Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) in Washington on Nov. 13. She has been widely mentioned as a potential candidate for president in 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Columnist

Now and then, I am reminded just how far from the swing of things I am. I was the last person to try paleo. I’ve never planked or lunged, to my knowledge. Last year, I got the feeling I was the only American without a podcast. This year, I’m the only one not running for president.

That’s my takeaway from reading the experts, who greeted the merciful end of the 2018 midterm elections by rolling out previews of 2020. (Though, to be honest, the midterms might never end. As I write these words, Florida has entered the re-recount phase of its latest election fiasco, and would-be Georgia governor Stacey Abrams weighed a lawsuit to demand a complete do-over before conceding on Friday .)

Anyway, Politico’s roster of hopefuls and possibles for the Democratic nomination numbered an even 40, including 10 U.S. senators, seven House members, seven current or former governors, assorted billionaires, a smattering of mayors, the inevitable Kennedy, dreary John F. Kerry and a movie star. Aaron Blake of The Post took a more narrow view, ranking only the top 15 prospects — though he threw in 14 “honorable mentions” and listed another five formerly ranked contenders, several of whom remain viable to other prognosticators. McClatchy’s Washington Bureau reported on some 30 candidates, ranging from toe-dippers to retiring Rep. John Delaney (Md.), who declared his candidacy back in 2017 and has already spent more than $1.5 million on TV ads in Iowa. 

These lists are striking not only for their multitudes but also for the glaring lack of a front-runner. A USA Today poll in October crowned former vice president Joe Biden the kingpin. But I then read Slate’s Jamelle Bouie explaining that the nod can’t go to a pale male, and touting freshman Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) for the lead role. Pollster Mark Penn co-authored a column in the Wall Street Journal promising another bid by eternal front-runner Hillary Clinton, while Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has touted Clinton’s blustery 2016 nemesis, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). By definition, multiple front-runners means no front-runner at all.

The axiom that parties define themselves through the process of choosing a candidate has never been more true. Democratic identity is up for grabs; it will be decided through this melee and not behind closed doors thanks to the neutering of the “superdelegates.” Is this the party of working stiffs or the party of Harvard and Apple? Is it a party of the left or a centrist party? Is it the party for women and minorities, or do white guys still hold some sway? Such questions will be the undercurrents of the race — indeed, they are already swirling in the competition to lead the party as speaker of the House.

When everyone’s a candidate but no one is the favorite, conditions are ripe for a long, strange campaign. I’m reminded of the Republican Party’s predicament four years ago, when their sprawling field of 16 other candidates — ranging from business executive Carly Fiorina to brain surgeon Ben Carson to Bush No. 3 (Jeb) — were all swept away by an undersea earthquake and spray-tanned tsunami named Donald Trump.

Many among the 16 were plausible presidents. Many of them had viable strategies and adequate finances. But none could build a lead strong enough to fend off the Trump surge. His share of the early polls, derived largely from his reality TV fans, was a modest 20 percent or so. But with so many challengers splintering the vote, that was enough to sustain him as he washed away one competitor after another.

Result: The GOP is now the party of Trump. He was hardly even a Republican! The formerly conservative party now belongs to a radical; the free-trade party now embraces tariffs; the preachers of fiscal discipline are now running trillion-dollar deficits.

With a phone book full of Democrats getting into the early primaries, the risk is real that something similar could happen to them. Despite their plausible plans, a self-funder with star power could enter the crowded race and begin mowing down the competition one by one. Maybe it’s someone as appealing as Oprah Winfrey — but maybe it’s someone as abrasive as Trump. The point is, the party’s destiny, its identity, could be wrested from the people who have devoted their lives to the Democratic brand.

Party elders, leading donors, union bosses and influential pundits used to mark out the playing field and select the rosters for Democratic primary seasons — much as Chambers of Commerce and the Southern Baptist Convention helped to order the old GOP. But social media and online fundraising have smashed those cartels, perhaps forever.

And after the recent victories by a lightly experienced senator, Barack Obama, and the unconventional egotist Trump, the presidential mold is thoroughly broken. So go ahead and run if you’ve half a mind to . There’s no one left to stop you from trying.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.