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The Early Presidential Candidates Have Wasted Their Time—and Ours

Beto O’Rourke is eager to relaunch his campaign. Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand have all but vanished. And has anyone heard from Cory Booker? An early and overeager bunch of Democrats have put the presidential race in sharp relief.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s too late to complain about the number of Democratic presidential candidates. It’s too late to complain about their early timing.

They’ve all got their immodest reasons for seeking the nomination, and the competitive overcrowding has forced so many candidates to launch their campaigns so preposterously early. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren went first, launching hers on New Year’s Eve. For a few months since she formed her “exploratory committee,” Warren struggled in polling comparisons with former vice president Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and former representative Beto O’Rourke, who didn’t even declare their respective candidacies until spring. O’Rourke, in particular, suffered some anxiety about whether he waited too long to declare his presidential candidacy; and by “too long,” the pundits meant mid-March. For whatever it’s worth, Biden waited until late April to launch his presidential campaign, and he’s now leading everyone else by deep double digits. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg launched his presidential campaign a month after O’Rourke and then ate O’Rourke’s lunch. Meanwhile, senators Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand—all winter entrants—seem to have disappeared.

Where has the time gone? What civic value have we extracted from the couple of dozen candidates so far? How have there been so many drastic narrative shifts with no real campaign activity and deeper significance behind them? In March, O’Rourke was a third-place insurgent. In May, O’Rourke is polling behind five candidates at 3 percent. In fairness, he might luck into major renewal as lesser candidates drop out of the race, new dynamics emerge, and fortunes reverse once again. Today, it’s only May. Of 2019.

There are too many Democrats running for president simultaneously, and their numbers obscure the basic dynamic, which is actually quite simple. The race isn’t Biden vs. everybody, and it’s not even Biden vs. Sanders, or neo-liberalism vs. socialism. For Democrats, the 2020 presidential primaries are a sweepstakes to determine who will most assuredly defeat Trump. It’s an open question that the candidates have barely even begun to address: Biden suggests an old-school liberalism pitched to nervous centrists who resent Trump, and Sanders suggests a passionate left-wing program pitched to disenchanted voters. The 22 other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination do not complicate the foundational contrast; they simply reinforce the Biden-vs.-Sanders distinction. O’Rourke, California Senator Kamala Harris, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg are Biden, but younger. Warren, the wonky ex-Republican, is Sanders for self-described pragmatists.

The early start to the 2020 season may have helped these candidates raise money. It’s certainly helped long-shot novices, such as Buttigieg and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, promote themselves through slow news cycles. The early start has not, however, improved the general scrutiny of these candidates. The Democrats have spent the past couple of weeks arguing about Fox News, which has hosted Sanders and Buttigieg, individually, at televised town hall forums. The Democratic National Committee has prohibited Fox News from hosting any Democratic presidential primary debates, and Warren and Harris have both refused to attend the network’s individualized forums. Warren describes Fox News as a “hate-for-profit” racket that would capitalize, unacceptably, on her appearance. Harris declined an invitation in similar terms. Meanwhile, O’Rourke is begging Fox News for a town hall opportunity to relaunch his campaign before a national audience. Fox News will host Gillibrand next month. CNN hosts these forums too. The format underscores the core limitation of these formative months of the race. The later debates will force these candidates into conversation with one another—on stage together, in speeches addressing one another, and in the press. These early forums have driven a great deal of discourse, but minimal worthwhile distinction or advancement in the overcrowded ranks.

These first few months have also been a shallow, meaningless phase that the candidates and the press, not to mention the voters, might have ideally skipped. There are town hall forums, but no real debates. There are front-runners, but no sure leads. There are polling comparisons, but no direct engagement among the candidates themselves. They may as well have waited until summer. Former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams says she might wait until fall to decide whether she’ll run for president in 2020, though FiveThirtyEight, citing the past half-century, advises Abrams against waiting that late. But if Abrams were to declare just a couple of weeks from now, in June, she will have missed out on what, exactly? She will have lost the head start in building an Iowa campaign. She will have also missed the silly season of exploratory committees, soft launches, proper kickoffs, all culminating now with awkward relaunches among the single-digit candidates who peaked a full year too early. Abrams might somehow arrive too late to catch fire. Still, she might arrive in time to profit from O’Rourke—and others—burning out.