The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats have room for more 2020 candidates

Audience members listen as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks in Nashua, N.H., on Feb. 23. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The Democratic field has a lot of entrants, but it’s not “crowded.” Consider the following:

  • Most Democrats in polls say that they have no favorite right now and are shopping around.
  • Democrats keep telling pollsters that they want someone to beat President Trump, not ideological perfection, yet many of the candidates seem more concerned with the latter than the former.
  • Some of the candidates in the race have gotten little or no traction. Eight of the 12 candidates in the RealClearPolitics average (some declared and some not) draw less than 6 percent each. In the RCP average and in many early state polls, only three contenders are in double digits, and one of them, former vice president Joe Biden, hasn’t declared. The stragglers lack a defined message or a natural constituency, although they could develop both. Like a house on the market for weeks with no buyers, however, they could deteriorate in value with time.
  • For now, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is struggling. Between August 2018 and February 2019, she went from 17 percent in a University of New Hampshire poll to 7 percent. That’s in the state next door to hers.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made a splash and raised real money after getting in, but the guy who won the New Hampshire primary in 2016 with 60 percent of the vote now gets just 26 percent with virtually 100 percent name ID.
  • There is a grand total of one governor in the race, as of Friday: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

These polls are not predictive at this stage, although they do reflect that as of now, maybe three candidates have hit the ground running. Rather than crowded, the race seems like a marathon with three legitimate runners — and a whole bunch of folks walking in the rear. Rather than “No Vacancy,” the appropriate signage for the presidential primary should be “Hiring Now.”

In other words, a ton of declared candidates doesn’t mean much if the vast majority of primary voters have no preference at all or aren’t definitely set on a candidate. Voters are still shopping. So why not roll out some more choices?

There are some obvious gaps in the field. No one currently in the contest has a ton of foreign policy experience; you don’t see them capitalizing on Trump’s North Korea blunder. There are a whole lot of senators, but aside from the mayor of South Bend, Ind., the former mayor of Newark and the governor of Washington, there is a dearth of chief executive experience. None in the top echelon of declared candidates has been elected governor or even mayor. With the exception of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — who seems to have the best chance of breaking out of the also-rans (because she is a lonely moderate) — there’s no declared contender from the “heartland” or with much industrial Midwest appeal. Klobuchar is the sole declared candidate who identifies as a moderate.

In short, Democrats should welcome into the race potential candidates such as Biden, Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). None of them is going to be mistaken for a “socialist.” None can be written off as a coastal elite. Many have executive experience. True, these are all white males, but Biden has a track record of drawing support from African Americans; O’Rourke drove up Hispanic turnout in his Senate race in Texas. All but Biden come from purple or red states where they have learned to assemble a coalition of Democrats and independents, plus some ticket-splitting Republicans.

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What the party probably doesn’t need are more urban or coastal progressives chasing Sanders voters. Those, they have in abundance.

Unfortunately, we get stuck with the image of a debate in which podiums are lined up from one side of the stage to the other. Instead, think of the race as an escalator with most still stuck at the bottom. There’s plenty of room for others to hop on and ride to the top.

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