Can you name them? Can you name even half of them? Do you know where they come from or what they do or have done? Do you know for what they stand or how they differ?
“They” are the blur of candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination. There are 23 of them, thanks to two new entrants this past week. That makes this group bigger than the Republican field in 2016, bigger than the Democratic field in 1976. It is not necessarily a record to be prized.
Democrats might argue that the number of candidates competing for the nomination is a sign of the party’s vibrancy, one that puts to rest assertions that losses in 2010, 2014 and 2016 had hollowed out the party and depleted its bench of high-quality presidential aspirants. Others see the sprawling field as a sign of indiscipline, of a party adrift, seeking its identity in the era of President Trump. Or as the triumph of ego over common sense.
The composition of the field — the most diverse ever — highlights the degree to which Democrats are divided by ideology, generation, race, gender and geography. It is a party undergoing a power struggle over whose voices will be heard and which voters should be courted most. This is not a destructive conflict, but to pretend that it doesn’t exist, that it isn’t part of the backdrop of the race does a disservice to the realities of the moment.
The nomination contest might not settle the question of the balance of power within the Democratic Party’s coalition. Some of these conflicts could give way to the raw desire to defeat Trump and to make that the overriding priority. But those factors nonetheless will affect perceptions and calculations of voters and likely the tenor of the debate as the competition is joined more directly over the summer and fall.
Some Democrats contend the number of candidates shows that the 2020 nomination is one worth having, that Trump is a vulnerable incumbent whose victory was secured by 77,000 votes in three industrial states. Therefore, goes this argument, whoever emerges will have a good chance of becoming president.
Others suggest that the size of the field highlights vulnerabilities of the two candidates now topping the polls, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Biden has started strong, but it’s too early to judge his candidacy. Front-runners never coast to victory, and he will face adversity, whether self-inflicted or delivered by a rival who rises to the moment.
One risk for Democrats is that, with so many candidates and so many voices, side debates distract from core issues and unifying messages. The debate over reparations sparks passions within the Democratic base but is not an issue high on the list of most voters who will determine who is the next president. The same is even more true of the issue of whether violent felons, terrorists or sexual predators should be allowed to vote while in prison, a topic recently injected into the Democratic conversation by Sanders.
These kinds of debates provide ammunition to Trump and his reelection team. Trump can run his general election campaign while Democrats compete with one another. As Democrats speak with many voices, Trump and the Republicans will try to define the party on the basis of the most extreme proposals or outlandish controversies. Already he is trying to brand the Democrats as the new party of socialism, to go with his long-standing assertion that the party is soft on crime and on illegal immigration.
For now, the size of the Democratic field is more than most voters can handle. The majority of Americans aren’t paying close attention. Even in the early states, it’s a relatively small number. A leading Democrat in Iowa estimated that the number of voters paying real attention may be only in the few thousands. That’s a fraction of the roughly 200,000 or so who will vote in the caucuses next February and an even smaller fraction of Iowans who will vote in the general election in 2020.
News organization websites are filling up with stories about the backgrounds of some of the candidates, but no organization has the resources to be truly comprehensive in this coverage. Television is providing exposure to the candidates for voters around the country. CNN and MSNBC have hosted town halls for the candidates or provided them time for in-studio interviews.
Last month, CNN did five consecutive hours of town halls with five different candidates before a student audience in New Hampshire. For anyone who stayed through the entire evening, the contrasts were revealing. But how many people stayed for the full programming? In each of the five hours, CNN’s total viewership was below that of Fox News and MSNBC, although in two of the hours, it scored best among the prime audience of viewers ages 25 to 54.
Fox News has bid for some of the Democratic action, and a few candidates have taken the cable channel up on the offer of a town hall with voters. Ironically, one of the biggest television audiences any Democratic candidate has drawn to date was when Sanders participated in a Fox News town hall in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) turned down an invitation from Fox and then went to war against the network, which she described as a “hate-for-profit racket” that traffics in “racism and bigotry and outright lies” along with some “legit journalism.”
The next phase of the campaign begins in little more than a month when the first of the Democratic debates is held in Miami. There will be a second round in late July in Detroit and more in the fall. The size of the field, however, will limit the value of these early encounters, which will have to be held on consecutive nights to accommodate all of the candidates expected to qualify.
Democratic National Committee officials have said they will not create a two-tiered system for these early debates, meaning there will not be one debate featuring those with the best poll numbers and another with the rest of the candidates, as Republicans staged in 2016. That represents an improvement, but the dynamic of 10 people onstage is probably minimally helpful to voters — and potentially damaging to some of the candidates.
Democratic voters express the hope that the field will get to a manageable size sooner rather than later. Already, there is a natural stratification taking place. Biden, Sanders and a few other candidates are drawing more attention, which leaves more than a dozen candidates, most of them polling below 3 percent, to claw for media scraps.
Exposure is everything, and those who fade on the debate stage will find fundraising increasingly difficult — and without money, candidacies die. The natural order of things will reduce the size of the field long before the first votes are cast next year. But that could still leave a dozen or more at the turn of the year. This embarrassment of riches means that Democrats face a messy process over the coming months. Sometimes bigger is not better.