As mentioned on the Three Martini Lunch podcast and elsewhere, a lot of not-so-well-known Democrats are getting louder about running for president in 2020. Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder said on Stephen Colbert’s program that he’s thinking about it, and Ohio congressman Tim Ryan is reportedly gearing up for a bid, counting on, er, “the yoga vote.” Stormy Daniels’s lawyer, Michael Avanetti, insists he’s serious about a run.
There’s an “early start” incentive for any Democrat thinking about running, as the first big-name Democrat to announce a presidential bid — sorry, John Delany, I said big-name — will get quite a bit more coverage than the sixth, seventh, and eighth ones. The more crowded the field gets, the tougher it will be to stand out — and good luck getting headlines for your five-point plan to fix America’s schools when President Trump is tweeting something outrageous every day, and someone like Avanetti is lobbing bombshells from cable-news studios.
The 2020 campaign is likely to start sooner than ever — probably right after the midterm elections. This could generate some really short-lived and forgettable campaigns. Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack announced he was running for president on November 30, 2006. His campaign ran out of money and he departed the race on . . . February 23, 2007.
Debates and candidate forums will take forever with a dozen candidates or more, so each candidate will be given less time, making the campaign even more challenging for the lesser-known competitors. Candidates will be more desperate than ever for “earned media” — basically trying a variation of the Trump 2016 playbook, with provocative statements and stunts. Democrats will focus most of their fury at Trump and his administration, but you’ll hear a lot of accusations about rivals who “failed to stand up to Trump when it counted.” To win a larger share of the primary vote, a candidate has to stand out; to stand out, he has to draw a contrast with his rivals, and that almost always means going negative.
Unfortunately for the major parties, there’s very little they can do to prevent candidates from running, other than nudge the states to raise the number of signatures needed to appear on the ballot. (Some gadflies, who know they have no chance and who are really hoping for a TV gig, might not even bother with the paperwork.) After Bernie Sanders’s experience in 2016, many members of the party grassroots distrust the Democratic National Committee, so the DNC will have a limited ability to play referee. You’ll hear a lot of the long-shot candidates claim that the party establishment is trying to shut them down.
Cable and network news will have to face tough questions on how they cover the race, and whether they’re being fair. (Spoiler alert, they won’t be that fair.) You’ll probably see 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. debates again — with lesser-known candidates stuck in the “not ready for prime time” category.
All of these factors add up to a long, crowded, and nasty primary that turns into the political equivalent of a demolition derby. This may or may not be a factor in President Trump’s reelection chances; the odds are good that the vast majority of Democrats will prefer the party’s nominee over another four years of Trump.