Could too many candidates be a problem for the Democrats?

Could too many candidates be a problem for the Democrats?
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This fall, the Democratic Party stands poised to pick up a number of House seats, and perhaps even win control of the chamber. Yet, party leaders have antagonized many liberal activists by intervening in primaries to clear the field for “establishment” candidates. There has been a debate for weeks about whether this is something the parties always do, whether the Democratic Party is being more aggressive this year and whether these tactics will harm the party in the general election.

My research suggests that parties do this when they need to, but it is unusual for them to need to intervene to the extent that the Democrats have this year.


The best analogy to this is a sports one. I grew up a Cleveland Indians fan, in the days when the Indians were perennial basement dwellers. The Indians’ season essentially was over by the end of August. In September, there was no pressure to win, and the team would call up their minor league prospects to give them some experience playing in the big leagues. Most of these players would never amount to much, but September was their chance to show what they could do. I remember these games being a lot of fun — fans had the chance to get excited when some little-known prospect hit a home run, and we could simply enjoy watching a baseball game without worrying too much about who won.

This is how parties think about congressional elections. In most districts, it doesn’t matter who the nominee is because the general election outcome is preordained. Parties have some incentive to make the nominees and activists in these districts happy — they might need their good will sometime in the future, and they might learn something from the district if their hopeless nominee does better than expected or can dig up something about the opposing candidate that might be of use in the future.

Losing candidates in these races can bring new donors into the party, and they can gain valuable campaign experience that might be useful to them in a subsequent race for another, more achievable, office. In short, they are like the minor league call-ups, enjoying their experience in the big leagues and trying to make a good impression.

In races such as these, it makes little sense for the parties to recruit centrist candidates. A centrist will likely do little better than a more ideologically extreme candidate; in fact, the centrist might do worse since more committed partisans may be less excited about the race and the centrist may not have what it takes to rally the party base. If one is a committed liberal who lives in a conservative district in Texas, for example, it may be far more satisfying to rally behind a candidate with fiery rhetoric (but no money) who will launch blistering attacks against the incumbent.

In a normal election year, the playing field is particularly small, and when Congress is closely divided, it makes sense for parties to focus all of their attention on the small number of races that will need to be won to flip the majority. This is usually what happens in Senate races — in a year such as this one, both parties know which seats might flip, so they will focus their attention there and ignore the other races. The Democratic Party has little need, for instance, to worry about who the nominee will be in states like Nebraska or Wyoming.

The problem for Democrats this year, then, is that the playing field is simply too big, and too uncertain not to intervene at this point in a wide range of House races. With Democrats outperforming expectations by fifteen points or so throughout the country, many Republicans who would be safe in any other year appear potentially vulnerable.

By September, it will be clear where the party’s best chances are and what seats would be most likely to flip if the Democrats win a majority. When confronting primaries in March, however, the party is ill-equipped to determine whether flipping Republican seats in Texas or Ohio will be part of their path to victory. Where there are primaries that pit establishment candidates against outsiders, the party has an incentive to intervene that it would not have had in, say, 2004 or even 2014.

There is nothing unprecedented about the efforts this year by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to confer the nomination on as many people as they think could be potential winners. The parties always do this, although there are obvious reasons why they would prefer to do this behind the scenes.

The Democratic Party has also been more effective in doing this than the Republicans — Democratic primaries have been less competitive than Republican primaries for the past decade, and the

Democrats have not had to contend to the degree Republicans have with outsider candidates. However, as with the baseball analogy, it is not clear that there’s any harm in excess competition. The crowded playing field will inevitably lead to an increase in hurt feelings and bruised egos, but it is inevitable when there is so much uncertainty about what will happen in the fall.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.