Democrats view 2020 as a referendum on democracy

Be prepared for a potentially unprecedented number of Democrats vying for their party’s presidential nomination in 2020. Some projections put the total at 15-20. Others suggest 30 or more could take the plunge.

Such a total seems ridiculous at first glance. But several logical factors are shaping this soon-to-be battle royale, which in the end will help the party more than hurt it. 

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First, Democrats’ record-level disapproval of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE is driving more Democrats to seriously contemplate throwing their hat in the ring. Gallup's presidential approval ratings found that Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE averaged only 26.9 percent approval from Republicans throughout his presidency, while his successor, George W. Bush, averaged only 24.8 percent approval from Democrats throughout his. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats HuffPost says president's golfing trips to Trump properties cost taxpayers over 0 million in travel and security expenses Support for same-sex marriage dips 4 points from 2018 high: Gallup MORE hit an all-time low, averaging only 12.5 percent approval from Republicans during his eight years in the White House.

So where does Trump fall? Merely 7.8 percent of Democrats, on average, have approved of the job he’s doing. We saw the impact of this cross-party unpopularity at the polls in November, when Democratic candidates earned nearly 10 million more votes than Republican candidates. This historic disparity stemmed from a monumental enthusiasm gap that also prompted more Democrats to run for office than in a generation or more.

By all accounts, Democrats’ enthusiasm has not dissipated. The same factors that contributed to their November victories are still around. And the “Why not me?” mentality that drove more Democrats to run in the first place continues to influence those seeking an end to the Trump presidency. 

Second, Democrats’ shocking fundraising haul in the recent midterms suggests they’re no longer at a competitive disadvantage with their Republican counterparts. More people are emptying their pockets for Democrats, meaning presidential candidates will have more avenues to secure enough money to keep their campaign operations afloat until at least the first rounds of debates, when early-campaign-season buzz can catapult lesser-known figures to more prominent standings.

Third, there is no obvious frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Sure, Bernie SandersBernie SandersHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues Lee, Sanders introduce bill to tax Wall Street transactions MORE finished second in 2016 and would begin a campaign with some built-in organizational advantages. And yes, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues MORE is already leading some early intra-party polls and has the most name recognition. But let’s be clear: this will be the most wide-open Democratic presidential nominating process since 1976 — an election from which there are many notable parallels to draw. 

During that cycle, 17 Democrats ran for the nomination. The GOP was in relative disarray in the wake of the Watergate Scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation and, soon after, Gerald Ford’s controversial pardon of his predecessor. There was a sense of justice not served — of a party protecting its former leader from judicial judgment.

The Democratic field consisted of governors, senators, congressmen, a mayor and other contenders. No one had a distinct financial advantage. There was no obvious heir to the presidency. It was a battle for the soul of a party that was still reassembling after coming apart at the seams in 1968. 

Every presidential election since then, save three, has included an obvious frontrunner: President Jimmy Carter in 1980, former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, President Clinton in 1996, Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreAnother VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? Several factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years Montana Gov. Bullock enters presidential race MORE in 2000, Senator Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests MORE (D-N.Y.) in 2008 and Clinton again in 2012.

The three exceptions were exceptions for understandable reasons. Heading into 1988, Republicans had occupied the White House in 16 of the previous 20 years. With Carter retired from public life and Mondale no longer a viable option, former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) was widely viewed as the frontrunner for the top of his party’s presidential ticket, having garnered the second most delegates during the 1984 primary. But even before formally announcing in April 1987, he was already facing allegations of extramarital affairs, which eventually doomed his candidacy.

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush’s huge post-Iraq-War popularity kept the heaviest hitters out of a Democratic primary, as Bush appeared to be a near shoo-in to win re-election while polling above 70 percent for much of the previous year.

And the 2004 open-field election was similar to 1988, with Gore still licking the wounds of a failed campaign four years earlier and roughly 10 lesser-known candidates vying to fill the vacuum. 

Finally, it is worth noting that three of the four most open Democratic presidential nomination cycles of the past 50 years have occurred when the party’s standard-bearer faced a sitting Republican president.

So it should surprise no one that Democrats once again are unsure who should lead their party. Youth or experience? Woman or man? Insider or outsider? Soft-spoken Midwesterner or hard-hitting West Coaster? And it’s exacerbated by the fact that no one knows how to defeat Trump — a politician who plays by rules not taught in classrooms or candidate trainings.

The result will be a Democratic field that rivals — and likely exceeds — the GOP’s 17-person contingent from 2016. And while conventional wisdom suggests that’s too many candidates, I believe it’s an absolute necessity for a party that hasn’t witnessed a truly open primary in 16 years. The two leading candidates (Biden and Sanders) are 76 and 77 years old, respectively. The three highest-ranking House members are between 76 and 79. The party’s two highest-ranking senators are 68 and 74.

Democrats are aching for new voices, fresh ideas and varying perspectives. This is a populace seeking not a set menu, but a buffet where they can sample 20 or more entrées before determining what suits their palate.

The results might be a bit messy, but so is democracy. And more than anything, Democrats view 2020 as a referendum on democracy.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. His nearly 25-year career has included stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms and for a consulting firm. He has authored three books and has shared political insights on CNN, Fox News and dozens of radio stations across the country.