Vicious cycles abound, in which a candidate can’t raise money because they haven’t gotten attention and they can’t get attention because they haven’t raised money. Appealing, qualified candidates find it impossible to gain traction.
All of that may be true. Nevertheless, this presidential primary campaign is actually going as well as any Democrat could have hoped for.
You may not feel that way if you’re a fan of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has decided to end her presidential campaign. In fact, you might think that this whole thing is profoundly messed up. After all, she’s a smart, thoughtful, serious United States senator with plenty of ideas. If she couldn’t even reach 2 percent support, something has to be wrong.
You might say the same about Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper or Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.), all of whom shut their campaigns down in the past week or two.
Some of those who remain in the race are also unhappy, particularly about the Democratic National Committee’s rules governing who gets to participate in the next two rounds of debates. (Candidates have to get at least 2 percent in a series of national polls and have no fewer than 130,000 contributors to qualify.)
The campaign of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock complained about “arbitrary D.N.C. debate rules” that excluded him from the next round. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to say that “the whole process really lacks transparency,” a rather odd complaint given that the standards for inclusion were laid out months ago; Gabbard’s real problem isn’t that those standards were opaque, it’s that she didn’t meet them.
But the truth is that this is exactly what the Democratic Party wanted: a big, raucous beginning to the campaign where lots of interesting candidates threw their hats in the ring, followed by an orderly winnowing in which those who can’t get meaningful support make a graceful exit so voters can focus their attention on a manageable number of contenders.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot about primary campaigns that is distracting, unhelpful, or downright silly. (Please read my diatribe against the horror that is the Iowa State Fair.) But if you’re a Democrat, you should have a lot to be pleased about so far.
Your party has showcased its diversity, with multiple women and candidates of color. There has already been a good deal of substantive policy discussion on issues such as health care, discussion that is helping the party clarify for itself what it believes and ought to pursue the next time it has the power to do so. Voters are getting plenty of opportunity to consider what combination of ambition and pragmatism their party’s campaigning and governing agendas should embody.
The candidates have even (albeit gingerly and briefly) begun to grapple with the shortcomings of the last Democratic presidency, which is absolutely necessary if they’re to figure out how to most effectively wield the powers of the Oval Office. And polls are showing all of the leading Democrats ahead of Donald Trump in general election matchups by double digits.
Even if your favorite candidate hasn’t gotten the attention and support you think they deserve, there are still a variety of choices among those emerging as the top contenders. You’ve got an establishment moderate promising a return to normalcy, a democratic socialist seeking revolution, a strong progressive offering a dense but sweeping policy platform, a senator with law enforcement credentials situated in the party’s center-left, a young mayor — even if your top choice was Gillibrand or Inslee, chances are that you’ll like one of those candidates more than the others and find reasons to be enthusiastic about them.
Think about it this way: Other than “My candidate hasn’t won,” if you had to explain why this primary season has so far been worse than others, what would you say?
To be clear, there are plenty of legitimate critiques to be made of the primary process. We get sidetracked by unimportant micro-controversies. We spend too much time obsessing over polls. Some important issues (such as health care) get plenty of discussion and debate while others (such as climate change) don’t get nearly enough. The whole thing tells us less about who’d be good at being president than it does about who’s good at running for president, which are two different things.
But all of that is true of every primary campaign. If nothing else, we can say that given what American presidential campaigns are like, this is one of the better ones.