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Ground Game

The 2020 Democratic field is unprecedented. That may not be a good thing for the party

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

The number of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates has swelled to become the largest field in modern history.

That was a month ago. More candidates have since jumped into the race.

This past week alone, the 23rd and 24th candidates joined the primary field. And when Montana Governor Steve Bullock and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio entered the contest, much of the reaction was along the lines of: Why not? After all, if the South Bend mayor can get traction, why not the mayor of the nation’s largest city?

But beyond the challenge for television news producers tasked with fitting all the candidates’ pictures on one screen, there are significant implications for a party with a field this large. And none of them are very good for Democrats’ prospects to win the White House.


1. Presidential primaries provide a rare chance for political parties to figure out where they stand. The field is so large that this is not happening yet.

When a political party is out of power, there is usually a healthy internal discussion about why it lost. After Donald Trump defied the odds to win in 2016, Democrats appeared genuinely curious about what they had done wrong and how they could win the next time.

But nearly six months into the 2020 race, the discussion about the broader future of the party (whether it moves left or center, among other things) has been secondary. The primary discussion is largely who these candidates are, how to pronounce their names, and their rationale for running.

This happens in every presidential field at the start of the race. But typically the party moves on from the initial “getting to know you” phase to debate the issues that will define the race and the party. This second phase has been delayed by the sheer size of the field. Instead, for example, the discussion is focused on whether a candidate can qualify for the debate stage next month.


To be sure, there is still plenty of time to have a bigger conversation over the direction of the party (Trump didn’t come down the Trump Tower escalator until June 2015.) But this is a unique moment for the Democratic Party, marking the first time a generation that the Clinton family is not in the mix. Where the party goes from here is an important and relevant discussion, but it is not happening.

2. A large field means Democrats could be headed to a brokered convention.

The last brokered convention was in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won the Democratic nomination on the third ballot. Since then, pundits and political types have loved to talk about the prospect.

When 17 Republicans ran in the 2016 presidential primary, that appeared to provide the best chance in decades for some type of drama at the national convention. But come the big event in Cleveland, the dissent in the ranks only became a minor distraction on the way for Trump to be the Republican nominee.

Not only are there currently more Democratic candidates potentially splitting up delegates, but structurally the party’s rules make multiple rounds of voting much more likely. In many states, once a candidate reaches a 15 percent threshold, delegates are shared proportionately.

These rules will make it hard for any one candidate to amass a lot of delegates — and it will make it easy for a handful of candidates to get at least 15 percent.


While all of this drama would be fun for politicos (and, OK, journalists), this could have a negative effect on the eventual nominee. If he or she is not chosen until mid-summer, the nominee will get even further behind on building a national campaign to challenge an incumbent president.

3. The large field could hurt Democratic chances to retake the Senate.

Amid the 2020 cacophony, several Democrats are also emphasizing that retaking the Senate is a major priority. Hillary Clinton said it. Nancy Pelosi said it. And this week in New Hampshire, both Kamala Harris and Joe Biden told crowds how important it was to Democrats.

The issue is that some of the party’s best candidates for the Senate are choosing to run for president instead.

In Texas, Beto O’Rourke raised more money than any US Senate candidate in history last year, but he decided against challenging Republican John Cornyn. Former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro made the same call.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado is among the most vulnerable Republicans seeking reelection, but he doesn’t have to worry about facing two-term Democratic governor John Hickenlooper because he, too, is running for president.

This week, when Bullock entered the presidential race, there was considerable pushback among Democrats that he didn’t run for Senate instead. His candidacy, they argued, could immediately put a Republican state in play.


In Georgia, Stacey Abrams passed on the Senate race but hasn’t ruled out running for president.

It is possible that many of these candidates may drop out before they even reach the Iowa caucus next year — plenty of time to launch a Senate campaign. US Senator Marco Rubio, for example, dropped out of the 2016 Republican presidential primary and then reentered the race for his reelection.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp