I’m going to write something annoying. I’m going to write some horse-race campaign analysis. I’m going to write very broadly and subjectively about trends in the race without using hard data or discussing policy. I’m doing so because I think what I am describing has a possibility of happening, and I think people who are invested in this presidential election should be prepared for it.
The following things are true:
To be very overly broad (I am, I am aware, describing the beliefs and motives of a large and diverse set of individuals), “Clinton World” detests Bernie Sanders, is largely on board with Kamala Harris, but has no real problem with Elizabeth Warren and would greet her nomination without much rancor.
“Obama World” doesn’t share this perspective. It doesn’t take Sanders seriously, and thinks of him—even with some affection—as a harmless crank. It, however, strongly dislikes Warren. I don’t want to say it would stop at nothing to prevent her from winning the nomination, but there are a lot of ancient tensions between the two camps that are far from settled.
If it is the growing consensus among many top Democrats in those two worlds that Joe Biden does not have it in him to win the nomination (or the general election), there are a couple of obvious paths forward: Boost the prospects of the “mainstream” candidate most likely to win if Biden fades or Option B, which we will get to in a minute.
In Clinton World, it seems obvious to continue to offer support to Kamala Harris, or to hope for Amy Klobuchar to surge, or perhaps get behind Warren. It would be smarter for anyone in the anybody-but-Sanders camp to throw in with Warren now, given the fact that the Harris and Klobuchar campaigns have entered a decaying orbit. But for many, those two senators still “make sense on paper,” so seemingly smart people are still convinced something might come of them.
But what should Obama World do if it sees Harris (or Cory Booker, or Julián Castro, both of whom are viewed with favor by this camp) struggling to gain traction? Many of this cohort seem to like Mayor Pete Buttigieg and would find his nomination acceptable. Nevertheless, they surely originally envisioned him as, perhaps, a future Senate candidate, or a running mate at best. It can’t be lost on them that the primary calendar after New Hampshire and Iowa becomes rough sledding for a candidate whose entire base of support is white. Still, they can’t back Warren; Sanders is an unserious option; Biden has perhaps lost it.
So: Enter Deval Patrick. But not to actually win the nomination in the primary process. No, this is Option B.
Patrick cannot possibly expect to enter the race at this late hour and run a normal presidential candidacy designed to accrue a majority of delegates ahead of the convention. (Who is he even hiring to run his campaign? There are a dozen active campaigns already being run by campaign professionals!) He won’t qualify for the debates. He has low national name recognition, hasn’t been fundraising, and his history in the private sector is radioactive. No one in decades has entered the race this late and won any primaries or caucuses. He launched his campaign in time to file for the New Hampshire primary but has already missed filing deadlines in multiple other states.
I am not the first person to suggest this, but Patrick seems to have jumped into the race with a clear purpose in mind: to hurt Warren’s chances in New England. (For those who doubt Obama allies would operate like this, please remember who runs the Democratic National Committee, and why.) Still, the Obama camp has been encouraging Patrick to run for years presumably because they think he would be a great candidate—in a general election. Patrick, too, is not the sort to leave his elite private sector job solely to screw over Elizabeth Warren on behalf of his friends from the Obama White House. He seemingly plans to actually run for president with the intention of winning the presidency. But the inescapable fact is that his campaign does not make any logical sense as a conventional primary campaign.
Finally, let us consider Michael Bloomberg, whose bid makes even less sense. While he is able to completely self-fund a presidential campaign, giving him an advantage over Patrick (who is regular-rich, not plutocrat-rich), the former New York City mayor is skipping Iowa and New Hampshire and purchasing generically anti-Trump Facebook ads instead of Facebook ads promoting a Michael Bloomberg candidacy. He has apologized for stop and frisk, yes, but he is broadly doing things to make himself seem acceptable to Democratic voters, not (yet) to convince them to support Michael Bloomberg in enough primaries and caucuses to give him the nomination.
Bloomberg also very much wants to be president, and has only declined to run in the past because he was smart enough to know he couldn’t win as an independent and probably couldn’t win either party’s nomination the traditional way. How could Bloomberg win, then? If he was handed the nomination at a brokered convention. I know that invoking that term is going to touch off a wave of groans from people who, every election cycle, read countless pieces of glorified politics fanfic from pundits predicting brokered conventions that simply do not happen anymore. I said from the start that this was going to be annoying.
But this is the only way these two late entrants make any sense. The Patrick and Bloomberg campaigns are not mere long shots, or attempts to harm Sanders or Warren on behalf of the moderates. They are calculated bets on a brokered convention. These are well-connected people at the highest levels of Democratic Party politics (despite his independent status, Bloomberg has always surrounded himself with Democratic campaign veterans and aides), making it clear that they think there is a real chance that the nomination will be completely up for grabs next July.
The fact that these two men and their allies believe this does not make a contested convention inevitable, or even more likely than it was a month ago. All the insiders involved with these latter-day candidacies believe themselves to be much more electorally savvy than they actually are. They make assumptions about the current front-runners, and about the electorate, that are probably untrue. Elections are unpredictable. But plans are in motion, because nothing is going according to plan. Be prepared.