If youâ€™re a political news addict, you probably can impress your friends by reeling off a list of Democratic candidates for president. (Andrew Yang! Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii!) Well, get ready for a new batch of contenders.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, threw his hat into the ring this past week. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif,) is expected to announce as early as Monday. Former Vice President Joe Biden looks ready to jump in. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has teased a formal start to his campaign on April 14.
With the exception of Biden and maybe Buttigieg, a lot of voters are going to be asking: Who? What are these guys trying to prove?
Maybe the new newcomers see Buttigiegâ€™s success and figure they can be the new underdog. Some might see Biden as slightly wounded by the reminder of his aversion to personal space and figure a moderate white male is what the race now calls out for. Possibly, they are just bored.
In any event, Bidenâ€™s entry will matter greatly, but the rest? Almost certainly not. There is already a gaggle of candidates whoâ€™ve been running for a while who are yet to hit 1 percent and others who havenâ€™t cleared the fundraising threshold (65,000 donors, with at least 200 in at least 20 states) to qualify for the first fair of debates in late June. There is a good chance neither Ryan nor Swalwell would qualify for the first debate and thereby be further handicapped in raising money and drawing free media attention.
As the number of candidates passes 20, many voters will see an undifferentiated blob of minor characters. The race may already have used up its quota of unknowns to break out (Buttigieg). Iâ€™d argue that the more candidates who get in, the harder for the candidates just a notch above the 1 percent threshold (e.g., Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker) and the ones right at 1 percent (e.g., Yang, Rep. Julian Castro, John Hickenlooper) to move up. None of these candidates is likely to drain off much support from those at the top, which for now consist of Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Beto Oâ€™Rourke, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, and, yes, Buttigieg.We should remember a few key facts. First, the vast majority of Democrats arenâ€™t paying much attention. Buttigieg is still largely unknown to a large percentage of voters. When they do start to pay attention, theyâ€™re likely to be drawn to the big names. Itâ€™s very possible some of these candidates will be gone before a lot of voters know who they are.
Second, we have yet to determine if Sanders is operating on name recognition and an online fundraising machine, or whether he has a following that is as equally enthusiastic as his 2016 supporters. Whatâ€™s clear, however, is that heâ€™s making no effort to attract more moderate voters. Heâ€™s essentially leaving large swaths of voters (moderates in the Midwest, for example) to other candidates. It is also inevitable that coverage of him will become more critical. He is already receiving flak for not putting out his taxes, which he promised to do nearly five weeks ago.
Third, if we learned anything in the past week, it is that Biden is no slam dunk. He has virtually 100 percent name ID, the highest favorable/unfavorable spread of any of the contenders and the most experience by far of anyone running. Nevertheless, questions about whether Biden is, if not too old, then, too old-fashioned, are going to persist. He may hit the ground running and never look back. Conversely, we can see how he might falter in a debate (simply by not â€świnning,â€ť he gives hope to those behind him in the polls) or out on the trail. If he were to wipe out, thereâ€™s no telling where his supporters would go. (Polls suggest theyâ€™d land with Sanders, but that may simply reflect name ID.)
Finally, there is only one possible candidate who might enter the race and shake things up: Stacey Abrams. Rumors starting flying about a ticket when she had lunch with Biden. Her book tour has rekindled excitement about her. She says she could decide as late as September. That initially sounded far-fetched, but by then, half of the crowd of candidates may have fallen by the wayside. And unlike the endless parade of white guys with no national profile, people will know exactly who she is, if and when she gets in.
In short, the field grows bigger by the week, but the circle of realistic contenders may be shrinking. The big question remains how Biden will perform.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.