Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s late entry into the presidential race offers Democrats a fresh — and perhaps last — chance to reassess who they think is the strongest candidate to take on President Donald Trump.
It adds to the now months-long debate within the Democratic Party over “electability” less than three months before the first votes are cast. For a party that prides itself on diversity, the answers so far have been consistent and, to some, frustrating — a top tier dominated by white candidates, only one of whom is a woman.
But Patrick’s campaign is a reminder of the divergent paths to victory for presidential hopefuls. White candidates must prove they can win over black voters. Blacks and other minority contenders, however, must show they can build white support.
That type of multiracial coalition has eluded virtually everyone in the race except Joe Biden, who — for now — has deep support among black voters in addition to working-class whites. Those who assess that backing as soft, however, see an opening for a moderate candidate like Patrick, a black governor who made history winning in a majority-white state.
That, some strategists say, differentiates Patrick from Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, the two other major black candidates whose past electoral success has come in more diverse states and who are lagging in the presidential polls.
“Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are well-funded, high-profile black candidates, but have not been able to rise during a cycle where appeals to black voters are central to who will be the eventual winner of the primary,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. He said the election will confront what stigma still exists with white voters toward black candidates in the post-Barack Obama era.
“We can make the assumption that Patrick will be the next black candidate to face this test, but his appeal is altogether different than Booker and Harris,” Payne said. “The Patrick candidacy is an appeal to moderation and to the center-left more than a direct appeal to black voters.”
In 2008, then-Sen. Obama was the lone black candidate in the Democratic primary field and didn’t begin to gain momentum until the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses, trailing Hillary Clinton and John Edwards for much of the contest. But Obama’s showing— winning an overwhelmingly white electorate — gave him momentum to convince black voters in South Carolina and across the Black Belt that he was viable.
Obama’s diverse coalition was a new blueprint in Democratic electoral mapmaking, earning him the party’s nomination and his history-making general election victory. Observers say it’s an electorate Democrats will have to replicate to win in 2020.
The trio of African Americans have taken different approaches in how they contend with the racial aspects of their candidacies.
Harris announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and has unique status as an alumna of historically black Howard University, member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and the lone black woman in the 2020 fray.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker announced during Black History Month. The former mayor of Newark touts his residency in an impoverished black neighborhood in the city but has also sought to cast himself as a bridge builder — pointing out his ties to a civil rights legacy that changed his family’s trajectory with intervention from progressive whites that helped him integrate his childhood neighborhood.
In a brief interview Friday, he encouraged voters to “pull the lens back on diversity.”
“We have women in this race, we have an openly gay person in this race, we have (a) biracial person in this race, African-Americans in this race,” he said. “It is an incredible moment in American history that our field is so diverse and that voters have such qualified folks to choose from."
Patrick himself has made relatively few references to race since launching his campaign. But as he registered this week to appear on the ballot in the New Hampshire primary, he spoke of the “skepticism” he has experienced as a black man.
“He has demonstrated an ability to win over white voters in an overwhelmingly white state,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “The question is whether he has enough time, whether he can raise the money, and whether he can carve out a compelling narrative and identity that allows him to break through. That’s a lot to accomplish in two months, but it’s not crazy.”
His path would be a challenging one. Though Patrick is not a national name, he is fairly well-known in neighboring New Hampshire, where voters saw television ads for his gubernatorial campaigns.
A strong finish in the Granite State could provide momentum heading into South Carolina, disrupting the field and leaving no clear frontrunner heading into Super Tuesday, said Thornell.
“If you look at the African American candidates running, he might be the best positioned to pull that off,” Thornell said.
Patrick’s late entry is reminiscent of Gen. Wesley Clark’s 11th-hour bid in 2003. Clark was able to briefly break through after some among the electorate worried about then-Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s path to the nomination, or that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was too liberal.
As a prominent African American who can appeal to black and white voters, Patrick could appeal to soft Biden voters looking for an alternative to Booker or Harris, or who don’t like Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders’ progressive agenda, said Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod.
“He can create that ‘I’m more left than Biden, but not crazy like Warren/Sanders’ message,” Elrod said. “He could appeal to some of those voters who are on the fence and not satisfied with others in the field. He can say, ‘I can be your candidate.’”
EDITOR'S NOTE — Errin Haines has covered race and politics for the AP since 2015.