Anyone who has paid close attention to past Democratic presidential nominating campaigns should strike what they know from their memory bank. Old rules and previous assumptions aren’t likely to be worth much. What’s ahead for the Democrats will be unlike any nomination battle in recent years.
The campaign started Monday, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts jumped into the race by announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. Her four-and-a-half-minute video tied biography to philosophy to ideology. She adopted an aggressive posture, toward President Trump, big banks and large corporations.
But if Warren was the first to leap into the 2020 campaign, she will soon have much company. If Trump proved anything in 2016, it is that even the unlikeliest of candidates can become president. As a result, all kinds of Democrats, from those with decades of public service to those with only a few years (or even none), from those in their 70s to those decades younger, have decided, why not me?
Jeff Berman, a veteran of past campaigns and the architect of Barack Obama’s successful delegate strategy in 2008, said that, for the Democrats, the 2020 race will be “the least predictable cycle in 25 years or more.”
Most recent Democratic nominating contests have been binary choices featuring a mainstream liberal versus a progressive or insurgent. In 2008, though there were others in the field, the campaign always was, fundamentally, one that pitted then-senator Obama against then-senator Hillary Clinton. That model applied to 2016 as well, a race between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) despite the presence of others.
That was true in 2000 as well, when then-vice president Al Gore took the establishment lane and former senator Bill Bradley ran as a progressive reformer. In 2004, though others figured into some of the early maneuvering, the contest became largely between then-senator John F. Kerry, the establishment choice, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the antiwar insurgent.
There will be nothing binary about the battle that is about to unfold, at least not for many months. The field will be bigger than it has been in many cycles, bigger likely even than 1992 or 1988. There are two dozen or more names on handicapping charts and while many of them will not enter the race, the field could number in double digits by the time everyone makes their decisions.
Beyond that, the traditional lanes will be more crowded than ever. Former vice president Joe Biden, should he decide to run, will be cast as a traditional mainstream Democrat but there will be others who fit that identity. There won’t be just one progressive candidate, there will be several. Sanders and Warren will be drawing from much the same constituency, and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio would also compete in the progressive lane, if he runs. And there will be candidates who don’t fit neatly into either.
In 2008, Obama benefited enormously by being the sole African American candidate, although that wasn’t evident when he announced his candidacy. Initially his candidacy was buoyed by support from the party’s progressive base, which was unhappy with Clinton over her vote on the Iraq War. For most of 2007, polls showed Obama and Clinton dividing the black vote. Once he won the Iowa caucuses, Obama consolidated support among African Americans. The combination of progressives and African Americans was crucial to Obama’s ultimate success.
This time it is likely there will be two African American candidates — Sens. Kamala D. Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey — looking to consolidate support from the party’s most loyal constituency. But many other candidates will be seeking a piece of the black vote as well. Biden has ties to black voters dating to the days of the civil rights movement. Warren’s opening video is explicit, highlighting the wealth gap between white and black families and the history of discrimination against African Americans. Sanders struggled in 2016 with African Americans and could face similar challenges this time.
There won’t be just one woman running this time, there could be many. They include Harris, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. The success of female candidates running for Congress during the midterm elections, the organizing activity led by women across the country and the #MeToo movement have illustrated the rising power of women in politics, especially in the Democratic Party.
The Democratic race will quickly become a kind of Noah’s Ark of candidates, with at least two of almost everything. There will be multiple senators running, along with multiple governors or ex-governors, along with multiple mayors or ex-mayor (a rarity in presidential politics), along with the possibility of multiple candidates with business backgrounds and even a couple of billionaires. One other clear dividing line will be familiar versus fresh faces — a Biden or a Sanders versus the likes of outgoing-Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas or Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana.
The permutations are endless, given the mix-and-match appeals of the field. The challenge will be finding a way to break out of the pack, whether through celebrity appeal, money or preferably a messenger with a distinctive message that can capture the imaginations of party activists and also prove viable with the electorate in a general election. Having a clear sense of strategy and the discipline to follow it will separate long-distance runners from the others.
The media environment will be unlike what past campaigns have seen. Trump showed what the power to control the conversation can mean in a nominating contest. The intensity of social media and cable chatter will test the ability of candidates to roll with what comes at them. Mastering the digital space and free media will be critically important.
Money will divide the field. Veterans of past campaigns believe the era when a candidate counted on an extensive list of donors who contributed the legal maximum to his or her campaign has largely passed, replaced either by the existence of a well-funded super PAC or by the ability to generate small-dollar contributions with a candidate that generates genuine excitement.
Sanders sustained himself with grass roots contributions against Clinton in 2016. Many House and Senate challengers did the same in their races this year. How many 2020 candidates can do this is an open question. O’Rourke, while losing his Senate race last fall to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), amassed huge amounts of money from around the country, including an astonishing $38 million in the third quarter of 2018 alone.
Others might have to depend on super PACs to keep themselves afloat. There is talk among Democrats that some candidates are trying to figure out how they could raise $100 million or more in such committees. Republican Jeb Bush tried this approach in 2016 without success, but that doesn’t mean some Democrats won’t pursue a similar plan in 2020. Staying viable as long as possible will be important if there is a truly crowded field.
New rules will make this contest different. The role of superdelegates has been reduced, although if there is a brokered convention, they still could play a decisive role. Caucuses will undergo changes to make them more small-d democratic, including the introduction of absentee voting. Think how that could affect the outcome in Iowa. The early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — will be important as always. But Super Tuesday, especially now that California again has joined the list of states voting in early March, will be a strategic and financial challenge and potentially key to victory.
The biggest question is what all this will say about the state of the Democratic Party. Anti-Trump sentiment will carry Democrats some distance but not all the way. Will this jumble of candidates — and the arguments they have among themselves on the way toward their national convention — result in a nominee with a clear and compelling message or produce a cacophony that does more to highlight the fissures that exist within the party? And if a Democrat wins in 2020, will she or he be ready to govern?
That’s all in the future, of course. Today is New Year’s Day, and all things seem possible to the candidates. Their wild ride is just beginning.