Eye-popping number of Dems: I can beat Trump

Two dozen Democrats have entered the primary to take on President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE, a historically high number that will create unique challenges for the party, the media and the candidates themselves.

The field includes six women and six people of color — though 18 of the candidates are male while 18 are white.

ADVERTISEMENT

A former vice president, Joe BidenJoe BidenSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona Giuliani says he discussed Biden with Ukrainian official MORE, is the clear front-runner, but his challengers include seven senators, four members of the House and two sitting governors. 

The mayor of the nation's largest city — Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioMayor de Blasio, the small business killer The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts De Blasio's video snafu earns laughter in Iowa MORE — is in the race, along with two other mayors. De Blasio is a heavy, heavy underdog, but Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona ABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate National poll finds tight race between Biden, Sanders and Warren MORE, the major of the much smaller South Bend, Ind., is considered a dark horse candidate. 

Oprah WinfreyOprah Gail WinfreyMichelle Obama: 'There's zero chance' I run for president Michael Moore urges Michelle Obama to run against Trump Marianne Williamson: Oprah is 'absolutely not' advising me on presidential run MORE’s spiritual adviser, Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate Williamson unveils plan to create Cabinet-level Department of Peace Castro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates MORE, is also part of the field, along with businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Harris to appear in CNN climate town hall after backlash MORE, one of the first Asian Americans to run for president.

It's the largest presidential field for Democrats in recent memory, and a much larger number of candidates than in 2016, when the first debate included just five candidates. It resembles the 2016 field for Republicans, though Democrats have more candidates than the GOP had in the last cycle too.

The big field reflects an optimism in the party that Trump is ripe for the picking in 2020.

Trump lost the popular vote in the 2016 election to former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts Hickenlooper announces Senate bid MORE, and there's a sense among Democrats that the president was fortunate to be running against an opponent who was carrying sizable baggage — one who had to deal with Russian interference in the election and a nagging FBI investigation.

Yet even if Democrats see Trump as eminently beatable, there are also worries among the Democratic faithful bordering on paranoia that their party will manage to bungle the primary and hand Trump another four years in office. 

"It’s going to be volatile,” said Jon Reinish, a New York-based Democratic strategist.

Biden has put electability at the center of his campaign pitch, and along with the nostalgia Democrats feel toward the Obama years it largely explains his place in the polls.  

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 candidates have the chance to embrace smarter education policies Bernie Sanders Adviser talks criminal justice reform proposal, 'Medicare for All' plan Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona MORE (I-Vt.) is the top candidate chasing Biden, but opposition to the democratic socialist from Clinton supporters bitter over 2016 and Democrats who don't like that he isn't a member of their party raises real questions about his ceiling.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenKrystal Ball: Elites have chosen Warren as The One; Lauren Claffey: Is AOC wrong about the Electoral College? Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona McConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster MORE (D-Mass.) is competing for the progressive lane with Sanders and has been building some momentum with a series of policy pronouncements. A newer face, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona Rising Warren faces uphill climb with black voters Inslee drops out of 2020 presidential race MORE (D-Calif.), is also seen as a serious contender and has been polling steadily. 

Along with Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Harris to appear in CNN climate town hall after backlash MORE (D-Texas) has been seen as one of the top six candidates, though this week he appeared to be trying to reset his campaign after a stumbling start. 

That leaves another 18 candidates chasing the pack of front-runners, with a winnowing process set to begin as early as next month. The first presidential debates will also take place in June. 

The main problem for the low-polling candidates at this point isn’t that they’re unpopular, but that they’re relative unknowns. Buttigieg has broken out with viral moments, but that hasn't happened so far for other candidates such as Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanBiden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report Tim Ryan jokes he's having 'dance-off' with Andrew Yang The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape MORE (D-Ohio), or former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts Hickenlooper announces Senate bid Inslee drops out of 2020 presidential race MORE.

And with so many people in the race, it's going to be that much harder to win attention. 

The first debates in Miami will take place over two nights in late June and will represent a pivotal moment for the candidates and the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which faces difficult decisions as debate coordinator and all-purpose arbiter of the free-for-all.

“It’s about getting that star turn,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist in Washington. “I expect some folks who we're not talking about right now will have their moment in the spotlight. It’s a question of how long they can make it last.”

The DNC's task is to pull off the debates without being seen as putting a finger on the scale in favor of anyone.

It is capping the number of participants at 20 people, with 10 Democrats competing on stage each night.

It appears that 18 Democrats have already reached the fundraising or polling thresholds to qualify for the stage. With a month to go, others could still hit the mark.

At that point, the DNC might have to turn to tie-breakers to keep the debate field at 20.

“If you’re not on that debate stage, your campaign is basically on life support,” said Thornell.

ADVERTISEMENT

The lineup on each night is another potential source of controversy, as the DNC has said it will randomly draw to determine who goes when.

Democrats have so far applauded the DNC for being transparent and inclusive in the process, but the high stakes and the high number of contenders is a minefield for the national party as it seeks to recover from its widely-panned handling of the 2016 primary race.

“The challenge for the DNC here is to maintain order,” Reinish said. “It’s a tough needle to thread but they’re doing it.”

The news media will be under the microscope and could play an outsize role in the outcome.

There are too many candidates for the press to cover in depth, so news outlets will be making strategic decisions about who is most deserving of coverage.

There have been complaints that the female candidates — Harris and Warren in particular — have not received the same amount of attention as male rivals such as Buttigieg and O'Rourke.

O’Rourke was a media sensation in 2018, when he nearly toppled Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters MORE (R) in Texas.  

Now, the narrative gathering around O’Rourke is about how he’s lost momentum and plunged in the polls.

Buttigieg has risen in his place, overtaking O’Rourke as the hot young Democratic star of the moment. Stories about Buttigieg’s momentum have helped him raise millions of dollars and land top operatives and donors away from other campaigns.

Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are crowded with contenders setting up their caucus operations, holding town hall events or visiting African American churches.

The saturation in the early-voting states have led some candidates to begin introducing themselves to voters in Super Tuesday states, such as delegate-rich Texas and California, or Virginia, where the proximity to Washington, D.C., makes it likelier a candidate will attract national media attention.

The candidates are angling for attention on picket lines in an effort to show solidarity with the ascendant labor movement. And they’re releasing scores of ambitious policy proposals that are unlikely to ever be enacted but help to draw contrasts with their rivals.

The accelerated pace of the race might require candidates to start spending on national television ads sooner than they liked.

Some are accepting invitations to town hall events on Fox News in an effort to bank as much time as possible in front of a national audience. The aim is to produce the kind of the viral internet moment that has the potential to alter the course of a campaign.

“One of the problems with a crowded field is that voters don’t have the ability to pay attention to every single one of the candidates, they’re following cues from the media in terms of who's hot and who's not,” said Patrick Murray, the polling director at Monmouth University. “Timing is going to be everything for the candidates in a race like this.”