Life Is Rough for Lesser-Known 2020 Democratic Candidates

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D, N.Y.) waits to go on stage during her campaign kick off event in New York, March 24, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

If you have an appetite for schadenfreude, one of the pleasures of the ongoing 2020 Democratic primary will be watching once-highly-touted politicians realize just how limited their appeal is, as they struggle to reach 5 percent in a crowded field.

Julian Castro, frequently called “the Latino Obama” back when he was mayor of San Antonio, is scraping along the bottom in the RealClearPolitics average at 1.2 percent. Tulsi Gabbard, who stands out as one of the youngest and the only surfer in the field, and who was touted in Vogue as “the next Democratic Party star,” currently is at eight-tenths of one percent.

But perhaps the most delicious is New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Back in 2017, Vogue’s cover declared, “2020 Vision: All Eyes on Kirsten Gillibrand.” (Back then I laid out how the glowing profile left a very misleading impression that Gillbrand was an economic centrist, an iconoclast, and a campaigning powerhouse with cross-party appeal.) All eyes may be upon her, but she’s at four-tenths of one percent in the RCP average.

Yes, it’s early. Yes, we haven’t had any debates yet. But it doesn’t get any easier for the candidates at the bottom as they compete for attention, donors, and early support.

Gillbrand is now in the “Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” stage, unveiling a cockamamie plan “to give every voter up to $600 in what she calls ‘Democracy Dollars’ that they can donate to federal candidates for office.” Yes, she wants to take your tax dollars, give you $600 back, and then allow you to donate that money to political candidates like her.

Her plan is spectacularly contradictory: “The money could go only to elections in the donor’s state, although they could be used for House candidates outside the voter’s district.” Apparently it’s somehow unethical to donate to candidates in another state, but not in another congressional district.

Gillibrand based her plan on a program enacted in Seattle in 2017, which gave four $25 Democracy Vouchers to every Seattle resident for use in two at-large city council races and the contest for city attorney. Advocates for the program celebrated the fact that more than 18,000 Seattle residents used the vouchers. Less celebrated was the fact that this number represented less than four percent of eligible residents; more than 96 percent of Seattle residents ignored the program.

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