Whenever someone releases a poll about the Democratic presidential primary, like Emerson’s poll of Wisconsin voters out today, someone quickly offers the caveat that we’re still early in the primary process. The man who leads most of the polls, former vice president Joe Biden, hasn’t officially announced he’s running yet, although he’s dropped several clear hints that he will run. Current polling in both the early primary states and nationally generally shows Biden ahead, Bernie Sanders in second, Kamala Harris a distant third, and Elizabeth Warren in fourth, with the rest bunched up in the low single digits.
Yes, it’s early, but the polls might not look all that different in six months, or in eight months, or when Democrats start casting ballots in the primary.
If you look back at the 2016 Republican presidential primary in the RealClearPolitics average, every candidate started at about 15 percent or less. Trump launched his campaign in mid-June 2015, and by the end of July he was leading the pack with 20 percent. Ben Carson rose quickly in the summer and fall but tumbled rapidly as 2015 came to a close. Ted Cruz steadily rose, Marco Rubio was in the mix, and John Kasich spiked when only Trump and Cruz remained.
About two-thirds of the candidates in the field started at the bottom of the pack and remained there until they announced the suspension of their campaign. A bunch of candidates with traditionally impressive resumes, like governors Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal never got much traction. Experienced candidates like Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum never caught fire, either. In the crowded field and the two-tiered debate nights, a lot of candidates amounted to easily-forgotten also-rans.
The 2016 election teaches us that politics can be extremely unpredictable, but one big lesson was that in a crowded field, lesser-known and less-charismatic figures face enormous hurdles. Obscure Democrats are looking in the mirror and saying to themselves, “I could be the next Donald Trump.” Yes, but they are more likely to be the next Jim Gilmore.
How are these lesser-known candidates going to break through and get a lot more attention between now and the Iowa caucuses? Surely many are counting on the power of grassroots campaigning and getting earned media in the debates. A lot of these candidates are overestimating their ability to generate a memorable and persuasive movement on a debate spread out over two nights with, at minimum, fourteen candidates and perhaps as many as twenty.
The hard lesson of 2016 is that if the field is crowded, you have to build up your name identification and reputation among voters before you run for president, not during your campaign. (Liz Mair found that Donald Trump had 99.2 percent name recognition because he was the host on “The Apprentice.”) The problem with trying to build your name ID during a presidential campaign is that there are another half-dozen or so other Democratic politicians doing the same thing, probably in the same states and targeting the same demographics you are. And good luck standing out with your policies. You believe in universal health care? So does everyone else. You hate the very thought of Trump’s border wall? So does the rest of the field.
One of those candidates starting at the bottom with one percent of poll respondents and low name ID might defy the odds. But out of Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, John Hickenlooper, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee . . . most of them will not catch fire.