It’s hard for reporters, let alone voters, to keep straight all 347 candidates and potential candidates (well, almost that many) in the Democratic primary. The natural tendency is for people to mentally break the field into top players and everyone else. You can comparison-shop from a handful of candidates but not much beyond that. And sure enough, the polling shows at the top, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) —and then a bit farther back Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
One can imagine that O’Rourke’s entry would draw big attention, lots of money and a surge in his polling, putting him up there with the three leaders, maybe even ahead of one or two of them. It will be tempting for the national media to then concentrate on the Three B’s and Harris, declaring them the “top tier” or “final four.” It’s hard to give equal attention to 15 or so candidates.
We know, however, that early leaders often fall back (Jeb Bush?) and that candidates at the bottom fight their way up, especially as we get down to the final weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire. If you peak just at the right time, beat expectations and come out ahead of one of the “leaders,” you get more attention, generate lots of buzz about “the Cinderella candidate” and take in a lot more money. In other words, if Warren comes in fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire, she’s probably kaput; if Pete Buttigieg or one of the governors does, it’s front-page or top-of-the-newscast material.
Think of Barack Obama beating Hillary Clinton in Iowa in 2008, Mike Huckabee winning there in the GOP field in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. Iowa and New Hampshire do not merely weed out a bunch of candidates. Just as important, they usually give a big boost to one of the lesser-known contenders.
That’s why in a strange way, right now, you’d rather be in low-single digits, be a surprise in the debates and finish better than expected in an early state than be the third or the fourth finisher among the Three B’s and Harris in Iowa or New Hampshire.
What do you want to do then to set yourself up to be the Cinderella in an early state?
First, do something that allows voters to remember who you are. The kid mayor with the funny name who was really good in the town hall. The guy who wants to put climate change at the top.
Second, drive the conversation in some way. Everyone release their taxes by the first debate! Provoke higher-polling candidates to follow you in some respect.
Third, be available for cable TV and local media virtually 24/7 — but only if you are fun and/or totally on message. If you haven’t played in the big leagues or don’t have ready answers on policy, don’t try this. President Trump won in the primaries in large part because of his command of free media; the same can happen for a Democratic candidate.
Fourth, let bigger names snipe at one another (Biden vs. Bernie is the top contender for jousting). Biden can make the argument that Sanders is not electable. Harris can make the case that the party doesn’t benefit by nominating a septuagenarian. After voters get fed up with that, they might look for someone who hasn’t been attacked and hasn’t attacked anyone else.
Fifth, find voters others don’t. In Iowa, there are the “virtual" caucus-goers who might never have participated in the caucuses because they couldn’t take the night off to go argue with neighbors. In every congressional district where Republican voters flipped to vote Democratic in 2018, there are people who have never voted in a Democratic primary, but might this time around. (This is one reason that pitching to the far-left slice of the primary electorate is a mistake.)
Sixth, the youth vote is up for grabs. Sanders might have them now; O’Rourke could easily win them over. An underdog with a focus on an issue that young people care a lot about (e.g. student debt, climate change) can go to every college campus he can find and win a chunk of those voters. Every young voter that Sanders isn’t getting pulls him back into the pack and can lift an underdog.
Seventh, do something presidential. Visit the troops overseas. Meet with European Union leaders or other allies to assure them, “Help is on the way!” Show leadership in a natural disaster or, God forbid, another shutdown.
Eighth, take on Trump in some significant way. A governor or a mayor can sue Trump (on anything from an Environmental Protection Agency regulatory rollback to immigration law changes). Filibuster something in the Senate. Introduce legislation to bar the president from requiring government employees (e.g. Cabinet members, Secret Service, members of Congress) to pay him directly or indirectly for food and lodging.
There are probably loads of other ways to make your presence felt. Most of all, don’t peak too soon. You want to hit your stride a week or two before Iowa and New Hampshire.