Jun 2, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The unruly Democratic field

Illustration of a pile of donkeys

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The number of Democrats running for president is just too damn high. And that's causing problems for the candidates and the Democratic Party.

The big picture: Voters have never had this many options to choose from in a presidential primary, so the national party is doing its part to narrow the field — and getting hammered for it — while the candidates are being forced to get creative to stand out.

  • And if some of their fundraising pitches are sounding more desperate, that's because they are.

Driving the news: There are only so many candidates you can fit on a stage. So the Democratic National Committee has announced new rules for candidates to qualify for the September debates, which double the current requirements set for the summer debates.

  • There's still room for up to 20 candidates to participate (10 per night), but given the number of candidates who struggled to make the first threshold, expect the fall debate stage to be even thinner.

"The Democratic primary process is designed so that you don’t have 22 people in the race in June of an election year," said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist and former director of strategic communications for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

  • Because of the unusually large field, "candidates have to do more with less," she added. Staffing is one example — there are only so many people to go around to 24 Democratic campaigns.
  • At this point in 2015, Elrod said, Clinton's campaign had 20 communications staffers at her national headquarters. For comparison, Kamala Harris currently has 6 people.

Candidates are fighting for donations, and their emails are sounding more urgent. An email from Beto O'Rourke's campaign last month professed to "leveling with you" about how "lately our fundraising has slowed down."

  • A recent fundraising email from Kirsten Gillibrand's campaign called her the "underdog in this race right now."
  • And some of the party's biggest donors are split between candidates. Susie Buell is a major Democratic bundler who endorsed Harris early on, but hosted a fundraiser for Pete Buttigieg in April.

Standing out in a crowded field is tough, especially if you were virtually unknown when you entered the race.

Earning name recognition won't be easy when there are so many candidates. Wisconsin swing voters in an Engagious/FPG focus group, for example, knew AOC better than most of the 2020 Dems.

Yes, but: Voters don't seem too fazed by having 24 Democrats to choose from in 2020. A recent Fox News poll found that voter excitement is already at 2016 Election Day levels.

The bottom line: Voters have the biggest and most diverse field in history, but that probably won't last long.

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