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 TrumpAdvisor: Sanders could beat Trump in Texas Bloomberg rips Sanders over Castro comments What coronavirus teaches us for preventing the next big bio threat 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 BloombergAdvisor: Sanders could beat Trump in Texas Bloomberg rips Sanders over Castro comments Video surfaces of Bloomberg saying father and son who died of heroin overdoses were 'not a good family' 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 ReidHarry Reid calls for end to all caucuses Reid pushes back on Sanders suggestion that a Democrat with plurality of delegates should be the nominee Harry Reid on 'Medicare for All': 'Not a chance in hell it would pass' MORE (D-Nev.).

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

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden faces do-or-die primary in South Carolina Democrats view Sanders as having best shot to defeat Trump: poll Karl Rove: 'Long way to go' for Sanders to capture nomination: 'The field is splintered' 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 WarrenJack Black endorses Elizabeth Warren Democrats view Sanders as having best shot to defeat Trump: poll Poll: Biden, Sanders tied in Texas, followed by Warren 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 SandersAdvisor: Sanders could beat Trump in Texas Bloomberg rips Sanders over Castro comments Liberal author Matt Stoller: Iowa caucus screw-up was 'Boeing 737 Max of the Democratic Party' 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 ButtigiegLiberal author Matt Stoller: Iowa caucus screw-up was 'Boeing 737 Max of the Democratic Party' Biden faces do-or-die primary in South Carolina Democrats view Sanders as having best shot to defeat Trump: poll 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 Gore'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate The Hill's Morning Report - In Nevada, bets on Sanders, eyes on Bloomberg Mellman: Primary elections aren't general elections MORE in 2000 and then-Sen John KerryJohn Forbes KerryJohn Kerry: Democratic debate 'was something of a food fight' Kerry responds to Trump accusation he violated Logan Act: 'Another presidential lie' Mellman: Primary elections aren't general elections 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 ObamaWhat coronavirus teaches us for preventing the next big bio threat Biden faces do-or-die primary in South Carolina Democrats' Obama-to-Sanders shift on charter schooling MORE (D-Ill.) went on to win the general election handily against the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: GOP lawmaker takes unannounced trip to Syria | Taliban leader pens New York Times op-ed on peace talks | Cheney blasts paper for publishing op-ed GOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria Meghan McCain after Gaetz says Trump should pardon Roger Stone: 'Oh come on' 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 ClintonBiden faces do-or-die primary in South Carolina President Trump's assault on checks and balances: Five acts in four weeks Schiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again' 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 HarrisThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Juan Williams: Black votes matter Clyburn: Biden 'suffered' from not doing 'enough' in early debates 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.