Why Wednesday should be the end of the road for some 2020 Democrats

In a Quinnipiac University poll of the 2020 Democratic field released Wednesday, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (New York) and Michael Bennet (Colorado), Gov. Steve Bullock (Montana), Reps. Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio got 4% of the vote.


Bennet, Bullock, Gabbard and de Blasio each took 1%. Which means Gillibrand and Ryan got 0%. And unfortunately for all six of them, the Q poll’s findings are not an outlier. In the Real Clear Politics polling average, which collects all polls conducted in the 2020 primary race, Bullock is at .6%, de Blasio, Gillibrand and Ryan at .5% and Bennet at .4%. Gabbard polls a bit higher, at 1.4%.

None of the six are going to make the next presidential debate, set for September 12 in Houston. The qualification period for the debate ends at midnight Wednesday and none have even close to the requisite polling requirements to make the stage. (As of now, 10 candidates have qualified for the debate.)

And — unlike some of their equally poor-polling 2020 candidates — they all have day jobs for which they are currently being paid! So why are they still running for president — and how much longer can they keep it up?

On one level, those questions have very simple answers. They are running for president because they believe they are the best person to do the job. And they can keep running until their fundraising runs out — or even beyond that if they’re willing to go into debt.

But the actual answers to these questions are more complex — especially because all five of these candidates see political futures for themselves beyond this race.

Take Gillibrand. When she got into the presidential race earlier this year, she was seen as someone who might make some news. A senator from New York with proven fundraising chops, a liberal record (in the Senate, at least) and someone who took a lead role in speaking out amid the MeToo movement.

But Gillibrand hasn’t been able to generate a spark or a moment that delivered (or came close to delivering) on that promise. And she is still a sitting US senator who a) has five years remaining on her term and b) whose Senate salary is paid by taxpayers.

All of which means that at some point very soon — and missing the third debate due to an inability to get 2% in four national or early state polls is as good a time as any — Gillibrand has to make a hard decision about whether she can afford to keep waiting for a moment in the 2020 race or not. (Ditto the other four!)

See, running for president when you currently hold another elected office is a very delicate balance.

It can be a profile-booster — even if you don’t wind up with the nomination. You get loads of national press coverage, appear in debates on national TV and get to outline your policy vision for the country. Heck, play your cards right and you might even wind up on the presidential ticket! (See: John Edwards and Joe Biden.)

But there comes a point in every losing presidential primary campaign where the candidate crosses from “hey, all this press attention is super good for me no matter what happens!” to something much darker. If you stay in the race much beyond that point, you risk having the presidential campaign as a black mark on your overall record — and political career. People like Connecticut Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman — and it hurts my Connecticut native heart to admit it — are examples of that reality. Both men were reduced by their last presidential bids, not — to borrow a word from that famed pioneer Jebediah Springfield — “embiggened.”

In short: Once the stink of loserdom gets on to you, it’s hard to get it off.

While it’s hard to see de Blasio running for president again, the other five mentioned above absolutely could. Of that quarter, Bennet is the oldest — and he’s only 54! Gillibrand and Bullock are in their early 50s while Ryan is only 46. Gabbard is only 38. For comparison, the three front-runners for the 2020 Democratic nod are 77 (Bernie Sanders), 76 (Joe Biden) and 70 (Elizabeth Warren).

Given that, much of the political futures of the likes of Gillibrand or Bennet or Ryan could well depend on what they decide to do in the next few weeks. While there’s already talk that they all will try to survive, financially speaking, until the October debate, that could be a risky political proposition for these candidates.

The time for waiting and hoping is coming to an end. The time for making tough choices about what’s best for long-term political futures is here.