Is the 2020 Democratic field too crowded for Beto O'Rourke?
Can he break through?
Beto O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman, is running for president. The announcement comes after a period of introspective road-tripping and political dithering that brings him into the race as an unexpected combination of Jack Kerouac and Mario Cuomo, but without either's accomplishments. I'm still not sure I get Beto's appeal: As a confirmed Generation X-er myself, I still prefer my beautiful losers fronting rock bands instead of churning out policy papers and attack ads. You get the feeling sometimes that Beto does, too.
He took so long to decide to run for president — waiting a few months instead of striking while the iron was hot after the 2018 midterm elections — that some observers are asking if he's joining the Democratic field much too late. With other possible contenders, like Joe Biden, still mulling their chances, and with the Iowa caucuses still nearly 11 months away, it seems likely that his timing is fine.
But there's no doubt O'Rourke is joining a crowded field. The real question isn't if he's too late — but if he's too many.
Already, there are more than a dozen Democrats running for president in 2020, from relatively well-known politicos like Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) to unexpected upstarts like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and out-of-left-field participants like self-help guru Marianne Williamson. The stage is going to be crowded when debates start later this year, and that has some observers fretting that such a large field will make it more difficult to challenge President Trump.
One proponent of this view is Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight blogger and statistician, who wrote last month that the size of the field "ought to worry establishment Democrats."
"Democratic voters like a lot of their choices and feel optimistic about their chances of beating Trump in 2020," he wrote, but added: "The large field is both a sign that there may not be consensus about the best candidate and a source of unpredictability."
To use the most obvious counterexample: The 2016 Republican primary field was comically overstuffed — 17 candidates in all — to the point where one of the early debates had to be split in two; there was simply no reasonable way to get everybody on stage. Whatever else you think about the process that produced Trump as the nominee, he did win the general election.
If that's a bad sign to you, remember this: Democrats are almost always worried about too much democracy in the primaries.
In 2008, for example, the primaries went the distance between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — into June of that year — with Clinton refusing to surrender even after it became apparent that Obama had clinched the necessary number of delegates to win the nomination. As early as March, the Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean, was fretting that an extended contest between the two would "demoralize the base" and hurt the party's chances to take the White House.
Obama won the presidency in a landslide.
In 2016, the process repeated itself almost exactly: As Clinton clinched the nomination that year, pressure incresed for Sanders to end his run. He resisted.
"I don't think they think of the downside of this," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said of Sanders at the time. "It's actually harmful because [Clinton] can't make that general-election pivot the way she should. Trump has made that pivot."
Clinton did make the pivot. She isn't president, it's true. But she did win the popular vote. Her failure to win the electoral college probably didn't have much to do with battling Sanders into June — there were plenty of other factors that contributed.
Here is how this year is similar to those races: Because there are so many candidates, Democrats fear the party won't be able to settle on a nominee until late in the process and that an extended primary season might end up making it more difficult for Democratic voters to coalesce behind the eventual nominee. Those fears, though, have never quite borne fruit. There is no reason to think this year will be different.
Democrats have a real set of choices in front of them for 2020. John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor, would produce a much different presidency than Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), who would be different from Sanders or Warren or Booker or Kamala Harris (Calif.) or Amy Klobuchar (Minn.). As my colleague Ryan Cooper wrote in December: "There is no way out but through. Let's lace up and slug it out."
So bring on Beto. Bring on Biden. Bring 'em all on. The large number of candidates isn't an obstacle to winning in 2020 — it's a sign that the democratic process, even in these challenging days, still has some vitality. Let's let it do its work.