Political reporters, whose powers of analysis and prediction have been not so reliable in the Trump era, have learned to lean on what editors call the “to be sure” paragraph. These are like the fine print in a legal contract: Hey, we warned you, and don’t blame us if events prove this story to be mostly B.S.
One of the most familiar to-be-sure paragraphs involves the calendar: “To be sure, it’s still early, and a lot could happen by Election Day.”
Well, to hell with that: Modern readers can easily write their own to-be-sure lines. The reality — seven months before Democratic caucuses and primaries begin — is that it’s not still early for most of the Democrats who fantasize about being sworn in at the next presidential inauguration nearly 19 months from now.
To the contrary: It’s getting very late.
The start of Democratic nominating debates a few hours from now puts three dynamics in a sharp light:
• So far, Joe Biden has virtually cornered the market among Democrats who think the right answer to President Donald Trump is a return to conventional politics and to familiar pre-Trump norms. There are candidates who might credibly represent such a return but who have demonstrated scant energy for their candidacies.
• Fluidity in the Democratic race is coming from people who do not want simply a return to conventional politics. Despite months of campaigning, only two candidates — Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg—can convincingly claim to have improved their relative position in polls, coverage, and activist energy. Both in different ways — Warren in her ideological profile and Buttigieg in his biography and generational profile — draw on interest from people who think the party needs to move on from its ideas and leadership roster from the pre-Trump era.
Given the size and diversity of the field, and the flood of coverage, this race has not shown much relative movement. Biden has remained impressively steady. Bernie Sanders, who started out in second place, comes into the debates at clear risk of losing relative ground in the field. Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris have ridden seemingly ephemeral waves of curiosity and excitement and returned basically where they started: needing some moment to show they are the real deal. And most other candidates have remained unimpressively steady: Almost nothing to show for their efforts.
• These two dynamics lead inescapably to a third: A majority of these campaigns likely are terminally ill, with lifespans that in some cases probably can be measured in weeks. This week’s NBC debates with 20 candidates over two nights will be followed by debates this fall that will have tougher standards to qualify. In combination with the demands of raising money, and the embarrassment factor of proud and accomplished people waging what are going to look like increasingly futile efforts, history suggests there will be multiple dropouts before the close of summer.
For the first two clusters of debates, the Democratic National Committee rules say a candidate makes the stage if she or he scores either 1 percent in qualifying polls or has at least 65,000 individual donors. By the third and fourth rounds, this lenient standard gets more severe. Not only do the thresholds double, the current “or” becomes a more formidable “and”: 130,000 contributors and 2 percent in polls. At the moment, fewer than 10 candidates would likely qualify. Another impending hurdle is the announcement of the results of second quarter fund-raising results on July 15. A failure to turn heads in meaningful numbers with either the debates or the financial disclosures historically has meant there is not much more to discuss.
“It is early but then it’s not early,” said Adrienne Elrod, who served as Hillary Clinton’s director of strategic communications and surrogates and is now president of Elrod Strategies. “If you’re John Delaney, Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell, we’re in make-or-break territory over the next four weeks.”
“At some point, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and say this is not your election and the sooner the better for that," said Rufus Gifford, the finance director for Barack Obama’s reelection effort who is not aligned in the race but has co-hosted a fundraiser for Joe Biden and contributed to several other candidates. "I think what you’re going to see at the end of this second quarter are some candidates really rivaling what we saw in 2007 in fundraising and many candidates just not able to do it and being outraised by 4-1 or more.”
“With this many 1-percenters, it’s almost impossible to break through,” said Rebecca Katz, a former special adviser to Mayor Bill de Blasio and founder of New Deal Strategies. “Because it’s not just about having 20 candidates at the bottom, it’s about having five candidates at the top who are also making news.”
This reality creates a strategic quandary. In interviews with more than a half-dozen campaigns that have yet to qualify for the third and fourth debates, the candidates are divided on what to do in the next five weeks. Some want to use the debates to introduce themselves to a nation that doesn’t really know them. Others are looking to contrast their worldview with another candidate to create some viral content even if that means drawing attention to a rival.
“The pressure to create a viral moment is enormous,” said Elrod.
Embedded in this pressure lies a question of which top-tier candidates the bottom-tier candidates are aiming at.
Biden’s endurance at the top of polls to date suggests a sizable number of Democrats who see the party’s main task as defeating Trump, and that the best way of doing so is with a candidate that doesn’t push boundaries, who doesn’t challenge voters with a less-traditional biography or an ideological message that hasn’t previously won a general election. This leaves one opening for a candidate to say: I’m as safe as Biden but more appealing.
Warren’s and Buttigieg’s candidacies are different in innumerable details but similar in one essential: Both present similar contrasts with Trump — learned and even academic in style, crisp in articulating liberal policies — and also would signal that Democrats want more than to simply time travel to 2008 and have a second version of the Obama presidency. Warren’s willingness to challenge business goes far beyond what was comfortable for Obama even during the financial crisis of a decade ago.
Buttigieg, seemingly moderate in most of his policy instincts, has nodded to the more radicalized mood of Democrats in the Trump era with his plan for thwarting the conservative instincts of the Supreme Court by increasing its size to 15. In 2009, Obama’s official position was still that a marriage between two men — such as Pete and Chasten Buttigieg — should remain unconstitutional.
One path to the top tier might be to pick a fight with Warren or Buttigieg, and many are plainly ready, at a minimum, to draw a contrast. Sanders needs the most progressive activists to see him, not Warren, as the most credible vessel for their passions. O’Rourke’s challenge, much like that of Harris, Bennet, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker, is to remind people why their candidacies spurred curiosity and interest in the first place, and revive an aura of ascendancy.
Some candidates have already signaled their approach. In recent weeks, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper gave a speech against socialism following Sanders’ speech on the same topic. Former Rep. John Delaney told the liberal crowd at the California state party convention that “Medicare for All” is “not good policy, nor is it good politics.” Others, like Rep. Seth Moulton, have tried the biographical approach, as the former Marine who deployed to Iraq has opened up about seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Massachusetts congressman didn’t qualify for the first debate. With more pluck than plausibility, his campaign is insisting this shows strategic discipline.
“Our focus is on internal metrics on how to reach voters, not on metrics set by the DNC,” said Matt Corrindini, national press secretary for Moulton.
“Debates are less important than they used to be,” said Lauren Hitt, communications director for Hickenlooper. “Candidates have the ability to generate their own viral moments with cameras at their own events. You treat the debate like a big opportunity because it is one, but if you’re smart you realize there are other opportunities as well.”
Other campaigns are treating the debate stage as do-or-die. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) has signaled he could withdraw from the race and run for reelection if he doesn’t qualify for the next debates.
Some strategists, however, think that it’s already over. Tim Lim, a Democratic consultant and partner at NewCo, said "for more than half of these candidates, it’s already too late to burst out."