What’s puzzling and frustrating to many of his would-be supporters is why Patrick is only getting into the race now, mere days before the Friday filing deadline in New Hampshire and with less than three months until the Iowa caucuses. Especially since many Obama alumni (and others) were on the verge of dropping everything a year ago to work on his 2020 campaign: In December 2018, Patrick started laying the groundwork for a campaign—calls went out to potential campaign staff and brokers of office space—and then suddenly stopped the process days later. Even after that, several people close to him checked in before taking other campaign jobs, to make sure that he wouldn’t change his mind and run; they received his blessing to move on. Now many of his top aides are committed elsewhere: Doug Rubin, a former top strategist, is advising Tom Steyer’s campaign; John Walsh, another top adviser, is managing Senator Ed Markey’s primary campaign in Massachusetts; John Del Cecato, who made advertisements for Patrick’s gubernatorial campaigns, is working for Buttigieg—the list goes on.
In Patrick’s first run for governor, in 2006, he spent a year slowly building support, one house party or small event at a time, en route from being a relative political unknown to winning the election. Last year, when a Patrick presidential campaign seemed to be in the works, that 2006 slow-build run was to be the model.
There’s no time for that now. There would also seem to be no money, and unlike Michael Bloomberg, who filed candidacy paperwork in Alabama late last week, Patrick can’t draw on a personal fortune to fuel a campaign. So what’s the rationale for why Patrick is jumping in so late? It’s the same as Bloomberg’s: the growing fear that Biden will lose to Warren who will then lose to Donald Trump—or that Biden himself, even if he does secure the Democratic nomination, will not be nimble enough to defeat Trump in the general. (Appearing as a political commentator on CBS last month, Patrick said that he thought Biden’s support among voters seemed “soft” and that “it feels like his campaign is contracting rather than expanding,” and he’s expressed doubts about the Medicare for All plans supported by Warren and Bernie Sanders.)
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On the one hand, a Patrick candidacy begun this late is unlikely to be anything but quixotic. On the other hand, Patrick does seem—at least superficially—like more of a natural fit for where the modern Democratic Party is going than the former mayor of New York: Bloomberg’s managerial acumen aside, as an old, ultrarich white man with a spotty record with women and African Americans, he is like a human bingo card of what the most active Democratic voters are not looking for.
But alumni of the 44th president’s administration, along with many other Democrats, are desperate to find the next Obama. Already wincing at the undermining of Obama’s policies by Trump on the right, they bridle at the (usually implicit) attacks on his legacy by Democratic-primary candidates on the left, and are eager to defend against them. Patrick might be capable of building an Obama-style appeal to disparate parts of the electorate in order to lead America “back to common ground,” as he has said the Democratic nominee must do. But with little time, little money, and many potential staff already working for other candidates, a successful Deval Patrick candidacy will require magic of Frank Capra–esque proportions.