The number of Democrats running for president is growing as the first votes of the primary approach. And voters have a clear message: stop.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick roiled the race last week by launching a surprise bid. New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg is likely to do the same in the coming days.
The late entries, less than 80 days before Iowa's kickoff caucuses, have exposed a fresh gulf in a party already plagued by divisions. On one side: anxious establishment leaders and donors, who are increasingly concerned about the direction of the race and welcome new candidates. On the other: many rank-and-file voters and local officials across early voting Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, who are drowning in candidates and say they're more than satisfied with their current options.
“They need to sit down. We've got enough Democrats running,” said Debra Tyus, a 63-year-old Democrat from Walterboro, South Carolina.
In New Hampshire, 75-year-old undecided Democrat Thea Lahti said it's “awfully late” in the process and fears that adding more candidates is “further splintering the field.”
And in Iowa, state Rep. Jennifer Konfrst said she hasn't spoken to a single Democrat who felt the current field wasn't good enough.
“The more common refrain revolves around having too many great candidates already,” said Konfrst, a first-term lawmaker who's backing Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. “I struggle to see what more candidates bring to the conversation that isn't already here.”
Before Patrick's announcement, at least 16 high-profile Democrats were running for president. The field spans multiple generations, racial backgrounds, political ideologies and levels of experience.
There are still so many candidates, in fact, that they can't all debate together. The Democratic National Committee implemented a system of rising donor and polling thresholds to make the numbers manageable, although last month's debate featured 12 candidates, and a group of 10 will share the stage this week.
Despite the extraordinary options, establishment-minded Democrats have become increasingly concerned about the direction of the race, seizing on what they see as former Vice President Joe Biden's lackluster candidacy and fears that leading progressives Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are too liberal.
Underlying their concerns is an almost desperate urgency shared by much of the Democratic Party to find a surefire nominee to deny Trump a second term. After almost a year of campaigning, virtually all the candidates face lingering questions about their political liabilities.
Former President Barack Obama sought to calm establishment anxiety at a weekend donor conference when he reminded attendees of his own turbulent primary battle against Hillary Clinton in 2008. Yet he also seemed to reinforce concerns about the more liberal candidates in the race, warning that “the average American doesn't think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
Obama and Patrick have long been friends. They spoke privately in the days before the former Massachusetts governor launched, just as Obama did with several other candidates earlier in the year. Far from dissuading Patrick from running, the former president shared “great insights about his own experiences and about his experience with some of the other candidates and what he thought the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign, of my campaign, might be,'' Patrick said late last week.
Patrick campaign manager Abe Rakov insisted that deep uncertainty across the electorate and the absence of clear front-runners creates an opening for new candidates.
“When we're at this point in the process and voters still haven't made up their minds, there's an opportunity for someone with a different story and a different background to come in and make their case,” said Rakov, who most recently worked for Beto O'Rourke's failed presidential campaign. “If it was obvious this was a two-person race, it probably would be too late for someone to get in. But it's not. This is a wide-open race.”
Having launched his campaign in New Hampshire late last week, Patrick is scheduled to make his inaugural Iowa appearance on Monday, followed by a Tuesday appearance in South Carolina.
A Bloomberg announcement is expected this week as well.
Should he run, the former New York mayor is planning to bypass the early states altogether and focus instead on the group of so-called Super Tuesday states holding primary contests on the first Tuesday in March. While Patrick may struggle to raise the resources to launch a robust multistate effort in the short term, Bloomberg has a net worth of more than $50 billion, and he's expressed a willingness to spend whatever's necessary to win.
Bloomberg senior adviser Howard Wolfson said he's aware that many voters and early state officials are pushing back against new candidates.
“I hear it, I respect it, but we do not believe that the current field is particularly well-positioned to take on Donald Trump in November, and we do believe that Mike would be the best candidate to do that,” Wolfson said. “There will be a burden on us to convince people of that. And that is not a burden that we will likely be successful in overcoming on Day 1, but certainly it's one in which we hope to be successful in overcoming as the possible campaign commences.”
As Wolfson notes, persuading voters to welcome new faces to a race already bursting with high-profile Democrats will not be easy.
In July, the Pew Research Center found that roughly two-thirds of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters had an excellent or good impression of the Democratic presidential candidates as a group. That's dramatically higher than ahead of the 2016 presidential primary between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, when only about half of Democrats had a positive impression of the field.
Voters' level of satisfaction actually increased earlier in the month, according to a Monmouth University poll, which found that 74% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters were satisfied with the field; just 16% said they would like someone else to run.
Still, establishment-minded donors have become increasingly worried about their party's top-tier candidates.
Robert Zimmerman, a New York-based donor and member of the Democratic National Committee, said that cocktail parties have essentially turned into therapy sessions for nervous Democrats in recent weeks. He noted, however, that most voters on the ground where it matters most are pleased with the current field.
“We need more Democrats in the field like Tom Brady needs more Super Bowl rings,” said Zimmerman, a fan of the lowly New York Jets.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler, who is based in South Carolina, worries that the sheer number of candidates still in the race will allow a less-than-desirable nominee to emerge, much in the same way Trump captured the GOP nomination in 2016 because the more experienced candidates sliced up the establishment vote.
“We've got too many candidates,” he said. “No more.”
That's not to say that all primary voters are completely closed off. While polls show that most are satisfied with the current field, they also suggest that most voters haven't yet settled on one candidate.
In New Hampshire, 65-year-old independent Carol Maraldo said that the 2020 primary is already confusing because it's so crowded.
“Adding more people adds to the confusion,” she said, even as she entertained the possibility of a new candidate. If it's “somebody that would be that perfect person, I'd be all for it.”