A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by the Monitor's politics editors.

Expanding Democratic field reflects jitters over Trump – and the unknown

Why We Wrote This

Deval Patrick’s last-minute entry may say less about other 2020 contenders than about President Trump’s potential ability to expand the electorate.

Charles Krupa/AP
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick files to have his name listed as a Democratic candidate for president on the New Hampshire primary ballot, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, in Concord, N.H.

Dear reader:

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, two State Department officials spoke publicly about President Donald Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son – testimony Democrats clearly believe was damaging to the president.

Yet if you look at what’s happening right now in the 2020 campaign, Democrats don’t seem at all confident they’re going to beat him.

Today, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced he’s entering the race. Last week, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signaled he may also get in. There have been rumors about former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder. Even Hillary Clinton recently offered up something conspicuously coyer than a “no.”

The common explanation for this last-minute flurry of would-be contenders is that many Democrats see the current field as weak: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are too far left to win a general election, the thinking goes; Mr. Biden has been an unsteady performer in debates and on the stump; South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is too young and inexperienced.

But late entries almost never succeed. And Democrats’ nervousness may have less to do with their own candidates’ flaws than with a fear of Mr. Trump – and the unknown.

While the president has energized Democratic voters and appears to have pushed many Republicans in the suburbs into the Democratic column, there are also signs he could expand his own vote total in 2020. The question is by how much.

In a piece last month from Wisconsin – a state the Clinton campaign was confident it would win, but which went narrowly went for Mr. Trump in 2016 – Bloomberg’s Francis Wilkinson wrote: “Some Democrats fear that Trump has the equivalent of reserve troops — non-college-educated white males who didn’t vote in 2016 but who, after four years of Trump’s domination of media, political culture and the very oxygen we all breathe, might turn out in 2020.”

Likewise, The New York Times’s Nate Cohn notes that recent polling from battleground states suggests “there are plenty of people who haven’t voted recently who support the president. And those people seem fairly likely to vote.”

If 2016 taught Democrats anything, it’s that they don’t know what they don’t know. The electorate in 2020 may look like it did in 2016 – or it may look markedly different. And that’s hard to plan for.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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