More than four years ago, in the runup to the 2016 presidential campaign, many progressives were hoping Elizabeth Warren would run. Only after she passed on the race — evidently deciding that Hillary Clinton was too strong to be beaten — did a less prominent progressive enter: Bernie Sanders.
Last year, a different version of this scenario happened, this time in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. Mitch Landrieu, Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg, among others, skipped the race, at least initially. Much as Clinton had scared off potential candidates in 2016, Joe Biden did so in 2020.
By now, the lesson from this history should be plain. If you want to be president of the United States and have an opportunity to run, you should not let another candidate keep you from running in the primaries.
Campaigns are too long and uncertain. And the odds of winning the presidency are never particularly good. Every Democrat to be elected president in the past half-century — Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — started as a long shot, as did a couple of Republicans (Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan).
As political adviser David Axelrod once told Obama: "History tells us that candidates more often win by running early than by waiting their turn. The risk is not in running too soon. It's in running too late and missing your opportunity."
With the current campaign mired in uncertainty, I think some Democrats and pundits are missing this lesson. Instead, it's become common to talk about the damage that Biden supposedly did to this field. I have had a version of the thought myself: that Biden was strong enough to prevent other moderates from emerging without being strong enough to win the nomination himself.
But the early voting suggests that this analysis is more wrong than right. The problem wasn't Biden. It was the way other Democrats overreacted to him. They committed a classic error of presidential politics, believing that campaigns were more predictable than they are.
Biden, after all, finished fifth in New Hampshire, with less than 9% of the vote. That's not enough to crowd out anyone. Sure enough, he has not prevented Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of a small city, from becoming a serious candidate. Nor has Biden kept Amy Klobuchar's once-moribund campaign from getting a new life. He hasn't even kept Tom Steyer — Tom Steyer! — from surging in the South Carolina primary polls.
Imagine what this race might look like if other candidates had not taken a pass, delayed their entrance or dropped out early. South Carolina, the next primary (after Nevada's caucus Saturday), would be especially significant. Biden's once-huge lead there is shriveling — yet now there is no obvious alternative, especially for many of the state's African American voters.
Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans whose soaring speech on Confederate statues gave him a national profile, could have been a strong candidate in South Carolina. If Bloomberg — who's second among black voters nationwide, according to the Quinnipiac Poll — hadn't been scared away from South Carolina by Biden, he might have made himself the clear moderate front-runner. He also could have reduced the perception that he was taking shortcuts.
I'm not saying that any one of these outcomes would have been likely this year. I'm saying that the field could have been bigger and stronger than it is and that Democrats shouldn't have been so bashful.
So what does this lesson suggest about the rest of the 2020 campaign?
Don't jump to premature conclusions — or premature despair, if you consider Trump a threat to democracy. I think Sanders, for instance, could be a problematic nominee, given his self-identification as a democratic socialist and his stances on fracking, immigration and health insurance. But I also think it's silly to say he has no chance to beat Trump.
It wasn't so long ago that people were claiming that the other moderates had no chance to beat Biden.
The New York Times