Sorry, Hillary: Democrats don't need a savior

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 84 days until the Iowa caucuses and 358 days until the 2020 election. 

As if 26 candidates weren’t enough.

Asked Tuesday whether she has ruled out running for president in 2020, Hillary Clinton told BBC Radio 5 Live, “I say, ‘Never, never, never say never.’”

“I will certainly tell you, I’m under enormous pressure from many, many, many people to think about it,” she added.

With the Iowa caucuses fast approaching, Clinton is just the latest in the colorful cast of characters who seem to have surveyed the sprawling Democratic field, sensed something lacking and decided that “something” might be them.

Never mind, for instance, that billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg already closed the door on a run earlier this year, declaring in March that he was “clear-eyed about the difficulty of winning the Democratic nomination” and that “the best way for me to help our country is by rolling up my sleeves and continuing to get work done” as a political philanthropist.

Hillary Clinton speaking in London. (Photo: David Tett/Shutterstock)

Never mind all that, because there he was last week, directing his team to file for the Alabama primary — and there he was Tuesday, flying to Arkansas to file there as well.

“If [Bloomberg] runs,” said spokesman Jason Schechter, “he’s going to go to states that Democrats never go to in the primary campaign.”

Never mind that former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick also took his name out of contention, citing concerns last year that “the cruelty of our elections process would ultimately splash back” on his wife, who had just been diagnosed with cancer, and other “people whom Diane and I love.”

Michael Bloomberg. (Photo: Martin Sylvest/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

“It’s hard to see how you even get noticed in such a big, broad field without being shrill, sensational or a celebrity,” Patrick said. “I’m none of those things and I’m never going to be any of those things.”

Never mind all that, because there Patrick was in the New York Times, telling “senior Democrats” Wednesday that “he will enter the presidential race” with a forthcoming “video before appearing in person in New Hampshire to file his paperwork” for the primary.

Never mind that Clinton said in March that she’s “not running”: There was her husband, Bill, saying late last month that “she may or may not” run and her top adviser Philippe Reines adding that “she would think about it long and hard” if “she thought she had the best odds of beating Donald Trump.”

And never mind that California activist and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer was also a “no” before he was a “yes,” announcing in January that he wouldn’t be vying for the presidency — then reversing course six months later and announcing he would.

Clinton at an event promoting “The Book of Gutsy Women,” which she co-authored with daughter Chelsea, in London. (Photo: Simon Dawson/Reuters)

Autumnal speculation about an eleventh-hour savior swooping in and saving Democrats from defeat is something of a “regular, if not quite quadrennial, tradition for a party that can be fatalistic about its prospects,” as the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin put it in a recent story about the Democratic establishment’s latest “Maalox moment.”

But in past cycles these so-called saviors have rarely if ever jumped into the race at such a late stage. Take 1992. Among those who were supposed to rescue Democrats from the scandal-scarred Bill Clinton were Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, former Sens. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Sam Nunn of Georgia and Al Gore of Tennessee, and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. None of them ran. The same thing happened with Gore in 2004 and Joe Biden in 2016.

This time, however, is different; several would-be white knights — Steyer, Bloomberg and Patrick — have already entered the race or appear to be on the verge of saddling up. (As for Clinton, she told the BBC that “as of this moment, sitting here in this studio talking to you, [running] is absolutely not in my plans.”)

But why? And do they really have a shot?

Democratic presidential candidate businessman Tom Steyer walks in the hallway of the Statehouse after filing to be placed on the New Hampshire primary ballot, Nov. 12, 2019, in Concord, N.H. (Photo: Elise Amendola/AP)

The answer to the second question is probably no. A new Monmouth poll found Bloomberg at 1 percent among likely Iowa caucus-goers; a new Morning Consult poll found him at 4 percent nationally, with nearly a quarter of Democrats viewing him unfavorably — the highest unfavorable rating in the field. For anyone wondering whether those numbers might improve once Bloomberg starts spending his $50 billion fortune, just look at how his fellow billionaire Steyer has fared. So far, the Californian has dropped more than $50 million on his campaign, yet he is still stuck at 1 percent nationally and 2 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire — even though he’s a better ideological fit for the primary electorate than the fiscally conservative Bloomberg, whose stop-and-frisk police policies and off-color remarks about women would further complicate his campaign.

So why run now? Bloomberg, Patrick and (hypothetically) Clinton appear to be operating from a pretty basic premise. Democrats are desperate to defeat Trump — more desperate than they’ve ever been about defeating any other Republican. That means electability is more important than ever before too. Because no one candidate has emerged as a clear frontrunner — in Iowa, for instance, Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg are all clustered between 16 and 20 percent — what voters are really saying is that none of them seem sufficiently electable. That suggests there’s an opening for someone else. In other words, fear is more important than ideological fit. Bloomberg’s entire strategy — skip the early-voting states, wait for a split decision, spend big on Super Tuesday, fill the vacuum — is based on this assumption.

The problem is that it’s all one big misconception. There are elements of truth here, of course; Democrats are really afraid of a second Trump term. But in 2004 they were really afraid of a second George W. Bush term as well. That year’s field was large and fragmented, just like this year’s; no frontrunner emerged until after John Kerry won the Iowa caucuses. In September, Gen. Wesley Clark made a last-minute entry into the race. Clark wound up finishing seventh in Iowa, third in New Hampshire and third or fourth across the South, his home region. He dropped out in February 2004 and endorsed Kerry. 

Deval Patrick speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in 2018. (Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

There is little evidence, meanwhile, to suggest that rank-and-file Democrats are less pleased with their choices for 2020 than they were in, say, 2008 — another year when voters were distributing their support evenly among several top-tier candidates heading into Iowa. In fact, quite the opposite. According to a July poll by the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Democrats rate the 2020 field as “excellent” or “good.” That’s slightly higher than in 2008 — the highest level of enthusiasm Pew has ever found among Dems. And the numbers may have only improved since then; a HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in mid-October found that 83 percent of Democrats were satisfied with their choices. 

So yes, Warren might be positioning herself further to the left than previous nominees, and Biden might not be as sharp on the stump as he once was. But Hillary Clinton had her own liabilities, and no one thought Barack Obama was electable until he was. Obama and his eventual GOP rival John McCain were actually tied in the polls throughout late 2007 and early 2008, but Warren, Biden, Buttigieg and Sanders all tend to beat Trump in general election matchups: mostly nationally, but often in key swing states too. If they falter, there are more than a dozen other candidates, including Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, waiting to take their place. The point is: There’s no more reason to think Democrats need a savior this year than in the past. 

Not that that will stop Bloomberg & Co. from testing the waters — and maybe even jumping in. 

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