How Many Candidates Is Too Many?

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Janet Wagner has been a self-described political junkie since she was 14 years old, when she stayed up late to find out if President Harry S. Truman would upset Gov. Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 race.

An 85-year-old retiree, she has voted Democratic in nearly every election since, except in 1956, when she voted for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (“I didn’t know quite what to do with Adlai Stevenson,” she explained.)

But after watching 19 Democratic candidates waltz through a Cedar Rapids ballroom last weekend, Ms. Wagner felt something she hadn’t in more than six decades of voting: overwhelmed by her choices.

“It’s very, very difficult,” she said. “I love them all. They’re all so good. I’d like to see all these people in the cabinet.”

Ms. Wagner isn’t alone: A new Des Moines Register/CNN poll found that just 18 percent of Iowa caucusgoers like having to consider the nearly two dozen Democrats running for president. A plurality — 47 percent — said they wished several candidates would drop out.

That sentiment isn’t having much of an impact on the field, even as 15 of the candidates rarely crack 2 percent in the polls. For now, at least, they’re all vowing to stay in the race.

“In the early parts of the campaign, when most people aren’t paying attention, there are certain niches that attract attention,” said John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, after a campaign event in Cresco, Iowa. “And unfortunately, that notion of good government and actually having a record of creating economic prosperity and social justice, it’s not what initially catches on in the beginning. But it generally catches on later on in the campaign.”

Mr. Hickenlooper, who has struggled to attract more than 1 percent support in polls, is in some sense correct. We’re still eight months away from the Iowa caucuses, and candidates still have plenty of time to make their case.

But, as he also points out, it’s already a struggle for most of the candidates to get any attention. With marquee names at the top of the field, in addition to the constant battles between the president and Congress, there just isn’t much bandwidth for the 1 Percent Club.

That’s not going to get any easier as the race progresses. Already, three candidates have failed to make the first debate, as we detail lower in this newsletter.

And here’s the thing about attention: Without it, it’s awfully hard for a candidate to raise the money needed to run a serious campaign. (Why do you think they’re doing all those cable news town halls?)

So, the dropping out will come. Either because of lagging funds, a desire to protect political career opportunities, or simply to preserve a bit of self-respect. No one wants to be a punch line.

The question is when it will start. The Democratic National Committee’s chairman, Tom Perez, told me this week that he expects the candidates to number in the double digits into the fall campaign. That’s why he reserved two nights for the September debate. (The committee is only allowing 10 candidates per night.)

Mr. Perez may be overly generous in his prediction: So far, only six or so candidates have qualified for the fall face-off, with a few more expected to make the cut in the coming months.

“The field will organically narrow as time goes on and voters make their preferences known,” he told me.

Seems like their preference might just be for a dozen fewer presidential candidates.

P.S.: While working on this newsletter, we found some great footage of NBC’s live coverage of the Dewey-Truman election in 1948. Check it out here.

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The debate lineup is set

The first Democratic primary debates, scheduled for later this month, have 20 available spots split over two nights. That means, with 23 candidates running, that three will be left off the stage.

We learned Thursday who those three were: Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana; Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts; and Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Fla.

It was an easy call for the Democratic National Committee — they didn’t have to cut anyone, since exactly 20 candidates met the qualification criteria. (You can see the list of who made it in our latest story on the debates.)

Mr. Moulton, who entered the race in April, took the news in stride, saying Thursday, “I recognize I have to play a bit of catch-up, but I don’t have any regrets for getting in late.” Mr. Messam, who raised the least amount of money of any candidate in the first quarter of the year, did not comment.

But Mr. Bullock fought back. He told supporters that “the D.N.C. changed the debate rules” and appealed to the committee to include a poll that could have helped him qualify.

It makes sense that he would dispute being left out. While die-hards (we’re looking at you, On Politics readers) have been tuned into the race for months, the debates will be the first time many Americans learn about the candidates. Missing out on that audience could be bad news for a campaign that’s already struggling.


Castro on Fox

Julián Castro, the former housing secretary and mayor of San Antonio, will headline a Fox News town hall event on Thursday, the fifth Democratic presidential candidate to do so.

Mr. Castro’s town hall, held in Phoenix, is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Eastern. You can follow along with live updates here (or, if you’re reading this after it’s over, see a recap of what happened).


What to read tonight

The Michigan attorney general’s office dismissed all pending criminal cases tied to the Flint water crisis on Thursday, ending the prosecutions of eight current and former officials. It was seen by some in Flint as a sign that their crisis was being forgotten.

Friend of the newsletter Mark Leibovich tangles with the essential question of the Democratic primary race: How exactly do you run for president in 2019?

New York Magazine dives into the enigma that is Representative Tulsi Gabbard and her rather uncommon religious upbringing.


… Seriously

O.K., I’ll admit it. I’ve been secretly listening to the playlist of candidate walk-up music from Iowa that’s been making the rounds this week (here it is on Spotify). It’s so catchy! And so energizing!

Before you judge, check out this very comprehensive run-down of what the songs say about their candidates.


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