A little more than a year ago, Deval Patrick was unsure how he would potentially distinguish himself among the historically crowded 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“It’s hard to see how you even get noticed in such a big, broad field without being shrill, sensational, or a celebrity — and I’m none of those things and I’m never going to be any of those things,” the former Massachusetts governor said in a podcast interview, adding that he wasn’t sure there was “a place for me” in the field.
But now, he thinks there is a place. After initially declining a 2020 run, Patrick announced his late-stage entrance last week into the still-crowded race — even if the challenges he cited back in September 2018 have only magnified.
“Getting a presidential campaign together is always a challenge, especially when you have to play catch up,” says Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at UMass Boston.
Patrick won’t be among the 10 candidates in the fifth Democratic debate this Wednesday, and appears highly unlikely to meet the qualifying thresholds for next month’s debate, which requires candidates to have received donations from at least 200,000 unique individuals. With less than three months until voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, it could be “hard to break through the noise,” O’Brien said, noting that most Democratic voters already have picked their top four or five candidates, if not a hard-and-fast favorite.
According to The New York Times, the entrance of Patrick — as well as the potential entrance of former New York City mayor and Medford native Michael Bloomberg — comes amid donor angst about the existing field of candidates, even if those worries are not shared by most voters. A Monmouth poll released earlier this month found that nearly three-quarters of primary voters were satisfied with the current field, though non-liberals (22 percent) were twice as likely as liberals (11 percent) to say they wanted a new option.
“There’s been no real concern except for whispers among well-funded donors,” Stonehill professor Peter Ubertaccio told WBUR last week. “And that’s very different than the concerns of the primary voters.”
Still, O’Brien says certain logistical hurdles may be overblown. While many of Patrick’s former close advisers have signed on with other campaigns (or are even running for office themselves), his entrance into the race is so late that, somewhat ironically, it comes at a time when other political operatives are newly looking for a job. For instance, Patrick hired Abe Rakov — a former adviser to former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who dropped out of the presidential race last month — as his campaign manager.
And while building formidable grassroots support could be a challenge, he should be able to fund a campaign. Politico reported last week that top Democratic donors — many with ties to Wall Street — see Patrick as the “perfect candidate” and the PAC he launched in 2018 was predominantly funded by just a handful of big-dollar donations. Additionally, during an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Patrick said he wouldn’t discourage a super PAC from spending big to support him.
“I think we need to do some catch-up so I think we’ve got to follow and find all sorts of above-board strategies,” Patrick said, adding that he wanted any such contributions to be disclosed.
While those sources may be “suspect in democratic circles,” O’Brien says Patrick does have undeniable political talent. As an uplifting speaker with an inspirational life story, his campaign style often evokes memories of one of his close friends: former President Barack Obama.
Similar to Obama, O’Brien says Patrick could run as a “moderate that progressives can still be excited about.”
For his part, Patrick says he’s not running on a “moderate agenda.” But the 63-year-old did use the first days of his campaign to draw contrasts with the race’s progressive standard-bearers, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, a fellow Bay Stater. In his first interview as a 2020 candidate, Patrick suggested more centrist approaches to health care, taxes, and student loan debt. Yet, he also has repeatedly signaled dissatisfaction with the debate performances of Joe Biden and the former vice president’s thematic appeal to “nostalgia.”
Of course, Patrick isn’t the only one. As “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd noted Sunday, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg — the current frontrunner in Iowa, according to a recent poll — has been making “similar arguments” about bringing the country together without shifting too far to the left.
“Isn’t your message already represented?” Todd asked.
In response, the former governor — who worked with Democratic super-majorities in the state Legislature to pass transportation, education, ethics, and clean energy bills — touted his “record of being a bridge-builder,” subtly highlighting the differences between being the mayor of a 100,000-person city and the top executive of a state of nearly 7 million residents.
“The nation needs experience, not just a sensibility around bridge-building, but actually some results in that respect,” he said, alluding to his work to lead Massachusetts through a recession.
“We are in crisis, in many respects, here, in America,” Patrick said. “And we used a crisis, in Massachusetts, to come out stronger economically, stronger socially, and more fair. And I’d like to see if those experiences and that aptitude and that skillset can be offered in service of our nation.”
But it’s still unclear how much appetite there is among 2020 primary voters for that message. While Buttigieg has, at least in Iowa (polls show the Indianan struggling among black voters in other states), found success campaigning as a unifying progressive, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has been campaigning for more than 10 months as someone who would both help the country heal after President Donald Trump and pursue ambitious proposals to boost those left behind — with little traction in the polls.
In an interview with The Boston Globe last week, Booker acknowledged the “eerie” similarities between himself and Patrick, but declined to pontificate on his opponent’s chances or the perceived lanes in the race.
“I think that folks are going to make their decision,” Booker said. “None of us candidates should be pundits about what another candidate’s chances are.”