Looking at History, The Democratic Prez Field Isn’t All That Big

Posted March 7, 2003 at 4:19pm

While each new Democratic presidential contender is greeted with another gasp by politics watchers working on their jokes about the swelling Democratic field, historians must be wondering what all the fuss is about. [IMGCAP(1)]

The current nine-person Democratic field is not particularly large by recent historical standards. In fact, it’s right at the average over the past eight presidential cycles for the party not holding the White House.

Going back to 1972, the smallest number of candidates by the party seeking to take over the White House was six, for the Democrats in 1992. Only Bill Clinton, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin, Jerry Brown and Doug Wilder entered the Democratic race that year, probably because the Democratic nomination looked less valuable when then-President George H.W. Bush’s job approval hit 89 percent after the Gulf War.

On the other hand, four of the past eight presidential campaigns have had fields even larger than the current one. A dozen Democrats sought their party’s nomination in both 1972 and 1976, while 10 GOP candidates ran in 1996 and 11 made the race in 2000.

There appears to be no relationship between the size of the field and the success of the eventual nominee in the general election. Large fields have produced candidates who eventually won in November (1976 and 2000, for example), as well as those who went on to lose (1972 and 1996).

Is the Democratic field unwieldy? Sure, if by that you mean that getting all nine hopefuls into one room at the same time will invariably create the impression of a cattle call. A nine-person debate can’t be anything but messy, with individual answers by necessity short and any meaningful give-and-take almost impossible.

And, yes, having nine candidates and no overwhelming frontrunner creates a good bit of uncertainty about the outcome.

“The Democratic presidential field is so large that it is inherently topsy-turvy. The race won’t settle down for a while,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang.

In addition, the long list of Democratic hopefuls certainly gives the impression that the party isn’t sure what it stands for. But that can also be true of a six-person field that includes candidates with widely disparate views (as was the case in 1992).

And let’s not exaggerate the difficulties facing the voters or the media in covering the field. This is a big country, and rank-and-file Democrats, particularly in the early states, will have plenty of chances to inspect and dissect the candidates. We’re still more than 10 months from the Iowa caucuses, and many of the contenders are spending plenty of time on the campaign trail. It’s not as if voters will have only a couple of weeks to hear from all of the hopefuls.

By the time Iowa rolls around in January, members of the national media and the attentive public will have had countless opportunities — on “Inside Politics,” “Meet the Press,” “This Week,” “Face the Nation” and the various network evening news programs — to see and hear from each of the Democratic hopefuls.

Indeed, the move toward further front-loading of caucuses and primaries forces Democratic presidential candidates to spend time in states other than Iowa and New Hampshire.

Reporters feel obligated to give all of the announced candidates some ink, but as the race unfolds, that will change. Those candidates who have a real chance will get more attention, and more chances to compare and contrast their abilities, records and priorities with the other hopefuls.

So when political observers (myself included) joke about the size of the field, remember that most of us are so cynical that we make fun of everything.

If you think this Democratic field is unmanageably large, consider the 1998 Democratic primary in the 8th district of Massachusetts. It featured 10 candidates, half of whom drew in the double digits.