Two dozen Democrats have entered the primary to take on President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled 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.
A former vice president, Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act: a bill long overdue 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 BlasioNYPD union sues city over vaccine mandate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden makes his pitch as tax questions mount Hochul gets early boost as NY gubernatorial race takes shape MORE — is in the race, along with two other mayors. De Blasio is a heavy, heavy underdog, but Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Democrats inch closer to legislative deal Republican spin on Biden is off the mark Unanswered questions remain for Buttigieg, Biden on supply chain catastrophe MORE, the major of the much smaller South Bend, Ind., is considered a dark horse candidate.
Oprah WinfreyOprah Gail WinfreyCourt rules Prince Philip's will to remain sealed for 90 years Piers Morgan joining News Corp., will host new show on Fox Nation Royal family supports BLM movement, senior representative says MORE’s spiritual adviser, Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson: Steven Donziger sentencing is meant to have a 'chilling effect' on environmentalists Marianne Williamson calls federal judge's handling of Steven Donziger case 'unconstitutional' Marianne Williamson calls on Biden to drop efforts to extradite Assange MORE, is also part of the field, along with businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangBill Maher pushes back on criticism of Chappelle: 'What the f--- was that reaction?' Progressive economic theories run into some inconvenient truths Andrew Yang weighs in on Dave Chappelle: Artists should get 'wide berth' for self-expression 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 ClintonSuper PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary 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 SandersDemocrats face critical 72 hours Overnight Health Care — Presented by Altria — Manchin nixes Medicare expansion Manchin shutting down Sanders on Medicare expansion 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 WarrenDemocrats face critical 72 hours The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Democrats inch closer to legislative deal This week: Democrats aim to unlock Biden economic, infrastructure package 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 HarrisObama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe Kamala Harris engages with heckler during New York speech Biden's safe-space CNN town hall attracts small audience, as poll numbers plummet MORE (D-Calif.), is also seen as a serious contender and has been polling steadily.
Along with Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeSupport for governors sliding in states without vaccine mandates: survey Abbott bans vaccine mandates from any 'entity in Texas' Abbott disapproval rating up 8 points to 59 percent in San Antonio area: poll 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) RyanPennsylvania Republican becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress Ohio Democrat calls Vance an 'ass----' over Baldwin tweet Two senior House Democrats to retire MORE (D-Ohio), or former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperPennsylvania Republican becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress Ohio GOP congressman tests positive for COVID-19 Colorado remap plan creates new competitive district 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.
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 CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' 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.”