SAN FRANCISCO >> The Democratic presidential field is shrinking but not quickly enough to ward off the prospect of a long, bruising fight for the nomination.
Three candidates dropped out of the race over the last two weeks, and several others could soon follow. What remains will be a historically large, double-digit roster that includes an unusually high number of strong campaigns poised to go deep into the primary season plus a gaggle of others doing just enough to survive with less than six months before the Iowa caucuses.
It’s a scenario — on display Friday, as more than a dozen candidates addressed the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee — that almost certainly will make it harder for Democrats to settle quickly on a nominee to take on President Donald Trump, and the process could create unintended consequences even as top Democrats frame the dynamics as an embarrassment of riches.
“They’re all good, but there’s just so many,” says Julie D. Soo, a San Francisco Democrat who serves on her state party committee. “It’s time for some narrowing.”
Some Democratic players even quietly bring up the possibility of going into the national convention in Milwaukee next July without any candidate having secured a majority of delegates required to win the nomination.
“I’m the harbinger of doom and gloom who thinks we could have a brokered convention,” said Leah Daughtry, who chaired the 2016 Democratic convention. “People don’t want to talk about that, and I just think, um-hum, OK then.”
Party Chairman Tom Perez takes the optimist’s view, praising “a bumper crop” that will yield a strong nominee tested by a tough primary. He touts the rules he’s set for the primary process, particularly the debates, as ensuring a “fair shake” for all candidates. The chairman, however, also gives nods toward the possibility of fissures like those that cost Hillary Clinton votes on the left and contributed to her loss to Trump in 2016.
“The most important thing for us to remember,” Perez told the party gathering Friday, is “that every single one of these candidates would make a better president than the current occupant of the White House.”
Still, Perez catches arrows from multiple angles — those who blame him for cutting off access to the national stage afforded by debates and those who worry he hasn’t done enough to streamline an unwieldly field.
“If we wanted to be the party that excluded people, we’d be Republicans,” presidential candidate Michael Bennet said Friday at the DNC, with Perez sitting nearby. The Colorado senator is unlikely to qualify for the September debates.
On his way out of the race this week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee criticized the party for setting a grassroots fundraising goal that he and aides said forced longshot candidates to spend disproportionately on expensive digital fundraising consultants — taking away their ability to spend on travel and grassroots efforts in early states.
Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton announced at the DNC gathering Friday that he was ending his bid for the presidency. And former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper dropped out of the 2020 race last week.
As of now, 10 candidates have reached the qualifying thresholds on polling (2% in at least four recognized polls) and grassroots fundraising (130,000 unique donors) for the September debate. If that holds, the September debate would be the first of the cycle held on a single night.
That would put all leading candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — on the same stage for the first time, together with a handful of others vying for top tier status, including Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
But if another candidate qualifies by the Aug. 28 deadline, the debate will again be spread over two nights.
Those candidates have been less likely to criticize the debate rules openly. Their quieter complaints are the long wait for a more quaint debate stage involving the strongest candidates. Perez’s rules could even expand the debate stage in October, since that round will have the same rules as September, giving candidates another month to qualify.
“The bottom line is you just cannot tell someone they can’t run for president,” says Christine Pelosi, a prominent DNC member and daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, defending the party’s handling of the race so far.
It’s worth noting, too, that the difference between 10 or 12 or 14 candidates debating in the fall likely doesn’t change the 2020 dynamic that is most distinct from recent Democratic primaries: There’s little chance this primary battle becomes a two-person battle before voting begins, like the Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama bout in 2008 and the Sanders vs. Clinton bout in 2016.
Party officials, campaign representatives and activists in San Francisco this week broadly agree that Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg all have the combination of support, organization and money to go deep into the primary. All five may not do so, since Democrats’ rules require candidates to eclipse 15% in primaries and caucuses to win actual delegates. But there’s a seeming consensus it will be more than two — particularly as long as Sanders holds his hardest base of supporters, Warren continues her momentum and Biden maintains strong support from older black voters and older white moderates.
That possibility leaves Democrats like Daughtry concerned regardless of how upcoming debate stages materialize. “If it’s settled before the convention, this thing is going to be won on the margins,” she predicted.
Several campaigns tacitly acknowledged those possibilities in San Francisco by huddling with DNC members who no longer have first ballot votes at the nominating convention, but would have votes in second or later ballots if they’re necessary to pick a nominee.
Perez remains nonplussed by the criticism or the hypotheticals, saying he wants voters to “date early, date often.”
Another reminder from Pelosi: Republicans had a messy, divisive primary, too, in 2016, and still won the presidency. “We’re Democrats,” she said, “so we know there’ll be drama.”