In three weeks and one day, voters across the country will head to the polls in the 2018 midterm election. That should be a consequential election. In three weeks and two days, the jockeying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination will begin. That will probably be an out-and-out circus.
Over the weekend, CNN released an early snapshot of the state of the race on the Democratic side of the ledger. Among a whopping 15 candidates who were polled, former vice president Joe Biden leads with 33 percent, while Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is at 13 percent. No other candidate has more than 10 percent of the vote.
And for how many candidates CNN polled, they clearly missed a few. Most notable among them is Hillary Clinton, who sure does seem like a candidate for office. Her sharply partisan public comments seem geared to keeping her in the hearts of Democratic voters, while she and Bill Clinton are going on a tour starting this fall. Maybe she runs, maybe she does not. But she obviously is keeping her options open.
The Democratic field is going to be extremely crowded because of the apparent weakness of President Donald Trump. His job approval has been mired in the low 40s for the past year, which strongly suggests he is beatable in 2020. So, every Democrat with presidential ambitions who could conceivably win is probably going to jump into the race. And a couple more who cannot conceivably win probably will, too.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, their party is not well suited to managing such a crowded field.
They suffer from many of the same problems that have plagued the Republicans — namely, the party organization basically exists only to legally launder money through our ridiculous system of campaign-finance laws. It has virtually no capacity to manage these candidates. Instead, and as with the GOP, the race will be managed by the high-profile donors, the cable-news networks, and the grassroots activists — none of whom individually can be said to represent the interests of the party as a whole. And collectively, these groups present a highly distorted picture of both their own party as well as the general electorate.
Democrats have additional problems that tend not to plague Republicans. For starters, their voters are much more diverse than those of the GOP. From Latinos to African Americans, upscale urban liberals, college kids, second-wave ethnic enclaves that are left in a few cities, and the rural whites who dominate border-state Democratic primaries, the Democrats’ electorate in 2020 will be a pretty eclectic bunch.
For most of the party’s history in the modern era (starting in 1972 when the nomination process was opened up), we usually have seen primary voters divide themselves up pretty thoroughly, at least when an incumbent president is not running. George McGovern won only 25 percent of the primary vote in 1972. Jimmy Carter won 39 percent in 1976. Walter Mondale won 38 percent in 1984. Michael Dukakis won 43 percent in 1988. Bill Clinton won 52 percent in 1992. Barack Obama won less than half in 2008. Granted, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Hillary Clinton in 2008 all won very strong majorities (55 percent or more), but the general pattern has been toward the eventual nominee’s winning either a plurality or a bare majority of primary votes.
If that happens again, we are going to be in for quite a show. The allocation rules governing delegates to the Democratic National Convention are very different than those for Republicans. Relatively early in the cycle, Republican rules allow for “winner take all” primaries that can give plurality winners a big boost. This is what allowed Donald Trump in 2016, Mitt Romney in 2012, and John McCain in 2008 to put the field away in the spring, despite winning less than a majority of the total vote by that point. The Democrats, on the other hand, employ a proportional system whereby the delegates that each candidate receives correspond more closely to his actual vote share.
So it is quite conceivable for the Democrats to head to their July convention without a presumptive nominee. They were able to avoid that problem in 2008 because that race had become two-candidate contests, where one candidate had a clear advantage over the other. But there is nothing to stop a three- or even four-way contest from continuing all the way to the convention floor. Indeed, if the Republicans had the same rules that the Democrats did, it is an easy bet that Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and even Marco Rubio would have battled all the way to the GOP convention in Cleveland.
Naturally, it is too early to say what will happen. Whether we get some kind of extended battle that stretches from the day after the midterms to the July 2020 conventions — well, who knows. But the large number of potential candidates, the diversity of Democratic voters, and the peculiar nature of Democratic rules all suggest that this could be a very interesting contest to watch.