I know some readers will genuinely insist that late August is too early to write obituaries for ongoing presidential campaigns, but most of these candidates have been running since January and February. (John Delaney announced he was running in 2017.) We’ve had nine to ten hours of prime-time nationally televised debates, copious amounts of ink have been spilled in profiles and interviews, and the candidates have chatted with Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres and the rest. Time magazine covers have featured Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg, as well as a drawing of the entire field. Democrats are not going to suddenly discover the charms of Tim Ryan, Michael Bennet, or Bill de Blasio.
Buttigieg is probably not going to be the Democratic nominee. He insists he’s not running to build up name recognition for another run in the future, but that may be the effect anyway. He’s one of the few little-known candidates to come anywhere close to the top tier, he’s raised gobs upon gobs of money, and has been mostly smooth on the debate stage. And he’s got the time. If he decides to run again when he is Biden’s age, he will be running in the presidential election of the year 2056.
For some candidates, the 2020 election cycle is probably the last time we’ll see them on the national stage. Candidates who crashed and burned this cycle are probably going to be greeted with skepticism if they express interest in running again in future cycles. It’s hard to imagine four to eight years from now, Democrats saying, “boy, we could really use a candidate like John Hickenlooper.”
Probably the most interesting flameout is Kirsten Gillibrand, whose campaign is now being labeled “performative and obnoxious” by former staffers. It was really not that long ago that Gillibrand was being profiled as a serious, top-tier candidate in publications like Politico (“Her moment has arrived”), GQ (“the most fearsome contender”), The New Yorker (“the new face of moral reform”) and Vogue (“she’s got newfound street cred among lefties and progressives”).
As Tiana Lowe observed, Gillibrand’s RealClearPolitics polling average is half that of Marianne Williamson’s.
When Gillibrand calls it quits, there will be no shortage of reasons why. Her debate performances have certainly been cloying and clumsy, pledging to explain white privilege to white women, and implausibly arguing Joe Biden opposes women working outside the home. Perhaps the epic disappointment to Hillary Clinton made Democrats wary about another female New York senator. You could argue that her persona was the worst possible combination for Democratic primary voters who craved authenticity and had an appetite for populism: a former $500,000-per-year lawyer with clients like Phillip Morris, who opposed gay marriage until 2009, previously was sufficiently pro-gun to score a 93 from the NRA, previously opposed amnesty, and who supported deputizing local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws. Her one indisputably brave political stance, pushing for the resignation of former senator Al Franken, alienated some Democratic donors.
But when Gillibrand 2020 ends, it’s probably the end of her presidential ambitions for a long while. How likely is it that four years from now, eight years from now, or twelve years from now, Democrats are clamoring for Gillibrand to give it another shot?