The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary

The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary

There is no true front-runner in the Democratic presidential race — and that opens up the specter of a long and divisive nomination fight within a party desperate to beat President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems want tougher language on election security in defense bill Five aides to Van Drew resign ahead of his formal switch to GOP The myth of the conservative bestseller MORE in 2020.

At a time when some Democrats hoped that the field was being winnowed down, speculation is instead focused on possible late entrants to the field. 

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Former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Bloomberg unveils plan to combat climate change, cut emissions by 50 percent in 10 years Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick are both said to be moving toward bids. Their maneuvering has attracted plenty of skepticism but it is also evidence of the unsettled nature of the race.

Democrats aren’t in full panic mode yet, but anxiety is clearly creeping in.

“Given how much I view Trump as a threat to this country, I think we need to focus on defeating him and not engaging in some long, drawn-out extended primary,” said Jim Manley, who served as a senior aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidNevada journalist: Harry Reid will play 'significant role' in Democratic primary The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - A crucial week on impeachment The Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached MORE (D-Nev.).

There are clear reasons to suspect that just such a scenario might unfold, however.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden, Sanders lead Democratic field: poll Schumer asks McConnell for Mulvaney, Bolton to testify in impeachment trial Nadler: Giuliani trip to Ukraine shows 'crime in progress' is being committed against American democracy MORE was seen as the front-runner for several months after he joined the race in April. 

Biden continues to lead national polls but his margins are shrinking, his debate performances have been widely criticized and he has fallen behind in several polls in the first crucial states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The other leading contenders have their own vulnerabilities. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden, Sanders lead Democratic field: poll Advocates call for ObamaCare open enrollment extension after website glitches The Memo: 2020 Democratic tensions burst to surface MORE (D-Mass.) had more momentum than any other candidate but her support has plateaued recently. She has come under more aggressive attack than ever before about her healthcare plans, her left-leaning worldview and the hotly contested point of her electability.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden, Sanders lead Democratic field: poll The Memo: 2020 Democratic tensions burst to surface Sanders should fix the child food programs we already have before creating new dysfunction MORE (I-Vt.) has a sizable, passionate following but has not shown much evidence of an ability to expand it. He is behind Warren in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national polling average, and there is a very real possibility that the two progressives could split the left-wing vote.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden, Sanders lead Democratic field: poll Hallmark Channel reverses decision to pull ads featuring same-sex couple Advocates call for ObamaCare open enrollment extension after website glitches MORE (D) has made startling progress, particularly in Iowa — a Monmouth University poll released on Tuesday gave him the lead in the Hawkeye State. 

But Buttigieg has negligible support among black Democrats — a problem which, if not solved, is likely to prove fatal to his chances.

The nature of the primary calendar could also fuel a prolonged battle. 

It is entirely plausible that the first four contests — in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — could produce four different winners. Biden’s strength in South Carolina, for example, stands in stark contrast to his weakness in Iowa. The reverse is true of Buttigieg.

Some Democrats caution against any acute worry just yet.

Robert Shrum, who has worked at a high level of presidential campaigns going back decades, noted that only twice in recent times has a candidate in a contested Democratic nomination fight won both Iowa and New Hampshire — then-Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreThe 'Green' new deal that Tom Perez needs to make Al Gore says Democrats should run on the Green New Deal Charlotte Pence to hold wedding reception at vice president's residence MORE in 2000 and then-Sen John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: 2020 Democratic tensions burst to surface UN chief warns unchecked climate change will mean 'survival of the richest' Conservatives rip FBI over IG report: 'scathing indictment' MORE (D-Mass.) in 2004.

A long primary, Shrum argued, is not necessarily a bad thing. He cited the example of 2008, when then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSchiff: I 'hope to hell' I would have voted to impeach Obama if he had committed same actions as Trump Impeachment nears: What would John McCain have done? Moderate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? MORE (D-Ill.) went on to win the general election handily against the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainImpeachment nears: What would John McCain have done? Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay MORE (R-Ariz.).

Shrum acknowledged, as do many other Democrats, that the last election presents a rather different lesson. 

The prolonged battle between Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOlympic figure skater Michelle Kwan makes Iowa appearances for Biden The Memo: 2020 Democratic tensions burst to surface The 'Green' new deal that Tom Perez needs to make MORE in 2016 is thought by many to have weakened her going into her general election fight with Trump.

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Adherents to this school of thought also note the number of votes cast for Green Party nominee Jill Stein could have been vital in the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle noted that Sanders in 2016 catered to an appetite for “disruptive politics.”

He added that “people were very nervous about that, not so much because of Bernie’s policies but because a lot of the rhetoric was directed toward Hillary and toward the Democratic Party itself.”

Smikle did note, however, that it was plausible that a candidate could benefit from a long nomination process, as well as be hurt by it.

“Democrats have to fully embrace their nominee — and not just as the nominal opponent to Trump in the general election,” he said. “There has to be a social movement around the Democratic candidate, and I think that is the open question — does a longer primary process help a candidate create a movement around their candidacy?”

For now, there is little to suggest that any of the big names will bow out anytime soon.

At the end of the third quarter, five candidates — Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg, as well as Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Sanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate MORE (D-Calif.), who has faded in opinion polls — had $9 million or more cash on hand. 

Sanders had more than $33 million, Warren more than $25 million and Buttigieg more than $23 million.

Those candidates, at least, have the resources to fight long and hard. 

If they divide the electoral spoils, the primary could remain competitive for months — while Trump looks on.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.