For 2020, Democrats appear virtually certain to assemble the largest and most diverse collection of presidential contenders in the party’s history. And with the rise of online fundraising, ever-expanding opportunities to communicate through social media, and the proliferation of political news on the internet and cable television, the candidates, more than ever before, may have an opportunity to make themselves known to voters.
But even with all these new developments, many veteran Democratic strategists believe the window of opportunity for candidates to emerge as viable contenders may be as narrow as ever—and as dependent as always on success in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that have winnowed the field for generations.
“You have to do something in either Iowa or New Hampshire, or you become irrelevant very quickly,” says Tad Devine, a senior strategist on Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, whose experience working in presidential primaries dates back to the 1980s. “I still think those voters have the loudest voices.”
One of the most unpredictable dynamics of the 2020 Democratic race is how and when this kaleidoscopic field will narrow into a top tier of serious contenders. Given the size and diversity of the assembling gaggle, it’s possible that the race will produce a long and inconclusive struggle, with several candidates establishing durable geographic and demographic bases of support that prevent any one from consolidating a clear advantage. But it’s also possible—even likely, the strategists say—that the early states will reduce the field as ruthlessly as they have historically, effectively marginalizing almost all the candidates long before any voters in the largest states have had an opportunity to weigh in. If that’s right, the vast majority of Democratic voters will still be choosing among a much smaller group determined largely by voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, with South Carolina and, to a lesser extent, Nevada joining in the culling.