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A tale of two parties and their very different fields of candidates

Have you noticed that the two parties’ fields of presidential candidates have, in the past two cycles, grown much larger (if not necessarily better in quality) than those of past years? Where parties once had two to five serious candidates to choose from, Republicans in 2016 had 17 and, by my…

A tale of two parties and their very different fields of candidates
A tale of two parties and their very different fields of candidates

Have you noticed that the two parties’ fields of presidential candidates have, in the past two cycles, grown much larger (if not necessarily better in quality) than those of past years? Where parties once had two to five serious candidates to choose from, Republicans in 2016 had 17 and, by my count, Democrats this cycle have had 26.

That’s a lot for a party that had ended up holding no nomination contests at all in 1996 and 2012 and with only two serious candidates in 2000, 2008, and 2016, when no incumbent was running. Apparently, many Democratic politicos reasoned that if an oddball such as Donald Trump can get elected, why can’t she or he?

In any case, the two parties, in line with long-standing differences in their basic character, generated quite different fields of candidates in their turns.

The 16 Republicans who lost their party’s nomination to Trump were heavily tilted toward governors and large constituencies. They included 10 current or former governors, only four incumbent or former U.S. senators, and no incumbent congressmen (although four had served in the House). Only three of them — 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, and New York), where they had won a total of 12 statewide elections — three in purple Florida. The smallest state where any of them had run was Arkansas, which ranks 33rd out of 50.

Six of the candidates came from politically marginal states and four from heavily Democratic states; only six were 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 2019-2020 Democratic candidates. Of the 26 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, and 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. They may both be bogged down next year in a Senate impeachment trial.

The two most noticeable things 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 Montana, with its three electoral votes.

Seven of the Democratic candidates are current U.S. senators. Two are former senators: Joe Biden, elected from 1972 to 2008 in tiny Delaware, and dropout Mike Gravel, elected in 1968 and 1974 in Alaska. Another seven were or are members of the House.

Much of these candidates’ service came when Republicans were in the majority. That 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 busing to bankruptcy, rubs many contemporary Democrats the wrong way.

Four 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. Julián Castro, part-time mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and Wayne Messam, mayor of Miami suburb Miramar, Florida, haven’t done much better. Only Pete Buttigieg, from tiny (101,860) South Bend, Indiana, seems like a possible contender.

Three Democratic private-sector types from California are running: hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, Silicon Valley denizen Andrew Yang, and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson. They may yet strike a chord in the primaries, but none of them looks well positioned to win back the blue-collar Midwesterners who spurned Hillary Clinton for 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 during the Obama years.