Questions over the partys frontrunners have prompted late entrants with problems of their own: Theyre fumbling for a message
Too old. Too young. Too white. Too leftwing. Anxiety over Democrats failure to find a standout candidate is raising fears that, despite astounding unpopularity and potential impeachment, Donald Trump could win re-election by default.
The Democratic primarys top tier of candidates does not include a person of colour even in the biggest and most diverse field in history. The leader of national opinion polls turned 77 this week and delivered another stumbling debate performance while fending off questions about his sons foreign business dealings.
The poll leader in Iowa, which will get the first say, is the 37-year-old mayor of a small city who in some surveys is polling close to zero with African American voters. Two more septuagenarians have seen their momentum stall amid criticism that their healthcare reforms are too radical and unaffordable.
Watching it all with glee are Trump and Republicans, hardly able to believe their luck that they might not have to win next years election so much as watch Democrats lose it, just as Hillary Clinton did by failing to motivate turnout in crucial states in 2016. This weeks debate in Atlanta showed that the party is struggling again to find a nominee as inspiring as Barack Obama.
When I ask my students, is there anyone on that debate stage tonight who you see as being presidential, most of them say no, theres no one out there, said Monika McDermott, a political science professor, at Fordham University in New York. And theyre political junkies so they know as much as any of us do.
So I think that Democrats have a real problem here in that they have a bunch of candidates who appeal to different groups for different reasons but they dont have a clear leader in the group, and thats part of the problem.
Joe Biden, the former vice-president who heads national polls, needed a big night in Atlanta but was widely panned, especially for some unfortunate word choices. Speaking about sexual violence, he said: So we have to just change the culture, period. And keep punching at it and punching it and punching at it.
And boasting about his support among African Americans, Biden listed the only black African American woman who had ever been elected to the United States Senate as one of his endorsers. The California senator Kamala Harris threw her hands in the air and said: Nope. Thats not true. The other one is here.
Pundits were withering. Lawrence ODonnell, a host on the MSNBC network, described it as a colossal gaffe unlike any other Ive seen in a debate performance because its literally about a person whos standing on the stage who he in this moment has forgotten exists. The Washington Post noted that Bidens debate performances are almost unfailingly shaky.
This comes against a backdrop of Biden last month releasing a weak third-quarter fundraising report and falling behind in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, which votes second. The man who was at Obamas side for eight years is, commentators say, on an irresistible slide.
The Democrats have a problem
For those nervous about another electoral disaster for Democrats in 2020, the canaries in the coal mine are Deval Patrick, the former governor or Massachusetts, and Michael Bloomberg, the super-rich ex-mayor of New York, who either have entered or seem poised to enter the race at the last minute a sure sign that Biden is perceived as weak and flagging.
Speaking at the New York Foreign Press Center on Friday, McDermott said: Bidens lack of leadership is what caused Deval Patrick and Bloomberg [to enter]. I dont think those two will have any effect on the race … But people are worried about Joe Biden, that hes too old, that hes been around long, not a fresh face, not very exciting to voters. So, yes, the Democrats have a problem.
Bloomberg, 77, a former Republican, and Patrick, who governed Massachusetts, are also thought to be motivated by concerns that Senators Bernie Sanders, 78, and Elizabeth Warren, 70, progressives who want to eliminate private health insurance and introduce far reaching structural change, will be easy to demonise as dangerous socialists in a general election.