Here's how a large presidential field bodes for our 2020 prospects — according to history

Here's how a large presidential field bodes for our 2020 prospects — according to history
Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris (Shutterstock / Wikimedia Commons)

The question posed in the headline is being asked about the sheer size of the Democratic presidential field, in particular now that Beto O’Rourke has officially joined the race, with Joe Biden apparently poised to do so as well. Depending on whom you include as a major candidate, it looks like we’ll end up with around 17 to 20 folks running, at least at the start. That’s more than in any previous Democratic race, and would match or exceed the most ever in either party (the 2016 Republican primary race). One thing before we start: Although I’ve expressed a preference for Elizabeth Warren, I’m not going to criticize any Democrat in the field, and would obviously support the Democratic nominee with every fiber of my being against Individual 1. Back to the topic at hand.


Do we have “Too Many Democrats?” For some, it’s not even a question (see: “Too Many Democrats!”) Heck, even the folks at Fox News—who certainly have the best of intentions on such a matter—published an opinion piece by a presumably well-meaning Democrat with the title: “Democrats beware: Ever-growing field of 2020 contenders could be too much of a good thing.”

Rather than pontificate or speculate, I decided—historian that I am—to do a little research. Thankfully, Nate Silver and his staff had already gathered the raw data I needed for his own discussion of the matter. He argued, in his headline at least, that having such a large field “could be dangerous for the Democrats.”

However, Silver’s analysis wasn’t as clear, as the article itself noted that having so many candidates could lead to a “weird” primary race, and “a higher-than-usual risk of chaos.” He concluded that a large field “ought to worry establishment Democrats” and “should be particularly worrying for next-in-line candidates such as Biden … The large field is both a sign that there may not be consensus about the best candidate and a source of unpredictability.”

However, would such an outcome necessarily be “dangerous” for the Democratic Party as a whole? If one defines “dangerous” in terms of whether such an outcome would harm the chances of a Democratic victory in November 2020, the answer from Silver’s own data appears to be “no.” In fact, the historical data shows that having a large field of candidates fighting for the nomination and, in particular, having a lack of consensus about whom to nominate are, if anything, more likely to lead to victory in the general election than having a small field and a “next-in-line” candidate who leads the race from start to finish. Let’s dive into the specifics.

Silver argued that having a large field of candidates, as Democrats do this year, means that other candidates are not scared of the front-runner, who is typically the “next-in-line” candidate—someone who ran before and lost the nomination (in a number of cases, i.e., Al Gore and Biden, the next-in-line candidate had served as vice president). We can examine the general election outcome in those years. We’ll exclude elections that include an incumbent president, as that’s a different kind of nomination race. Also, we’re talking here about the 2020 Democratic nomination contest, which lacks an incumbent president.

Since 1992, we can look at each major party’s non-incumbent nominee for president and compare the “next-in-line” candidates’ performance to that of the “never-run-for-major-party-presidential-nomination-before” candidates.

1992: Bill Clinton, never before, Won

1996: Bob Dole, next-in-line, Lost

2000: George W. Bush, never before, Won; Al Gore, next-in-line, Lost

2004: John Kerry, never before, Lost

2008: John McCain, next-in-line, Lost; Barack Obama, never before, Won

2012: Mitt Romney, next-in-line, Lost

2016: Hillary Clinton, next-in-line, Lost; Donald Trump, never before, Won

Next-in-line major party nominees lost five out of five times, while “never before” major party nominees won four out of five times. The record is less clear if we go back before 1992, but still, the notion that a lack of consensus and a failure to nominate a next-in-line candidate in 2020 would be, in Silver’s words, “dangerous for the Democrats” is highly questionable, to say the least.

Now let’s look directly at the question of the size of the presidential field. Going back to the beginning of the modern primary process in 1972, the three largest primary fields were: Democrats in 1972, Democrats in 1976, and Republicans in 2016. As Silver’s overall thesis on large fields would suggest, each winner in those cases was a “never before” candidate (McGovern, Carter, Trump). Two of those three times, that nominee became president.

The three smallest primary fields were: Republicans in 1988, Democrats in 2000, and Democrats in 2016, and and each winner was a next-in-line candidate (G.H.W. Bush, Gore, H. Clinton). Two of those three times the nominee lost the presidency. Again, the largest primary fields were more likely to produce a winner in November, and the smallest fields were more likely to produce a loser.

So, if a large 2020 Democratic field means the next-in-line candidate (and, although Silver identifies Bernie Sanders along with Joe Biden as next-in-line candidates, a Sanders nomination would mean something very different than a Biden nomination in terms of the party establishment getting what it wants) doesn’t win, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Democrats. In fact, history suggests it may be good result.

Finally, although I’ve talked above about history and what it might mean for 2020, let me leave you with a final, forward-looking idea that I’ve been toying with. I know a post is supposed to have only one topic, but, as Hermione Granger pointed out: “it's sort of exciting, isn't it, breaking the rules?” In that spirit, how about this for a general election campaign slogan:

Restore Trust and Justice

I don’t think the slogan requires too much in the way of explanation. What I like is that “trust” and “justice” can each apply to different ways a Democratic candidate would differ from Trump, allowing different constituencies to take from the slogan what means most to them. Furthermore, taken together, the slogan contrasts our nominee to Trump both in terms of his behavior (lies and crimes) and policy differences (economic justice, racial justice, and more). Plus, I have an unhealthy attachment to alliteration, especially mid-word alliteration. We all have our flaws.

Here’s to a substantive, policy-oriented, and positive nominating process in which the most diverse field of candidates ever seen in American presidential politics robustly debates where the country we love should go. And, after that, here’s to sending Donald Trump exactly where he should go.

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