If the run-up to the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries were a television series, it very easily would have made for one of the most entertaining shows of all time.
Unfortunately, like a script that’s gone on for a little too long, at this stage almost 80 percent of this series is now pure filler. And the majority of the cast consists of pointless stock characters who make “Star Trek’s” redshirts seem useful by comparison.
Come One, Come All . . . Come On
Those who thought the 2016 Republican primary field was excessive—with its 17 total candidates—were probably right. At the time, it set the record for the largest presidential primary field in American history, reaching a total that surpassed even the crowded Democratic presidential primaries of the 1970s.
In comparison to the current field, however, those numbers are dwarfed. The number of candidates declaring for the 2020 Democratic field has gone far beyond comical, and now borders on being downright surreal. With the campaign announcement of Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) on May 2, the field has now reached 22 major candidates.
But, wait! There’s more! Both Governor Steve Bullock of Montana and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City are expected to announce their bids within the next couple of weeks. So this field is only going to grow larger and more ungainly as time passes.
The field features senators, representatives, governors, mayors, former Cabinet officials, and even a number of political outsiders. There are has-beens and rising stars. There are progressives, socialists, moderates, and even (depending on Bullock’s decision) some borderline conservative Democrats.
And there still remains almost a year before the Iowa caucuses. As Conrad Black put it, so simply yet so accurately, this field increasingly looks less like a primary and more like a lottery.
Flavor of the Month . . . or Week
There is no better evidence of this purely chance-based dynamic than the fluctuation in media attention from one candidate to another. As each one announces, that candidate is successively described as a “rising star” or “insurgent,” only for the media hype to die down within a few weeks as another takes his or her place.
In the aftermath of the 2018 election, the first “flavor of the month” candidate was Beto O’Rourke, fresh off of his shockingly close U.S. Senate race against Ted Cruz (R-Texas). With seemingly all of Hollywood backing his candidacy, O’Rourke turned out to be the political world’s equivalent of Justin Bieber, and proved every bit as obnoxious with his shameless attempts at pandering to young voters on social media.
But once O’Rourke joined a race that included more fellow Democrats than his previous bid for higher office, he learned the hard way how fickle the media could be as it favored even bigger darlings like Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
As unsettling revelations about his personal life emerged—from a perverted poem about a cow and a demented fantasy about running over children with his car, to his participation in a “furry band” and membership in a hacking group—Beto’s electoral currency was as devalued as other terrible pop culture trends. His numbers and media focus have since faded dramatically.
After Beto’s fall, the next media fascination came with the curious case of Andrew Yang, whose strongest base of support was (and arguably still is) the Alt-Right. Yang’s candidacy, which emphasized such genuinely pressing issues as the rise of automation, gained a boost in attention after his appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, which subsequently led to an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show and other outlets to promote his message.
Although Yang tried to put all of the focus on his signature campaign promise—a universal basic income (or what Yang calls a “freedom dividend”) of $1,000 a month for all Americans—the coverage was limited almost exclusively to the vigorous support for his candidacy among white nationalists, who highlighted comments he had made in the past that were supportive of the white working class in the context of the opioid crisis.
Naturally, Yang quickly denounced his unexpected fan base, and has since gone on numerous bizarre anti-white rants in order to prove his identity politics bona fides. After deliberately pivoting away from the unique elements of his campaign in order to make himself seem more like his fellow candidates, the spotlight soon moved off of the political outsider and onto the next media sensation.
That sensation, currently, is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. At just 37 years old, Buttigieg is the youngest candidate, and is also the only openly gay candidate in the entire field. And he is actively working overtime to utilize his identity to the fullest; indeed, his status as a gay man was arguably the catalyst for his current “insurgent” status.
As described by Politico, Buttigieg saw an increase in his poll numbers and media coverage after his vocal criticisms of Vice President Mike Pence during a CNN town hall. Buttigieg’s campaign, however, was not prepared for the sudden rise, and did not have the sufficient resources to adapt to the newfound national fame. At the time of his premature spike in the polls, Buttigieg technically was still only in the exploratory committee phase, and had not yet “officially” declared.
As some observers have pointed out, his current place on top of the social media scene doesn’t necessarily mean he is in the strongest position to win the early primaries, as many of his rivals’ campaigns have already built a superior ground game to his campaign’s bare-bones infrastructure. And again, considering how far off the Iowa caucuses remain, it is not impossible to imagine that the ever-shifting news cycle could soon move right along from “Mayor Pete,” just as it did from Beto and Yang.
Don’t be at all surprised if, in a few weeks, the coverage suddenly shifts to another young “sensationalist” candidate who seems to comes out of nowhere, like Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Florida, or former HUD Secretary Julian Castro of Texas. There’s plenty of flavors for the media to sample before moving on to the next one.
The Top Five
Beto, Yang, and Buttigieg may find some consolation knowing that their names were known, for a little while anyway, by more than just a few thousand people on Twitter. That’s certainly more than can be said for the handful of utterly pointless candidates who, if you mentioned their names to the average voter, would elicit blank stares.
Mike Gravel, Jay Inslee, Marianne Williamson, Seth Moulton, John Delaney, and Michael Bennet most likely will not see a sudden surge in attention in the way that the other “flavor of the month” candidates have. And even if eventually they do, they are extremely unlikely to channel that energy into long-term and sustainable support.
In the end, a serious presidential campaign requires a lot more than a couple of trending hashtags and a few weeks of primetime appearances and interviews. Fundraising, support from the party leadership, a core base of loyal and lasting supporters, and a carefully-constructed national profile are all required to secure one’s chance of actually remaining in the race for the long haul.
To that end, one need look no further than the polling averages to see who occupies the highly-coveted A-list of candidates. Only five candidates truly have what it takes to remain there. And those five are: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren, and Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
It’s true that our system gives these candidates an advantage that accounts for their status as A-listers. It goes without saying that being vice president for eight years all but guarantees one’s seniority in the party, and includes immediate nationwide name recognition. After all, there’s a reason why six presidential nominees from 1956 to 2008 were incumbent or former vice presidents.
Although the name recognition associated with having been vice president will get a candidate to the upper echelons of the polls, without question, the vast majority of people who say they’d vote for Biden over any other Democrat are most likely only saying so because he is (currently) the most familiar name. So name recognition may not be enough over the course of a long campaign as other candidates increase their own.
The Senate, too, can be a good place to build a national profile. As for Sanders, he has an edge over the other three senators due to his near-upset of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. This continues yet another presidential election tradition where the primary runner-up of one cycle returns, hoping to win the nomination in the next cycle (this pattern proved successful for Ronald Reagan, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton).
While the remaining three have never had any occasion for national prominence beyond the Senate, and have never run for president before, they have all made the most of their turns on national stage from the Senate to solidify their status as frontrunners. Similarly, they have all made the most of their various “minority” designations and touting their progressive credentials. Their far-left rhetoric increased tenfold in the age of President Trump, and these three—Harris, Warren, and Booker—arguably have done more to position themselves on the front lines of “the Resistance” than other Senate Democrats.
As the Democratic caucus shifted alarmingly to the left on matters such as immigration, gun control, college tuition, and health care one or more of these three senators was sure to be leading the charge. Harris and Booker, particularly, took full advantage of the Kavanaugh hearings to appeal to the “Me Too” crowd, while Warren has staked out a unique position as the first Democratic presidential candidate openly to call for the impeachment of President Trump.
Thinning the Herd
If Joe Biden’s sudden shift to the left upon announcing his candidacy is any indication, the dominant force behind the current Democratic field is a hard-left progressivism.
Those who have been championing such a platform for at least the last few years, and from a national stage, are more likely to have built the necessary campaign structure for a long-term candidacy. Only a few have done that, while the vast majority of the field is likely to start dropping out after the first few debates and right before the Iowa caucuses, just as happened with the 2016 GOP field.
True, a handful of candidates remain just outside the reaches of the A-list and may end up performing better than expected—primarily the aforementioned three “flavor of the month” candidates who have managed to retain some followings despite their overall decline, as well as the other two senators (Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota) who have a national profile but have not capitalized on it the way the other four senators have.
Nevertheless, do not be fooled by the media’s fickle flirtations with whomever they deem the “hot new candidate.” This is all an attempt to generate excitement where none exists, and should tell us more about the field than almost anything. Only five candidates are serious contenders for the nomination, and—barring the sudden entrance of an equally unprecedented candidate like Trump in 2016—the nomination will most likely go to one of those five.
Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images