The bottom is falling out of the Democratic presidential primary. And the top tier — no longer five candidates, but three — is becoming more insurmountable.
For more than a year, Democrats had approached their nominating contest with a widely shared belief that — like Republicans in the earliest stages of their primary four years ago — they might take turns rising and falling in an expansive field. That expectation sustained the campaigns of more than two dozen contenders.
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But in recent weeks, the leading band of candidates has contracted unexpectedly early. Heading into the fall, only three contenders are polling above single digits: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg remain at the periphery, while lower-polling candidates have largely failed to muster sustained, upward movement in fundraising or polling.
According to interviews with about two dozen Democratic operatives and consultants, there is little reason to expect that to change.
“It was legitimate to say ‘Top 5’ for a long time, but with the exception of Kamala Harris being at the outer perimeter of the top three … you’d have to have a strange confluence of events for someone outside those four to win,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime Hillary Clinton confidant. “It would require all four failing. Like, you would need all four of them to be in a plane crash or something.”
For every other candidate, Reines said, “It’s too late in the game to keep saying it’s too early.”
By this point in the Republican primary in 2016, Jeb Bush was already cratering. Scott Walker had risen and fallen. Donald Trump was in first, still to fend off a surge from Ben Carson before running away from the field.
The 2020 Democratic primary, by contrast, has been defined by its relative stability, with two full fundraising periods and two sets of debates now done.
Anna Greenberg, a pollster who advised former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s since-aborted presidential bid, said there was no boom and bust for Democrats because the primary “started so early, before voters really started paying attention” and because of “the sheer volume of candidates.”
“It’s a little bit surprising because compared to ‘16 on the Republican side, where it seemed like a number of people had their moment in the sun … there hasn’t really been anybody who’s taken a meteoric rise,” said Scott Brennan, an Iowa Democratic National Committee member and former state party chairman.
Brennan said he's spoken with several campaigns recently whose advisers “feel like they’re poised and ready — they’re poised and they're waiting for their moment.”
But “for whatever reason," he said, "they haven’t had that.”
In a spate of campaigning over the holiday weekend, Amy Klobuchar released a plan to address climate change, Sanders previewed his plan to cancel Americans’ medical debt and Beto O’Rourke reiterated his call for stricter gun laws, telling CNN of the nation's recent mass shootings, “Yes, this is f----- up.”
On Labor Day, the candidates fanned out across the country, with Biden heading to Iowa, Warren to New Hampshire, Cory Booker to Nevada and Harris to California. The activity came on the heels of several candidates dropping out after failing to get traction — and speculation about more to follow — reinforcing the advantage held by the front-runners.
Last week, Kirsten Gillibrand became the latest campaign casualty, a week after Jay Inslee abandoned his effort. With five months before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, six candidates have already dropped out.
Democratic strategist Matthew Litman, a former speechwriter for Biden who backs Harris, described the field as "mostly settled" among five candidates, including Harris and Buttigieg in that group. Unlike in 2016, when many Republicans were wary of, if not opposed to, Trump, Democrats are “mostly satisfied” with the range of ideologies and experiences represented by the top tier, he said.
“The other candidates are SOL, and it has been that way for a couple of months,” Litman said.
For Biden, Sanders and Warren, the advancing calendar appears likely to compound their advantage, as early fundraising success and staff hiring allows them to begin advertising and intensify voter outreach.
The debates have contributed to the early winnowing of candidates. Lower-tier candidates can barely focus on anything other than meeting the Democratic National Committee’s increasingly arduous fundraising and polling benchmarks for debates.
“In a weird way, because of the format of these debates and what it took to deal with the debates, only recently has anyone started spending any significant money in the early states," said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster. "So, there wasn’t any reason why there would be significant [poll movement] … until now. And now, we’ll see.”
He said, “Really, the 1 percenters and below, they were the ones who really suffered. No one really told them, ‘Hey, you’re in a race where it’s impossible for you to grow at all. There is no room.'”
After failing to make the next debate, in Houston, Tim Ryan and John Delaney were compelled to release statements confirming they are still running. Michael Bennet shredded the DNC onstage at its summer meeting, while Steve Bullock defiantly released a new round of staff hires. Campaign aides for both said they’d redouble their efforts in Iowa.
“The rules became a proxy for success at a moment when campaigns were just getting started,” Bennet said in an interview with POLITICO. “The DNC is only interested in well-known candidates running.”
Even for candidates who have made the debates, their turns on the national stage haven't sparked enduring swings in the campaign. As a result, they've spent recent weeks spinning their position in the polls.
“Which is more unlikely – 1) going from being a complete unknown to 6th in the polls or 2) going from 6th in the polls to winning the whole thing?” tweeted Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who's enjoyed improbable success in the Democratic presidential primary but is still running at 2 percent in the latest Morning Consult poll.
Hickenlooper, Inslee and Gillibrand all participated in previous debates before dropping out. Julián Castro sparked interest with his chiding of O’Rourke, a fellow Texan, in the first set of debates, in June. And Harris surged in public opinion polls when she criticized Biden for his past opposition to busing and his former associations with segregationist senators.
But for both candidates, the effect was short-lived. Harris is now back at 8 percent, according to the latest Morning Consult survey. Castro is stuck at 1 percent.
“It’s just that they happened so quickly,” said Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist. “Trump has changed the timeline. Scandal doesn’t last. Problems don’t last. Success doesn’t last. Everything’s a little more vaporized in this time frame.”
The progressive wing of the party already has two viable candidates in Sanders and Warren. For more moderate Democrats, only a Biden implosion is likely to create room for advancement.
“Somebody like Buttigieg or Harris, at this moment, they can only succeed with a Biden collapse,” Herman said. “They have an if-then strategy. They are not in control of their destiny.”
More movement will also require candidates to adopt a change in tone, said Tom McMahon, a former DNC executive director.
“Everyone — both in the top tier and among the also-rans — have to start developing when and how they’re going to go negative,” he said. “Otherwise, this race is going to continue to remain status quo.”
It is possible the dynamic will shift. Former Iowa Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, who briefly ran for president in 2008, said that even in Iowa, “most people, other than those who are ultrainterested, and ultrafocused, most people are not paying attention to this at all.”
“It’s still an open game here,” he said.
He added, “Having said that, the folks who are at the bottom end of the spectrum here have got to have their moment relatively soon, and here’s why: Because Warren, Sanders and Biden and Mayor Pete have a foundation of fundraising that’s going to continue to pump money into their campaigns.”
Of other candidates, Vilsack said, “They’ve got to move now, but there’s still time for them to move.”