley Clark jumped into the Democratic primary race in September of 2003, "40% of Democrats were satisfied with the field. 50% wanted more choices." When Sen. Fred Thompson got into the GOP primary in early September of 2007, "a plurality of GOPers wanted more choices." And, notes Enten, when then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry "got in somewhat late in 2011, 71%(!) wanted more choices."

Democratic voters have been overwhelmed by the size of the field and anxious for it to get narrowed down — not expanded. The only candidate Democrats are pining for is Michelle Obama. After that, it's pretty much crickets.

Second, the race thus far has been really stable. For the last year, only five candidates have polled in the double digits: Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Despite three national debates and plenty of advertising, campaigning and organizing, no other candidates but these few have been able to break through. For example, according to the advertising tracking service Advertising Analytics, Tom Steyer has spent almost as much on advertising in Iowa ($8.8M) as the combined total spending of Sanders, Biden and Warren. He’s polling at just 3 percent.


That makes me very skeptical that Bloomberg (who arguably has better name recognition than Steyer), would be able to spend his way into the top tier. As for Patrick, who has a much lower national name ID and lacks the personal fortune of Bloomberg, breaking into public consciousness is going to be even tougher.

And, neither will have the benefit of a national debate stage to do it either. The Democratic debates have not produced the kind of viral moments that we saw from the GOP side in 2012 (Perry's "oops" moment) or in 2016 (virtually every Trump interaction). But, they have had a significant impact on perceptions of the candidates. Much of what is driving the "Biden is a weak candidate" chatter is driven by his shaky performances on stage. Kamala Harris' (brief) rise in the polls was tied directly to her one stand-out performance. And, Pete Buttigieg's aggressive performance in the most recent debate gave him a media spotlight.

Neither Patrick nor Bloomberg will be on the debate stage next week in Georgia. It's also highly unlikely that either will meet the polling or donor threshold by December 12, the deadline to be included in the upcoming December 19 debate in Los Angeles.

Ultimately, both Patrick and Bloomberg seem to be betting on the fact that Biden will ultimately collapse and leave an 'electability' vacuum that only they can fill. Not surprisingly, voters who prize electability also happen to fit the same demographic of many in the donor, activist and establishment class. A September CNN poll found that a majority of Democrats (55 percent) said that it was more important for them to pick a nominee who could beat Trump than one who shared their positions (39 percent). But, whites prized electability (63 percent) much more than non-whites (47 percent). Just over 60 percent of older voters (those over the age of 45) put electability on the top of their list compared to 49 percent of those under the age of 45. And, a whopping 70 percent of white voters with college degrees put electability first. Just over half (55 percent) of white, non-college voters feel the same.

In other words, the kinds of people who are most active in shaping opinion, writing checks, and having the time/resources to be super engaged in politics, are the ones who prize electability the most. And, there are also signs that they are also the most pessimistic or worried that Democrats are going to blow it.

When I think of these voters, I'm reminded of a woman that the Washington Post's Jenna Johnson and Holly Bailey met in the state recently. Margaret Torrie, a 72-year-old retiree from Ames, said the pressure of making a decision was so stressful that she was having nightmares.

"The number one issue for me is that I don't want to see Trump reelected..But I have these dreams, these almost Technicolor dreams where we've picked the wrong person, and I wake up in the middle of the night in a panic."

The most recent New York Times/Siena College poll from Iowa found that the higher the education of a voter, the more pessimistic they were that the Democratic nominee would ultimately go on to beat Trump. Among those with a high school degree/less or some college, 52-55 percent said it was "Very likely" that the Democratic nominee would beat Trump. But, just 35 percent of post-grads and 44 percent of those with a bachelor's degree were as optimistic.

Democratic voters seem to be just fine with the choices they have in front of them already and aren't pining for a 'savior' to lead them to victory. Despite a rocky first few months, Democratic voters continue to see Biden as the most likely to be able to beat Trump. But, voters are also not wedded to their choice of candidate. In New Hampshire, 61 percent of Democrats said they might change their minds before Election Day. In Iowa, a recent Monmouth poll found that "less than one-third of likely caucus-goers say that they are firmly set on their choice of candidate and most would not be too disappointed if they had to switch their support." In other words, this is still a very fluid race. But, the ultimate nominee is already in the race.

Image Credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa