If Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio get into the race for president, Democrats will be one candidate short of an even two dozen. It’s a good bet that this herd will be culled some by the Fourth of July.
Whenever I use the NCAA basketball tournament's bracket as an analogy for the Democratic presidential nomination, I can count on one friend who is extremely knowledgeable about Democratic politics to shake his head and rightly argue that voters cannot be conveniently sorted into tidy boxes—demographic, ideological, or cultural.
Thankfully, there aren’t going to be 68 competitors like there are in March Madness.
To a certain extent, my friend is right. Real people view things in ways that may or may not seem logical to others, and things are often not terribly rigid.
That includes the candidates themselves, who can’t be packaged into brackets by obvious identity-politics labels. For instance, while Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren are all white female senators, Gillibrand is running more on women’s issues than the latter two. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are both African-American senators, but neither focuses exclusively on race.
At the same time, there are certain types of voters who are looking for the same kind of candidate and appeal as each other, and may recoil against the other contenders. It wouldn’t take a particularly long conversation to ascertain whether a certain voter was more likely to be partial to someone like Bernie Sanders and Warren or someone along the lines of Joe Biden and Klobuchar.
There will be a winnowing down to a Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four. It’s just that no one will run exclusively in a single bracket, and, in fact, the successful candidates will surely demonstrate crossover appeal and compete among different audiences.
Try another analogy, the reality-television show Survivor. Rather than try to figure out who will win the nomination or make the Final Four, let’s focus on the first half-dozen or dozen who aren’t likely to make it to Labor Day, four months from now.
These candidates, like Survivor contestants, have certain opportunities, but also challenges. The opportunities are potential breakthrough events such as cable TV town halls and debates. The events sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee are scheduled for June 26 and 27 (half of the contenders each night), and July 30 and 31. Candidates will try their dead-level best to stay alive and viable, hoping for a breakthrough performance or for some of the better-known and established contenders to stumble or underperform.
But unless the candidates are drawing ratings and buzz from their cable hits, and unless they are at least registering in polls, they are not likely to get invited back. Their candidacies will then become irrelevant and eventually go into the death spiral that often precedes dropping out of a race.
There is also the whole complicated business of who does and doesn’t qualify for each round of debates, based on DNC criteria on poll performance, funds raised, and number of unique donors. With as many as 23 candidates, and with Biden and Sanders garnering as much as half the vote in early polls, this is going to get pretty brutal pretty quickly for many. In short, the opportunities will get fewer and fewer for half of this field by the end of June.
Then there is the big challenge: fundraising, with the next big quarterly report card coming out in mid-July. Some will turn in impressive Federal Election Commission reports, while others will be underwhelming, if not downright embarrassing. Resources are critical to keep the campaign staff and rent paid, and the creditors happy, or at least cooperative. While in some ways our political process is awash in money, with the internet and the ActBlue fundraising platform making it cheaper and easier to raise money than in the old days of direct-mail fundraising, for those who are not getting traction in polls, crowds, and fundraising, it will be perilous and eventually fatal to their candidacies.
Some of the candidates have transferred funds from, say, their Senate-campaign accounts, but after that money is gone, they have to rely on new money—contributed specifically to the presidential campaign—and reporters will run “burn rate” stories—the percentage of a campaign’s quarterly fundraising that it is spending, and how quickly.
One intriguing metric for who is garnering interest is the weekly Google-search numbers for each candidate. The Cook Political Report’s Ally Flinn has compiled weekly search counts from the Google Trends analytics team measuring who is being Googled and who isn’t. It is important to note that searching a candidate’s name on Google is not an expression of support, but it does tell us who is drawing interest, and whether that interest is positive or follows a misstep.
The numbers released by Google are not the actual number of searches; they are sampling all searches rather than counting one by one, and the data is reported with the top-searched candidate assigned a 100 rating and the rest scaled down from there. For the week of April 28, for example, Biden was the most searched, thus given a 100, followed by Sanders (32.45), Pete Buttigieg (31.34), Harris (24.1), Beto O’Rourke (14.48), and Warren (12.66). The rest of the field was in single digits.
Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, and Sanders have each had three weeks on top this year; O’Rourke two weeks; Gillibrand, Klobuchar, and Warren one week.