Have you noticed that the two parties’ fields of presidential candidates have, in the past two election cycles, grown enormously larger than (if not necessarily superior to) those in past years? Where parties used to have two to five serious candidates to choose from, Republicans had 17 in 2016, and, by my count, Democrats this cycle have had 27.
Twenty-seven is a lot for a party that ended up holding no nomination contests in 1996 and 2012 and had only two serious candidates in 2000, 2008 and 2016, when no incumbent was running. Apparently, many Democratic politicos reasoned that if an oddball like Donald Trump can get elected, why can’t they?
In any case, the two parties, in line with longstanding differences in their basic character, generated quite different fields of candidates.
The 16 Republicans who lost their party’s nomination to Donald Trump were heavily tilted toward governors and large constituencies. They included nine current or former governors, only five incumbent or former U.S. senators, and no incumbent congressmen (though four had served in the House). Just three — Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — had never won public office.
Statewide Republican victories during the Obama presidency, in 2010, 2012 and 2014, had generated many Republican winners who were plausible national candidates. Six of these 16 Republicans came from the four most populous states (California, Texas, Florida, New York), where they had won a total of 12 statewide elections, three in hypermarginal Florida. The smallest state where any of them had run was Arkansas, which ranks 33 out of 50 in population.
Six of these candidates came from politically marginal states and four from heavily Democratic states. Only six hailed from safe Republican states. This was a group of candidates seasoned in competitive general elections in large constituencies.
That’s a vivid contrast with the group of 2019-20 Democratic candidates. Of the 27 current or former candidates I’ve counted, only four come from “purple” states that have been marginal in recent presidential elections. One, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, has dropped out to run for the Senate. Another, former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, looks like a long shot. Conservative columnist George Will hopes that the two others, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, will become top-tier competitors, but so far, Democratic primary voters haven’t taken his wise advice — and they may be bogged down next year in a Senate impeachment trial.
The most noticeable thing about the Democratic field is that it’s heavily weighted toward those with congressional service who were elected from safe Democratic (and, in some cases, tiny) states. Only three served as governors: Hickenlooper and Washington’s Jay Inslee, who have already dropped out, and Steve Bullock of (3 electoral vote) Montana.
Seven of the Democratic candidates are current U.S. senators, and two are former senators: Joe Biden, who served from 1972 to 2008 in tiny Delaware, and dropout Mike Gravel, elected in 1968 and 1974 in Alaska. Another seven have served or serve in the House.
Much of these candidates’ service came when Republicans were in the majority, which makes it hard for a Democrat, especially in the House, to compile a distinguished or even distinctive legislative record. I think it’s fair to say that none of them has done so, with the conspicuous exception of Biden. Democrats held majorities during most of his Senate years, but his substantive record on past issues, from school busing to bankruptcy, rubs many contemporary Democrats the wrong way.
Six Democratic candidates are current or former mayors. The one from the biggest city, New York’s Bill de Blasio, dropped out after getting zero support. Julian Castro, former (part-time) mayor of San Antonio, and Wayne Messam, mayor of Miami suburb Miramar, haven’t done much better. Only Mayor Pete Buttigieg, from tiny (population 101,860) South Bend, Indiana, seems like a possible contender.
Three Democratic private sector types from California are running — billionaire former hedge fund executive Tom Steyer, Silicon Valley denizen Andrew Yang and motivational speaker Marian Williamson — and may strike a chord in the primaries. But none of them look well-positioned to win back the blue-collar Midwesterners who spurned Hillary Clinton for Donald Trump.
The 2016 Republican field was full of candidates who showed they could win tough general elections but weren’t so tested in Republican primaries. Most 2020 Democrats have a different problem: minimal vote-getting experience beyond the Democratic cocoon of densely packed central cities, sympathetic suburbs and university towns. It’s a predictable problem for a party that didn’t win many offices beyond that cocoon in the Obama years.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.