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With so many options, potential voters struggle to keep Democratic candidates straight

From left to right, top to bottom: Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper, Bill de Blasio, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Yang.
From left to right, top to bottom: Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper, Bill de Blasio, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Yang.

Another day, another Democrat throws a hat in the ring, and voters ask, now who ?

With the entry of Montana Governor Steve Bullock earlier this week and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday morning, a record 24 major candidates (and counting) are jostling for the Democratic nomination for president in the race to unseat Donald Trump in 2020. The vast Democratic field — the largest and most diverse in presidential primary history — is more packed than a Red Line platform during a service delay and, for many prospective voters, just as maddening to navigate.


The roster, as it now stands now, includes several US senators and congressmen, a batch of current and former mayors, past and present governors, the former vice president, a tech entrepreneur, and a spiritual adviser to Oprah. Others are still publicly mulling bids, such as Stacey Abrams, Democratic rising star and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate.

“It’s a lot,” as Rebecca Pinn, the Boston-based president of the Young Democrats of Massachusetts, put it, even for politically plugged-in voters like her.

So how can the average news consumer possibly keep up?

“I can’t name all of the 22 or 23” candidates, Pinn said. “If I can’t do that, how are we expecting people who are working two jobs, have multiple kids and busy lives . . . to keep track of all this?”

For 77-year-old Julian Peterson, the answer is “with difficulty.” At the Harvard Coop Bookstore on Tuesday afternoon, where a 736-page paperback of the Mueller report is on sale for 30 percent off, Peterson, an adult education teacher who lives in Cambridge, weighed the Democratic contenders while taking a break from reading the New York Times.

“There’s an awful lot of overlap between the candidates,” he said. “I’m a homie. I like Elizabeth Warren, but I also like Julián Castro.”

Still, Peterson added, he suspects none of the candidates will rise above the pack.


“Nobody seems to be very convincing, and that’s the trouble with Democrats,” he said. “There’s nobody that has the real charisma that even Trump has. Even though you may not like him, people pay attention to him. He’s a showman, and people like that.”

Peterson added, “I’m just as much at sea as anyone else is about this.”

There are, however, some advantages to having a broad swath of candidates from which to choose. Warren Behr, chairman of the Cambridge Democratic Party, views the swelling tide of presidential hopefuls as a sign of party strength.

“Most of the announced candidates are well-qualified contenders who would do well in the Oval Office,” Behr said. And a tough primary battle, he added, will prepare the eventual nominee for “what will undoubtedly be a difficult and nasty general election campaign.”

But there’s a downside to this endless buffet of presidential contenders: It’s called “option paralysis,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Northeastern University. The risk is “that voters will have so many options available to them, they will effectively become frustrated, tired, and confused and possibly opt out of voting all together.”

In his influential 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less,” psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the “proliferation of choice” in our modern lives — whether we’re standing in the grocery aisle picking among hundreds of cereals or scrolling through Netflix debating which movie or TV show to stream — is making us increasingly anxious and depressed.


Schwartz noted Thursday that although there’s no research on the problem of choice overload on electoral politics, he sees three possible effects of the voluminous field on potential voters.

One, of course, is paralysis, in which voters decide against participating in the election rather than making any choice at all. Another is bad decision-making, whereby voters, attempting to overcome their paralysis, choose a candidate based on “superficial, easy-to-evaluate” qualities, like race, gender, and charisma, rather than harder-to-evaluate factors, such as policy proposals and ideas. The third is dissatisfaction with the Democratic party’s eventual nominee: voters, pining for rejected candidates, may feel less enthusiastic about the eventual standard-bearer.

“This said, there is a wild card in the presidential race that is not present when people are buying a dishwasher or cereal,” Schwartz said. “The wild card is named Trump. His presence as the alternative may be enough to get people to overcome choice paralysis and stick with it.”

Liberal-leaning Justin von Bosau, who graduates Friday from Boston University with a degree in film and television, is gearing up for disappointment this election season. While he admits he hasn’t been following the primary race as closely as he should, he remains pessimistic about the Democratic Party’s chances of producing a contender capable of trouncing Trump.

“There’s just not enough word about who these people are to individualize any of them, and there’s not enough word about what they actually stand for unless you go out and really dig in and search for it,” von Bosau said. “It shouldn’t be that difficult if you’re trying to vote for somebody.”


“I think if you have so many people,” he continued, “it all just blends together.”

Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.