Life Is Rough When You’re a Second-Tier Democratic Presidential Candidate

New Jersey senator Cory Booker speaks at Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant in Los Angeles, Calif., April 22, 2019. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The second-quarter fundraising reports for the Democratic presidential candidates are in, and if your name isn’t Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris, you’re in trouble.

The writing is on the wall for everybody else. A lot of these campaigns are running on fumes. Gillibrand has $8.2 million left in cash on hand, but twelve have less than $3 million.

The above quintet is the top five in national polling, Iowa polling, New Hampshire polling and South Carolina polling. In the RealClearPolitics averages, the closest sixth-place finisher is Cory Booker in South Carolina… at 4 percent. Sure, something could change, but most of the candidates have had their televised debate debuts. We saw during the last round how difficult it was to have a breakout moment on a crowded debate stage with moderators most interested in the frontrunners. Julian Castro had some good moments knocking around Beto O’Rourke, but that didn’t turn into a monumental wave of donations. He raised $2.8 million in this past quarter. That’s good enough to rank 12th out of 22 candidates; Buttigieg raised about nine times as much.

Until the formal end of their campaigns, I’ll have a lot of fun mocking this small army of candidates known as The Asterisks. But for now, let’s pause and have a few molecules of sympathy for those “rising star” politicians who are painfully learning that their stars will rise no further. You work hard, you have success at the state level, you think you have impressive accomplishments, you think you’re charismatic and like-able, and then one morning you wake up to find you’ve got less support in New Hampshire than the Hollywood New Age guru. Politics is rough, man.

John Hickenlooper had the kind of resume that usually looks good: two-term mayor, two-term governor of what was, not long ago, a hard-fought purple state. He’s got a quirky sense of humor, which you would think would be worth something, but nope. He can’t break past one percent anywhere.

As far back as 2017, publications like Vogue gave Kirsten Gillibrand the glossy “she could be the next president” treatment. She had replaced Hillary Clinton in the Senate, cosponsored a slew of bills, voted against every Trump nominee. Her fans raved about her retail politicking skills, but apparently they’re worthless. She’s visited New Hampshire 55 times! Five of the last six polls in that state have her at one percent.

Back in 2012, Julian Castro was the rising star among in the Democratic Party, and a lot of publications labeled him “the Latino Obama.” He’s the only Latino candidate in the Democratic field. But forget nationally or the early primary states; Castro can’t even break out in his home state in Texas. In the six surveys of likely Democratic primary voters in Texas this year, Castro was named the first choice of 3, 4, 2, 4, 5, and 4 percent.

Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet are all multi-term senators with law degrees from good schools, and they’re all still trying to break out of that “oh yeah, that person’s running, too” category. (Bennet can at least boast he’s gotten George Will’s endorsement, for all the good that will do him in the Democratic primary.) All three adopted some vague somewhat-centrist strategy for this presidential cycle – Booker is trying to be uplifting and talk about love and unity, Klobuchar is attempting to showcase “Minnesota nice,” Bennet is talking about empowering citizens. Whatever they’re selling, few Democratic voters seem to be buying it so far.

Most of these lawmakers adopted some version of Barack Obama’s path to the presidency. Serve in the Senate, mix up some bipartisan cooperation on less controversial legislation with some “tough” stances to show the grassroots you’re a fighter, suck up to the interest groups that traditionally power the party, promise the moon and figure out how to pay for it later, and hope that personal charisma can carry you the rest of the way.

Maybe that only works if you’re as naturally talented on the stump as Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008. Or maybe even the Barack Obama of 2007 and 2008 would have a hard time standing out in a crowd of 25 candidates.

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