The number of presidential
candidates in the Democratic primary is unprecedented and it could lead to a
contentious and unpredictable nominating process. With a recent poll of Democratic
presidential preferences showing no less than 19 candidates, it is possible
that the primary vote could fracture in ways that cannot be foreseen.
Most of us have probably become numbed to the neverending campaign
atmosphere, but Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight reminds us that it was not
always this way. Silver tweeted yesterday, “At this point in 2015, no major Republicans had officially launched
their campaigns. Cruz was the first on 3/23/15. Although 8-9 Republicans had
established PACs to formally explore a candidacy.”
To see how a large number of candidates can upend a primary,
we need only look back as far as 2016. Seventeen Republican candidates, 16
traditional Republicans plus Donald Trump, contested in a large primary that
year. In the 2016
Republican primary, a recurring theme was that Donald Trump benefitted from
the large field. Longtime Republicans such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John
the Republican vote, leaving Trump with a plurality in many state primaries.
Trump won a majority of delegates after a long, drawn-out
primary campaign, but he only won about 45
percent of the Republican vote.
History may repeat itself in the 2020 Democratic Primary. The large number of candidates may prevent the
party from coalescing around a consensus candidate. This is particularly true if Joe Biden, who commands 31
percent support in recent polling, decides not to run. Bernie Sanders, the
second place candidate, sits atop a heap of second-tier, mostly unknown
candidates, only one of whom, Kamala Harris, currently has support in the double-digits.
Excluding Biden, Sanders is also currently the top
second-choice of Democratic voters. Biden supporters picked Sanders as their
top alternate, giving the Vermont Democrat-in-name-only a significant advantage
if Biden decides against running. Still, Sanders lacks support among the
upper-income Democrats who would provide much campaign backing. If these donors
rally behind another candidate, it could cause trouble for a Sanders candidacy.
The number of Democratic candidates could start to dwindle
soon. Democrats have announced a series of 12
primary debates with the first scheduled to be held in June 2019. With so
many candidates, competition will be fierce for donor funds and candidates who
don’t do well in the first debate may be quickly forced to drop out of the
In a best-case scenario for conservatives, if Joe Biden does
not run, Democratic moderates could reject Bernie Sanders and the Democratic
vote could splinter among the remaining viable candidates: Kamala Harris,
Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Corey Booker, and Amy Klobuchar. This could
possibly result in Klobuchar, the most moderate of the bunch, eking out a
plurality in a situation that is the reverse of the 2016 Republican primary
where the most extreme candidate won without a majority. To make this scenario
a reality, Klobuchar has a long way to go in increasing her name recognition
and building support.
If Biden decides to run and if Sanders maintains his
popularity, the two old white guys are the strong favorites to win the
nomination. This would be a bad thing for Donald Trump since polling shows that
both Democrats are significantly more popular than the president. In recent
polling, both Biden and Sanders show a double-digit advantage over Mr. Trump. It’s true that Trump polled
poorly against Hillary Clinton in advance of the 2016 primaries and managed to
win anyway, but the conditions that allowed Trump to eke out a victory in 2016,
such as Hillary’s email scandal and James Comey’s October surprise, are
unlikely to be replicated in 2020.
Despite the large
number of candidates in the Democratic field, Joe Biden remains the man to beat
even though he has yet to officially enter the race. It would likely take a
decision from Biden to bow out once again and an implosion of the Sanders campaign
to turn the Democratic primary into a fractious free-for-all.