Field of 2020 Democratic hopefuls keeps growing

Record number drawn by lack of party standard-bearer

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, speaking April 10 at the North America's Building Trades Unions conference in Wash
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, speaking April 10 at the North America’s Building Trades Unions conference in Washington, is the latest to say he’s running for the Democratic nomination for president. If media reports prove true, he won’t be the last. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

DES MOINES — Democrats see an incumbent Republican president ripe for electoral defeat, but no standard-bearer within their own party whose candidacy convinces others to remain on the sidelines.

Those factors and a few others, experts say, is why we have nearly two dozen Democrats running to become the next president of the United States.

The largest-ever field of declared presidential candidates grew to 22 in the last few weeks when former Vice President Joe Biden and Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet made their campaigns official.

The field will grow even more when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock joins the race as expected later this month, and media reports appear to indicate New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also is expected to announce.

How did the field of Democratic candidates grow so large, blowing past even the last field of Republican presidential candidates, which capped out at what at the time seemed like a remarkable 17?

Experts say myriad factors have contributed to the candidate boom, but there are two particularly influential reasons: the Democratic Party has no clear national leader, and the prospect of ousting Republican President Donald Trump has stoked Democrats’ passions.

“It looked like a wide open opportunity with no ‘heir apparent’ taking the baton or carrying the torch,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political-science professor at Iowa State University. He said that contrasts with 2016, when Hillary Clinton appeared to be the party’s heir apparent to President Barack Obama. “A new generation of more diverse Democrats and their supporters are now jockeying for position to lead.”


The field includes party stalwarts like Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and longtime progressive independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is making is second run for the Democratic nomination. But it also includes younger faces and candidates new to the national scene, like Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Prominent though they’ve been on the national stage — leading in most early polling on the primary race — Biden and Sanders were not strong enough candidates to stop 20 others from also running.

“The fact there is a couple dozen candidates announcing indicates there’s no clear leadership in the Democratic Party in the Trump era,” said Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University and co-author of a historical encyclopedia on the Iowa caucuses.

But Democrats are fired up by Trump’s policies and actions, and they believe his re-election prospects are shaky.

“Politicians are rational animals, and the fact that so many Democrats have gotten in reflects a view that they really do think they have a reasonable chance, if not an excellent chance to defeat an incumbent president,” Goldford said.

Trump’s average job approval rating, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of national polls, is 43.6 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval. His average Gallup poll approval rating while in office is 39 percent, easily the lowest of any president in the poll’s history.

And it’s not just the perceived weakness of Trump’s re-election chances, said Sue Dvorsky, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman. It’s also Democrats’ fierce opposition to his policies and behavior, especially on social media.

“The current occupant has really made a situation that feels dire,” Dvorsky said. “There is so much passion involved in this. That is driving people.”


Republicans, unsurprisingly, see it differently. A spokeswoman for the Republican Party said Trump’s policies are gaining favor with Iowans while Democratic candidates are becoming increasingly liberal.

“While Democrats continue to embrace costly, out-of-touch policies that will hurt middle America, those same families continue to benefit from the policies enacted by the Trump administration and the choice for them could not be clearer,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Preya Samsundar said in a statement.

Goldford said the field also may be large because some candidates could be running with ulterior motives. He said some candidates may not believe themselves to be legitimate contenders, but could be using a run to boost their profile in order to sell a book, earn a job as a cable news commentator or land a job in a future Democratic administration.

“If people can monetize their candidacies, even if they don’t get the nomination, that may very well not be the rationale (anyway),” Goldford said.

The expansive field creates a challenge for most of the candidates to find a way to establish and distinguish themselves. Other than Biden, who served for eight years as vice president, and Sanders, who ran for president four years ago, the candidates must find a way to rise above the crowded field.

“Many of these candidates are going to have to do the relatively quiet work of putting together organizations in key states before they can begin to build momentum and make any noise,” said Donna Hoffman, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “Right now, this can happen by doing ground work in early states and trying to catch the attention of local activists, local media, and parlaying that into some level of momentum that might be noticed in other early states and with national media.”

It will take a candidate with a dynamic personality, a message that is relevant to voters’ concerns in 2020, and a natural constituency that will be drawn to the candidate, Steffen said.

Goldford said one thing will not change despite the field’s enormous size: the Iowa caucuses still will come down to which campaign can best organize and mobilize its supporters.


“Right now obviously you’ve got Biden and Sanders seemingly ahead of everybody else. A lot of that’s familiarity and name recognition. ... Everybody’s out there working away, trying to carve out something,” Goldford said. “It still is the standard caucus route: organize, organize, organize and get hot at the end. That’s the ticket.”

Experts said while the current atmosphere allows candidates to survive longer than in the past — online fundraising makes it easier for candidates to support their campaigns and social media makes it easier to communicate with voters — they still expect the field to narrow before the caucuses in February.

“We’re not going to have 23 people to caucus for. That is not going to happen,” Dvorsky said.

Hoffman noted a number of Republicans in that previous large field dropped out before the caucuses, and said she thinks even more Democrats will drop out this time, especially if fundraising dries up for bottom-tier candidates.

Goldford said he expects the field to thin by midsummer, or at the latest by the Iowa State Fair in August.

But he added a caveat that summarizes the whole caucus campaign.

“In many ways,” Goldford said, “we’re in uncharted territory here.”

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