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Doubts about 2020 field send Democratic party elites, donors scrambling to find a savior

(From left) Senator Bernie Sanders, former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In less than three months, Democrats begin voting for their presidential nominee in Iowa, and the sound you hear is panic — among some donors and party elites, at least, who are privately pushing for a savior to enter the race.

Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and billionaire Michael Bloomberg are weighing jumping in at this late stage, hoping they can top a Democratic field that has been led by former vice president Joe Biden. A top adviser to Bloomberg said the former New York City mayor is “increasingly concerned” no one in the current field can beat President Trump, while Patrick has also commented that Biden’s support looks shaky.


And on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton told the BBC that “many, many, many people” are placing “enormous pressure” on her to enter the race. Although she said that “as of this moment” a run “is absolutely not in my plans,” Clinton didn’t rule out the possibility.

The last minute will-he-or-won’t-he dance reflects a larger unease among some in the party over the four candidates at the top of the field — Biden, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — and the reality that any last-minute contender needs to decide by Friday to get on the ballot in New Hampshire.

Privately, donors and party insiders wring their hands about the field’s chances of beating Trump.

“I’ve had senior people say, ‘I just don’t know what we’re going to do,’ ” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “People say Biden’s too old and washed up, Warren’s too far to the left, Buttigieg will end up losing swing states because he’s inexperienced. . . . They’ll go through the list of all the candidates and say, ‘Clearly they can’t win.’ ”


Democrats who have weathered their party’s ritual preelection freak-outs for decades are warning their peers that the five-alarm response is not necessary.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004, said that while some are worried about whether “Joe could pull it off,” given questions about his stamina and lackluster fund-raising, it’s too late for an outsider to jump in and provide an alternative.

“We’re still a little bit in the early speculation stage,” he said, regarding Biden’s chances. “What we’re not in, though, is the let’s-join-the-race-now stage.”

Biden supporter Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, said he tries to calm panicked Democrats by pointing out that in averages of head-to-head national polls, the top candidates in the running beat Trump.

“Is it the strongest field in the world? No, there isn’t a Barack Obama or a JFK in the race,” Rendell said. “But is it a good field? I believe it is, and every one of them is beating Trump head to head.”

But the 2020 race, which has attracted a historic number of Democratic candidates, marks the first time since 2004 that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is not on the ballot, scrambling expectations among party insiders and leaving many without a compass.

“Why is anybody surprised this is messy?” said Vince Frillici, who was national finance director for former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd when he ran for the nomination in 2008.

The political environment is uniquely unsettled. In 2016, Trump upended all the leading predictions to win the election, while a populist Sanders detonated them as well with his strong showing against Clinton in the primary. That changed political landscape, if anything, makes it harder for pundits and party insiders to guess which candidate has the best chance of beating Trump. And many top Democrats feel that defeating Trump is an existential necessity for the nation, making the stakes feel even higher than usual.


Taken together, it’s a recipe for panic.

“It makes Democrats, who are rather nervous by nature, shake visibly this year,” Sabato said.

But polling data suggests that rank-and-file Democratic voters are not longing for new contenders to examine in this historically large (to the point of overwhelming) field of 16 remaining candidates.

A recent Monmouth University poll found that 74 percent of Democratic primary voters are satisfied with the slate of candidates, compared to just 16 percent who said they want different choices. Several candidates — including Sanders and Warren — have also attracted crowds of thousands of fans, and racked up hundreds of thousands of grass-roots donors, suggesting enthusiasm for their bids.

That has some allies of Warren and Sanders wondering if the desire for a “white knight” is less about concern that the two progressives can’t win if Biden stalls out and more about fears that they can. Both candidates have proposed much higher taxes on wealthy people — including the rich donors that Democrats have cultivated for the past three decades — to fund larger domestic programs.


“They’re pushing new candidates to get in because they feel that they don’t want to part with any part of their fortunes,” said California Representative Ro Khanna, a cochair of Sanders’ campaign.

Adam Green, whose liberal political action committee backs Warren, said “corporate elites” would rather have a “a placeholder like Joe Biden than someone who will actually address inequality like Elizabeth Warren.”

“If Joe Biden can’t get the job done,” Green said, “then they’re looking for some others who might get in.”

But if Patrick and Bloomberg are banking on Biden floundering during the first few primary contests, allowing them to swoop in and take the reins, Biden’s allies suggest they may be wasting their time.

“I think he’s relying on the conventional wisdom that Biden might fade, but I don’t think he is going to,” Rendell said of Bloomberg. He pointed out that Biden has remained at the top of the national polls since he got in the race more than six months ago, even as other candidates have surpassed him in some early states.

“If Ronald Reagan got elected twice, Joe Biden has more than enough stamina to be a successful candidate,” he added of the 76-year-old former vice president.

Historically, donors and pundits have not had an impressive track record picking the “safest” candidate in a general election, others note. Bill Clinton was widely viewed as a loser early in the 1992 race, and Obama at first was seen as too risky to back in the ’08 primary.


“Hillary Clinton, I think she would have been a great president, but she was unquestionably the preferred choice among the donor set and Manhattan donor types and we know how that turned out,” said Brian Fallon, a former top aide to Clinton.

“I don’t think these people that are intrigued by a Bloomberg candidacy or maybe trying to cheer on Deval Patrick are necessarily good at picking people when it comes to how the general elections end up,” he added.

Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin