With the first debates and two quarters of fundraising behind them, strategists with the leading Democratic campaigns and party operatives are beginning to rethink the conventional narrative of the 2020 primary.
Gone is the expectation of a massive candidate pile-up when the early states begin voting, and a long, drawn-out primary. Few are worried anymore about the prospect of a brokered convention. Instead, the campaigns are revising their strategic outlooks to account for a field that is dramatically winnowed well before Iowa voters go to the caucuses — perhaps to as few as eight candidates on Feb. 3.
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By Super Tuesday, some expect between one and three candidates will be left standing.
“I’ve long believed it will winnow down substantially come Thanksgiving,” said Mike McCauley, a South Carolina-based strategist who worked on Barack Obama and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns. “I haven’t seen anybody to cause me to reconsider that. And if anybody is hanging on through Iowa outside the top six, we’re talking about a cabinet tryout or vanity.”
Interviews with more than a half-dozen campaigns — none of which would go on record — and with dozens of other operatives, party officials and activists reveal an expectation that the upcoming debate in July will set in motion the initial culling of the 23-candidate field. Candidates who fall flat on the stage a second time, or fail to get traction, will see their finances dry up and be forced to exit. Those who fail to make the September debate — when the criteria for entry will be even higher than the first two debates — will be the next to go as their campaigns are denied the necessary oxygen to survive.
Others are expected to retreat and prepare for reelection to their current elected positions after failing to gain traction by summer’s end.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, currently languishing near the bottom of polls, has said if he’s not in contention come December — California’s registration deadline to run for Congress — he’ll abandon his White House dreams and seek re-election to the House.
“Even if there are 12 [candidates still in the race in February] — the reality is there won’t be 12 that are really in the running come Iowa,” said Jed Ober, Hillary Clinton’s deputy director of delegate operations in 2016, whose colleagues have scattered to work on delegate strategy for the likes of Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke in the 2020 primary. “Max, it’s six or seven, and it comes down to fundraising by that point.”
The pressure on low-performing candidates to bow out is already bubbling up from the grassroots. Democratic voters have repeatedly signaled they’re tiring of the dizzyingly large field: Nearly three quarters of Democratic and independent left-leaning voters told a recent Hill-HarrisX poll that “too many” candidates are running for president.
The Iowa Poll, conducted last month for The Des Moines Register, CNN and Mediacom, found 47 percent saying they wished several candidates would drop out and another 27 percent saying they hoped that most of the candidates would relinquish their slim hopes.
The survey found that candidates clustered at the bottom of the polls — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Fla., — did not receive a single mention as anyone’s first or second choice. Seven more candidates in the Iowa Poll were rounded down to 0 percent, while another seven were at 1 percent in the critical first state.
John Hickenlooper’s senior team urged him in June to withdraw from the presidential race and run for Colorado’s Senate seat or pursue other opportunities, a reflection of the former governor’s sluggish fundraising and inability to make a dent in polls.
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who two years ago became the first Democrat to announce an official White House bid — and has spent considerable time and resources campaigning across Iowa — acknowledged in a recent interview that the presidential field going into the caucus won’t look anything like it does today.
When asked how many candidates he expected to be left standing on caucus day, Delaney put the number at “eight to 10” — and he included himself among them by asserting he would continue to self-finance his longshot bid.
Many campaign strategists and party officials believe that Super Tuesday will be the killing field for the remaining candidates who manage to make it through the gauntlet of early voting states — in part because of the exaggerated role California will play.
Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California, said of those who make it beyond the first four states, most “will never get a delegate.”
“No one who is not at the top of the polls can have an impact in 12, 15 states on the same day,” Mulholland said. “They’ll just get buried.”
In California, candidates must meet a 15 percent threshold for winning delegates both statewide and by district — something that is likely to hurt lesser-known or financially strapped campaigns in a state that’s expensive to campaign in. California’s proportional allocation is expected to divide delegates among a very limited number of candidates because there simply aren’t enough delegates per district for even those who meet the 15 percent threshold to win enough to matter.
“By South Carolina, we’re probably down to six candidates — and after Super Tuesday, probably down to one to three left,” said Matt Bennett, of the centrist think tank Third Way and a veteran of Wesley Clark’s 2004 campaign.
Even so, few campaign officials are willing to rule out the slim prospect of a contested convention. They’ve set their sights on two key dates to watch to ascertain whether the party can avoid such a scenario — Super Tuesday, and St. Patrick’s Day, when two big states will vote — Florida and Illinois.
“When you look at this on a very macro-level, the way that the delegate-selection rules are written and the way that delegates are elected, you’ve got so many different places that you can win delegates, but also so many places that you can stumble if you’re not organizing there,” said a Democratic presidential campaign official.
“You have to have reach. You have to be able to organize. You can’t just rely on the fact that you have name ID in a state.”
David Siders contributed to this report.