It may seem strange that former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is entering the presidential race, as he will reportedly announce on Thursday. It’s really late. The field still has 16 major candidates.1 And Democratic voters really like the group of people already running. But Patrick has a clear rationale for running — even if his odds of winning the nomination are pretty low.
Democrats, as I wrote earlier this week, have a somewhat unorthodox set of front-runners — at least when compared to past nominees. Former Vice President Joe Biden is on the old side (76). South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is on the young side (37). Sen. Elizabeth Warren is very liberal. And Sen. Bernie Sanders is both very liberal and old (78). The last two Democrats to win a general election — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — were 40-somethings who ran on somewhat safe ideological platforms.
Patrick, meanwhile, is 63 years old — not young, exactly, but not in his upper 70s either. He served two terms as Massachusetts governor. He’s liberal, but unlikely to push more controversial liberal policies such as Medicare for All or more drastic ones such as a wealth tax. I assume that Patrick, who is friendly with Obama, is himself wary of the current Democratic field and its lack of a Clinton- or Obama-style figure, and that his circle includes a lot of Democratic Party operatives and donors who see this void and encouraged him to run. (Or at least didn’t discourage him.)
You might think that Patrick’s logical path is to compete with Biden for black voters, and with Warren and Sanders for New Hampshire voters (all three come from neighboring states). And sure, it would help Patrick if he can peel off some of Warren’s well-educated liberal voters, particularly in New Hampshire. To win the nomination, he will probably also have to close the big lead that Biden has with African Americans. But I think the real opening for Patrick is essentially to replace Buttigieg as the candidate for voters who want a charismatic, optimistic, left-but-not-that-left candidate. Patrick, I think, is betting that there’s a Goldilocks opportunity for him — “Buttigieg but older,” or “Biden but younger” — a candidate who is viewed as safe on both policy and electability grounds by Democratic establishment types and voters who just want a somewhat generic Democrat who they are confident will win the general election.
After all, in his rise in Massachusetts politics, Patrick was not that reliant on black support — the Bay State has a fairly small black population (9 percent). Instead, he won a competitive 2006 Democratic primary for governor by emerging as the preferred candidate among the state’s white, educated, activist class.
On paper, Patrick seems fairly similar to Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — charismatic, black, left-but-not-that-left. But he has two potential advantages over them. First, Patrick has a last-mover advantage — he’s seen how the other candidates have run and can begin his candidacy by taking advantage of their perceived weaknesses. As a new candidate, voters might also give him a fresh look in a way that perhaps the two senators haven’t been able to get. But more importantly, Booker and Harris both spent the first half of the year trying to win some of the more liberal voters, who are likely now with Warren and Sanders. That may have made Harris, in particular, appear as though she was trying to be all things to all people. Patrick can now enter the race knowing that he is aiming to win Democrats who self-identify as “moderate” and “somewhat liberal,” basically conceding the most liberal voters to Warren and Sanders.
After he left office, Patrick moved to Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Democrats spent 2012 criticizing because Mitt Romney had long worked there. That looked like a huge liability this time last year, when Patrick flirted with but ultimately ruled out a run. Back then, it seemed like the party’s left was ascendant and Patrick’s Bain work would be a deal-breaker. Now, I expect Patrick to be more unapologetic about his work, essentially leaning into the idea that he is more moderate and pro-capitalism than Warren or Sanders.
It all sounds pretty good on paper, right? You can almost see why Patrick decided to launch such a late, long-shot bid.
There is a potential problem, though: I’m not sure voters really want Buttigieg-but-older or Biden-but-younger. Whatever the Democratic elites think, Democratic voters like the current field, as I noted above. That makes me think that people in Iowa, where the South Bend mayor is surging, are not looking for Buttigieg-but-older. They’re probably well aware of how old Buttigieg is — he talks about it all the time! Biden, meanwhile, has led in national polls most of the year and has solid leads in Nevada and South Carolina — it’s possible many voters view his age and related experience as a feature, not a bug. Patrick will be a fresh candidate and perhaps have a finely tuned message, but in the end he may not register with voters much differently than Booker or Harris or any of the other lower-tier candidates, black or non-black.
I’m less concerned that Patrick can’t raise money or build campaign organizations in key states, although those are obviously challenges for him since he’s entering the race so late. (For example, the filing deadlines for two Super Tuesday states, Alabama and Arkansas, have already passed.) If he can manage to catch on with voters and rise in the polls, I’d bet donors and even staffers from the lagging campaigns will switch to the former governor. If he is a really strong candidate, Patrick can make up for not competing in Alabama and Arkansas. Patrick will also face questions from progressive activists about his years as a corporate lawyer, particularly his tenure on the board at the now-defunct Ameriquest Mortgage, which foreclosed thousands of homes in low-income areas during the early 2000’s. But I think voters who are wary of his business career and won’t support him for those reasons are already pretty firmly in the Warren and Sanders camps.
So my bottom line: Patrick is a more logical candidate to lead the Democratic Party than 77-year-old Michael Bloomberg, who has also been considering a last-ditch candidacy. The former New York City mayor is old, had tense relationships with black activists in the city and isn’t that closely tied to the Democratic Party. Patrick is black, not that old, a former civil rights lawyer and a stalwart Democrat. He would have been a totally logical Democratic nominee in 2016 and even 2020 if he had run a traditional campaign from the beginning. His late entrance, however, makes his path really, really hard. I’m sure the donor crowd that he talks to is convinced that the Democrats have four flawed frontrunners. But I’m not sure that the voters will agree.