vision 2020

Could Deval Patrick Shake Up the Primary?

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First it was Michael Bloomberg. Now it’s former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick considering throwing his hat into the once-shrinking, now possibly expanding, ring of Democratic candidates. (Oh, and possibly Hillary Clinton for good measure.) But could Patrick actually make a difference in the race? I spoke with national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti and political columnist Ed Kilgore to try to figure it out.

Ben: Deval Patrick seemed like a possibly promising presidential candidate about a year ago. Then he became among the first high-profile names to declare he wouldn’t run, citing, reasonably enough, the “cruelty of our elections process.” Now, in a twist I don’t really think anyone saw coming, he might jump in at the last minute after all. Could he shake up the race, or this mostly just wishful thinking on his end?

Gabriel: Depends what you mean by “shake up,” but it’s hard to see how he could come in this late and win if he’s really trying to compete in New Hampshire (which, notably, Mike Bloomberg is saying he wouldn’t do). All indications are the former Massachusetts governor wants to play in the early state, but it’s been organized and advertised in by the other candidates for a year.

Ed: He’s got until Friday (the NH filing deadline) to lie down and get over it.

Sorry to usurp Ben’s role, but I do have a question for Gabe: How much of this do you think just reflects the famous “donor panic” we’ve been hearing so much about?

Ben: I was getting to that…

Gabriel: I don’t know about donors who have been encouraging Patrick, specifically. But there’s definitely a feeling of “AAHH! We need someone else!” in much of the professional political class that’s simply not reflected in the primary electorate. As I pointed out in my story about Bloomberg yesterday, a recent USC/LAT poll showed only 4 percent of Democratic primary voters are undecided because they’re unsatisfied with the candidates. All that said, it’s definitely true that a lot of donors (and strategists and former pols and people that just generally like to think of themselves as savvy) are very, very worried about the field and, most importantly, the front-running candidates’ ability to beat Trump. No doubt Patrick feels the same way and has participated in such conversations, or we wouldn’t be here. I mean, every day I get texts from political pros, donors, and retired electeds wondering “who else might be out there?”

Ed: Well, Patrick does work at Bain Capital.

Gabriel: To back up for a second, the idea of a Patrick candidacy was not far-fetched at all around a year ago.

Ed: A big part of his promise, though, was the implied support of a certain former president and his circle.

Gabriel: You mean Carter?

Ed: Haha. I was going to say Bill Clinton.

Gabriel: Kidding. Last year, there were very influential corners of ObamaWorld (insofar as “ObamaWorld” is still a real thing) that took Patrick 2020 much more seriously than the potential candidacies of the other two Obama friends who were looking at it, Joe Biden and Eric Holder. So that wasn’t a crazy premise. (Michael Bennet is also an Obama friend, but, well. Yeah.)

It’s true he’s been working at Bain Capital, which would obviously be hard to maneuver politically, but the idea of a moderate former governor who is close with Obama, who could theoretically be very competitive in New Hampshire and South Carolina, was a promising one.

Ed: Julián Castro was in his Cabinet.

Gabriel: Indeed, but never a personal friend.

Ben: As many have noted, not only are Democrats satisfied with their choices, according to the polls, but the great moderate hope, Joe Biden, is doing perfectly fine in national and most state polls — just not so much Iowa and New Hampshire. Does the apparent concern about his candidacy have more to do with his ability to win the primary and/or general, or a certain level of alarm about his slips of the tongue and faculties in general? It’s not like the latter concern hasn’t been around for quite a while now.

Gabriel: Well, the concern is that the latter is feeding into the former.

Ed: Is there any intel suggesting that these fears about Uncle Joe extend deeply into the circles of the 44th president? Because any hint of Obama giving up on Biden could really set off the kindling beneath his campaign.

Ben: Ed, I’ll ask the questions here.

Gabriel: None of this would be happening, of course, if Biden were in a stronger position. But the overarching fear that’s causing it is that he would lose to Trump. Secondarily, it’s that he can’t even get out of the primary and someone even less acceptable to the general population would win it.

No, Obama has been extremely careful not to send any signals.

Ben: Do you find there to be a mismatch between the donor sentiment and what you see on the ground, though, in terms of Biden’s actual capabilities to make it through the primary?

Gabriel: Of course. There’s a mismatch in donor sentiment and voter sentiment on, like, everything right now. It’s just a mismatch, though, not a total disagreement. There’s a reason Pete Buttigieg is having a moment right now — a lot of people who might otherwise be interested in Biden are giving him a look. A lot of donors, too. The idea that Biden is vulnerable isn’t exactly a niche one born of Wall Street.

Ed: Trouble is, of course, that Biden has blocked the emergence of what donors probably want — another Bill Clinton or Barack Obama: a centrist with charisma and an interesting story.

Ben: And that’s where Mayor Pete comes in.

Ed: Yeah, but you can see why he would not be the answer to every donor’s prayer. His inability to appeal to African-Americans (which Patrick presumably could do) and his brief résumé (Patrick’s is fine) are problems, even if his sexual orientation isn’t considered a handicap.You could almost see Patrick’s name emerge from a discussion of why Buttigieg isn’t the answer.

Ben: We should note, though, that the current black candidates in the race aren’t exactly doing great numbers among black voters. Joe Biden continues to dominate there.

Gabriel: A lot of this gets to what I noted above: Patrick had a lot of promise when he was first considering the race. The thing I’m unsure of now is what dynamics would change with him in it, other than the novelty generating news coverage, and therefore some attention that might be good for him.

Ben: Back then, I recall chatting about whether he would actually be appealing to voters. Bain Capital was seen as a possible albatross.

Ed: Yeah, I’m not saying I think Patrick makes sense; just trying to make sense of why he’s getting this very late boomlet of interest.

Gabriel: I’m not convinced there is a boomlet of interest at all. Just a boomlet of “My name is Deval Patrick, and I might be interested.”

Ben: Are there other big names we should be expecting to jump in over the next few weeks? Andrew Cuomo? Al Gore? Walter Mondale?

Ed: No.

Gabriel: Maybe Cory Booker should leak to the Times that he’s considering filing for the New Hampshire primary, and he’ll get a front-page story too. (No.)

Ed: Haha. But seriously, it’s the filing deadlines that are creating this little squall. When a few more pass, it will probably end.

Gabriel: Yes, exactly. And that’s actually one of the things that makes this all slightly baffling, as I said up top. If Patrick thinks he can seriously compete for NH, that would be a massive development, and I would be fascinated to see the data he’s looking at.

Ben: Is there nothing that would point to that being a possibility? He was a popular governor in my home state of Massachusetts, across the border. He’s a skilled politician and, like his friend Obama, an excellent orator — among the best in this field, for sure.

Ed: Last Massachusetts pol to come in late and sweep the New Hampshire primary was Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964 … and he was in Saigon.

Ben: Good history lesson.

Gabriel: As far as I can tell, there were zero NH polls this cycle before Patrick took himself out of the running. There’s no obvious evidence that he’d do well there. Of course, he’s from next door. But so are two other candidates who’ve been near-constant presences in NH for a year, or, in one case, five years.

Ben: So is this really just a lesson about how big your average politican’s ego really is?

Gabriel: I don’t know if this is all about ego. He was a successful governor! But it is a lesson about how nervous professional Democrats are.

Ed: For reasons we’ve talked about off and on all cycle, this is a year in which an awful lot of pols are going to see the next president of the United States in the mirror: the Trump ’16 example, the sense that this is the highest-stakes election of our era, and now the very size of the field which makes the emergence of a real front-runner so difficult.

Could Deval Patrick Shake Up the Primary?