There have been two withdrawals from the 2020 Democratic primary field in the past week or so. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper bowed out, making this the most significant period of shedding in the race so far.
In prior contests, those withdrawals would have been significant. In 2016, for example, losing two marquee candidates would have meant that only four candidates remained. In the 2020 field, though, losing two candidates is like Scrooge McDuck losing two gold coins. Still plenty left to swim around in.
There are a number of ways in which the 2020 Democratic field is remarkable, but size is the most immediate. The field grew quickly from the beginning of the year, slowing down only relatively recently. By contrast, the 2016 Republican field — the largest in recent memory before this year — ginned up relatively late.
At this point in the 2016 cycle, the Republican field was at its peak of 17 candidates. The Democratic field had five of its six candidates; lawyer Lawrence Lessig’s 54-day campaign began in early September.
In other words, after losing two candidates in a week, the 2020 Democratic field is still as big as the 2016 fields from both parties.
Because the field is so big, the percentage of candidates who remain is still high. Assuming no one else jumps in — not necessarily a fair assumption — 92 percent of the major candidates who announced their candidacies are still running. It has often been the case that, with 440 days remaining, the entire field is still in. That was the case with the Republicans in 2012 and 2016 and the Democrats in 2008. On average, excluding the small 2000 Democratic field, 87 percent of the peak number of candidates have been in the race at this point since 2000.
The field is exceptional in a number of other ways, as you might expect given its size. It has the candidate who has been running the longest to this point in the campaign: former congressman John Delaney (Md.), who has been in the race for more than two years.
It also has the candidate who has been in politics the longest: former vice president Joe Biden. Biden began serving in the Senate at the beginning of 1973.
Put another way, 3 out of 5 Americans were born after Biden was in the Senate.
What usually spurs winnowing from primary fields are debates and, of course, primaries. We can probably expect a fairly quick drop-off in the number of candidates once the next debate stage is finalized. It’s likely that only half of those candidates remaining will qualify.
But it’s also safe to assume that we can’t predict what’s going to happen. If you told me that I’d be writing an article in two months about the 30-person Democratic field, I wouldn’t be shocked.
Then again, following politics over the past four years has worn down my shock reflex.