In 2016, when a slew of 17 Republicans sought the White House, the number seemed to push the boundaries of both plausibility and physical capacity.
In 2020, the Democratic field may be even larger.
If, as the saying goes, everyone in America has a shot at growing up to be president, Democrats may come close to testing that theory. It’s easier and more expeditious to list those who’ve flatly ruled out a run — among them New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — than those weighing, or at least publicly toying with, the idea of a 2020 bid.
The flood of potential contestants stems from a confluence of factors — some political, some practical and not all of them related to President Trump and his perceived vulnerability.
The nominating process, which changed drastically in the 1970s, encourages competition by taking power away from party leaders and giving it to voters, awarding delegates based on candidates’ popular appeal in caucuses and primaries, rather than loyalty or long-standing political ties.
It’s no longer possible to win the Democratic nomination, as Vice President Hubert Humphrey did in 1968, without competing in a single electoral contest. In 2016, more than 30 million votes were cast in the nominating fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
(With Clinton, a heavy front-runner the two times she ran, gone from the scene and no incumbent seeking reelection, the unfurling Democratic contest is arguably the most wide open in decades, offering would-be contenders further incentive to run.)
Other changes are more recent, such as the rise of social media, which has revolutionized and democratized — small d — fundraising and the means of campaigning. All it takes these days to reach a vast audience is a smartphone and reliable Internet service, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of the national media.
One of the biggest factors, though, is the current occupant of the White House.
Trump appears highly endangered, making the Democratic nomination especially worth having. He suffered a severe comeuppance in November’s midterm election, which was effectively a referendum on his first two years in office, and appears stuck in the dismal 40% approval range, far below the norm for a president experiencing today’s good economic times and a signal of political peril.
Trump also serves as an inspiration of sorts for any candidate who may suffer doubts or uncertainty about their presidential prospects. “People say, ‘If Donald Trump can get elected president, what am I, chopped liver?’ ” said Charlie Cook, who has tracked campaigns and elections for more than three decades for his nonpartisan political guide.
People say, ‘If Donald Trump can get elected president, what am I, chopped liver?’
In winning the White House, Trump took a sledgehammer to a number of perceived verities. He was elected president despite having no government experience, no military background, being vastly outspent by his Democratic rival and running a seat-of-the-pants campaign that seemed driven more by impulse than any well thought out strategy.
But it’s not just Trump who changed the long-standing rules of presidential politicking. Barack Obama was barely two years removed from the Illinois Legislature, serving his freshman term as U.S. senator, when he launched his winning 2008 bid. It was proof, well before his successor, that a long and deep political resume was not only superfluous but, among voters hungry for change, an actual disadvantage.
After electing presidents like George H.W. Bush, who boasted an exhaustive government resume, and Bill Clinton, who served more than a decade as Arkansas governor, “It looks like the American people want people they can relate to instantly, regardless of experience,” said Ken Duberstein, who served as chief of staff under President Reagan and counseled a number of GOP White House hopefuls.
Every election, of course, is different. After Trump, voters may crave the Washington know-how and political longevity of an old hand like, say, former Vice President Joe Biden, or the sleeves-rolled-up experience of Michael R. Bloomberg, a media mogul and former three-term New York mayor. Both are weighing a 2020 bid.
But the success of Obama and Trump is, at the least, reassuring to any number of prospective candidates seeking to buck history — no mayor, for instance, has ever gone straight from City Hall to the White House — or make the leap from relative obscurity to the presidency, a feat that takes in a very long list of Democratic prospects, among them South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
Modern technology has changed just about everything in the world: how people shop, vacation, hail a ride. The same applies to seeking the nation’s highest political office.
No longer beholden to a handful of rich donors to bless their aspirations or a network of contacts gathered over a lifetime collecting IOUs, presidential candidates can build a financial juggernaut — or at least collect enough cash to compete in the key early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire — by establishing a fundraising page and sharing their Web address. Sanders, who began his campaign as a seeming lark, raised more than a quarter of a billion dollars, much if it from supporters chipping in $200 or less.
Beto O’Rourke, whose 2018 Senate bid in deeply red Texas initially seemed far-fetched, raised $80 million in his unsuccessful effort to oust GOP incumbent Ted Cruz. More importantly, his perpetual campaign live-stream — which captured O’Rourke doing laundry, skateboarding through a Whataburger parking lot and, yes, discussing issues — turned the former El Paso congressman into a national political phenomenon.
Some polls even peg him as a top contender for the nomination, should he declare his candidacy. (The political exhibitionism, meantime, continues as O’Rourke ponders the race; last week he shared on Instagram a trip to the dental hygienist.)
Even if he doesn’t run, there will be no lack of alternatives.