With former housing secretary Julian Castro departed, the oversized Democratic presidential field reaches a critical point: More candidates have dropped out than remain in the race. But that still leaves 14 - a bulky ballot as the marathon moves closer to actual primaries and caucuses beginning next month.
It’s to Democrats’ credit that the race started with so many compelling candidates: Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and Castro, to name just a few notable dropouts. Thinning the field is essential, of course. Yet, rather than providing clarity, each withdrawal highlights vital questions facing Democrats.
Who can win in November? From the start, Democrats seemed to be fielding candidates who might govern well as a committee. The progressive left is well represented by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; the center of the liberal spectrum has former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, plus former South Bend, Ind. mayor Pete Buttigieg. Each has strengths, yet none has emerged as the type of campaigner who could individually survive a battle with Trump.
Biden: Older, sometimes unsteady, haunted by GOP criticism of his son’s business ventures in Ukraine. Sanders: Older, doggedly pursuing an unattainable socialist agenda. Warren: Scary for Wall Street, frightening to those who like their current health insurance. Klobuchar: Stuck in second gear, seemingly destined for the ticket’s number two spot. Buttigieg: Young, lacking governing experience. Booker: High on charm but low on charisma, dangerously close to joining the list of dropouts.
Two latecomers, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, have compelling resumes, but neither has a clearly defined lane to the nomination, let alone the time to find one.
Is the field diverse enough? With the departure of Castro, who is Latino, and Harris, who is black, complaints are mounting that what began as a richly diverse roster is devolving toward a more predictable group of white candidates. Castro did the party no favor by criticizing the DNC’s debate rules, suggesting they discriminated against candidates of color. The process isn’t perfect but its main fault isn’t about race, it’s that it rewards fundraising, allowing candidates like Bloomberg and businessman Tom Steyer to buy their way into a more favorable position.
It should be noted that poorer people understandably don’t contribute as much to campaigns as wealthier people do, and to some extent that can result in a bias against candidates of color.
What if the early states split? Buttigieg could easily win in Iowa, Sanders in New Hampshire and Biden in South Carolina. Nevada also seems headed Biden’s way, but if he slips Warren could be the winner there. Then what?
That guarantees at least four Democrats remaining in the race - and probably three or four other contenders - until Super Tuesday, March 3. The largest prize that day, California, is virtually deadlocked in early polling, with Biden, Sanders and Warren at the top. It’s possible that no one will emerge from the primary voting with a lock on the nomination, bringing us to the convention in Milwaukee, beginning July 13. This year rules have been changed to curb the power of so-called superdelegates, those delegates not selected via the primary process. Their role at Democratic nominating conventions has long confused many voters and angered several candidates, such as Bernie Sanders whose candidacy in 2016 was made more difficult by Hillary Clinton’s command of superdelegates.
This year 3,836 “pledged” delegates will vote on the first ballot, with 758 “automatic” or superdelegates voting only on second ballots and beyond. The prospect that a dark-horse might emerge - remote but more possible than in previous years - will likely keep a few marginal candidates, like Klobuchar, and wealthy candidates, like Bloomberg, hanging on.
How will impeachment affect the race? Senators Warren, Sanders, Klobuchar and Booker will likely be diverted from the campaign trail to participate in a Senate trial for President Trump. (For the record, Sen. Michael Bennet remains in the race as well.) That could affect results in the early states, and would seem to favor those who have raised the most money, including Buttigieg and Bloomberg, while hurting candidates who have relied more on retail politics, such as Klobuchar and Booker.
Once Trump escapes impeachment without losing his job, which seems certain, the question becomes: how will it affect the election? In my view it helps Trump, who will conflate a Senate “victory” (which will be true) with actual “vindication” (which will be false).
It’s been roughly a year since the 2020 campaign began in earnest. Those who expected clarity by now had either too much wishful thinking, or a cracked crystal ball.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.