Jam-packed primary poses a serious threat to Democrats in 2020

For tens of millions of Americans overridingly concerned with finding a presidential candidate who can beat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE in 2020, how the left-of-center and abnormally large Democratic primary field is shaping up is a topic of some trepidation.  

A series of changes to the Democratic nominating process, new campaign practices, the size of the field and the rules for apportioning delegates together have greatly increased the chance that no Democratic candidate gains a majority of delegates before the convention convenes in Milwaukee in July 2020, leading to a brokered convention. 

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The chance that a candidate who gains far less than a majority of a primary’s popular vote — say 30 percent — will come away with most or even all of the delegates in many states is equally daunting. 

That may mean that a left-wing candidate like Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAndrew Cuomo: Biden has best chance at 'main goal' of beating Trump Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Buttigieg responds to accusation of pushing a 'hate hoax' about Pence MORE (I-Vt.) enters the convention with a majority of delegates but a very small plurality of the popular vote. This eventuality could risk dividing the party’s far left and its more moderate wings. 

With these risks in mind, Democrats must focus on methods to unify the party during and after the primary season, keeping the focus on beating Trump. 

So, what brought us to this dangerous impasse?

First, the nature of delegate selection rules. They require that a candidate gain 15 percent of the vote in each and every congressional district in a state in order to get any delegates from that state, a method intended to allow one top vote-getter to gain a majority of delegates and actually prevent a brokered convention. 

But these rules were adopted in an era when presidential primary fields were much smaller, typically three to five serious candidates. Right now, 15 candidates have announced, with at least three or four more expected to join. This huge field increases the chances that no one will win a majority of delegates.

Second, the primary season is now heavily front-loaded, especially with liberal states. The California primary has moved from June to March 3, now part of the Super Tuesday delegate bonanza. New York has also moved its primary ahead of Super Tuesday.

In total, 64 percent of all delegates will be chosen in the first six weeks of the primary season — by March 17.  If the field stays above 10 candidates into mid-March, the Democrats may have a new kind of March Madness on their hands, with widely fragmented support dividing the popular vote, and maybe the delegate count as well.

The third major change is the prohibition against superdelegates counting on the first ballot. This decision by party leaders was arrived at after concerns that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rips Krugman, NYT after columnist writes GOP no longer believes in American values Klobuchar jokes to Cuomo: 'I feel you creeping over my shoulder' but 'not in a Trumpian manner' Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment MORE’s reliance on superdelegates to gain the 2016 nomination alienated Sanders voters, depressing turnout in November among younger voters. In practice, this change will prevent superdelegates from rallying around a more electable frontrunner. 

The fourth change is the ability of candidates to self-fund by getting thousands of small, online donations. No longer can a handful of top Democratic fundraisers dominate the process as often happened in past campaigns in which they had an outsized role in siding with a candidate they perceived as most likely to prevail in a general election. 

Indeed, the small-donor emphasis is actually recognized in the party rules that require any candidate to have 65,000 separate donors and at least 200 donors in 20 different states in order to qualify for the Democratic debates, which begin this June. 

Finally, since a number of candidates have won statewide elections in very populous states — including Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Trump Jr. slams 2020 Dems as 'more concerned' about rights of murderers than legal gun owners MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandGillibrand pledges not to use 'stolen hacked' materials in 2020 campaign 2020 Dems rebuke Trump on Iran, say they'd put US back in nuclear deal Where 2020 Democratic candidates stand on impeachment MORE (D-N.Y.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerHarris adds another to her list of endorsements in South Carolina The Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics 2020 Dems rebuke Trump on Iran, say they'd put US back in nuclear deal MORE (D-N.J.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Poll: Biden tops Sanders nationally Pete Buttigieg: 'God doesn't have a political party' MORE (D-Mass.) and ex-Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) — there could be a widespread “favorite son or daughter” effect, further fragmenting delegates.  

All of these factors increase the chances that that no candidate will gain a majority of delegates going into the convention in July 2020 or that any candidate with a majority of delegates will in fact have gained a relatively small proportion of the popular primary vote. 

The implications for a convention without a majority popular vote winner or majority delegate-winning candidate are not necessarily reassuring if the main goal is beating Trump.  

For example, in a Democratic Party obsessed with plurality-based fairness, it will be very difficult to deny the candidate with the most delegates the nomination, as happened in previous eras. 

But with such a large field, that could very well turn out to be a candidate from the left who may run less effectively against Trump, especially in key Midwestern and industrial states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all which Trump won in 2016 and where the election is likely to be decided.

So, how can Democrats head off the possibility of mayhem in Milwaukee? 

One obvious response would be for party leaders to galvanize around a moderate establishment candidate — say, Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenAndrew Cuomo: Biden has best chance at 'main goal' of beating Trump Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Buttigieg responds to accusation of pushing a 'hate hoax' about Pence MORE if he runs — in hopes of heading off a diluted outcome or a left-wing winner. 

Yet, recent history suggests that establishment candidates have fared very poorly for Democrats. Establishment figures Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold Gore20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Lobbying world 2020 Dems audition for Al Sharpton's support MORE in 2000, John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOvernight Defense: Trump ends sanctions waivers for buying Iranian oil | At least four Americans killed in Sri Lanka attacks | Sanders pushes for Yemen veto override vote Overnight Energy: Trump moves to crack down on Iranian oil exports | Florida lawmakers offer bill to ban drilling off state's coast | Bloomberg donates .5M to Paris deal Trump: 'Iran is being given very bad advice by John Kerry' MORE in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016 all went down in defeat.

Moreover, we are demonstrably in a populist age, one so anti-establishment that a president as unorthodox and norm-busting as Donald Trump could win an election and a self-described socialist like Bernie Sanders could nearly earn a nomination.

Instead of retreating to establishment figures, Democrats may want to look to other, more successful campaigns for the model of a fruitful primary process, especially the elections of 1992 and 2008. 

In each, a relatively long primary process produced an anti-establishment figure (Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFive town hall takeaways: Warren shines, Sanders gives ammo to critics Heavy lapses in judgment are politicizing the justice system Bernie Sanders claims his Sister Souljah moment MORE, New Democrat; Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump's regulatory rollback boosts odds of a financial crisis Five town hall takeaways: Warren shines, Sanders gives ammo to critics Ex-Obama CIA official makes 'Game of Thrones' cameo MORE, African-American) who carried the party to victory over primary and general election candidates viewed as more establishment.

In practical terms, what this means is that senior Democrats may want to resist the temptation to immediately flock to Biden or other establishment figures and instead see how they perform in the debates and early primaries. 

It may turn out that a moderate other than Biden emerges, or that a more liberal candidate begins to attract widespread support from both moderates desperate to beat Trump as well as the left-wing base. 

Letting the early primary process play out, at least until Super Tuesday, should provide a clear indication of which candidate will be strongest against Trump. 

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But then, immediately after Super Tuesday, serious pressure should be brought to bear on candidates who cannot conceivably win the nomination to get out of the race.  

While Democrats should embrace a large and diverse field of primary candidates as helping create a “big tent” Democratic coalition, they must also be clear-eyed about the dangers of dividing support among too many aspirants. 

At some point next March, Democrats will need to start unifying behind a candidate who can beat Trump convincingly.

Paul Bledsoe is strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Center. He served as a staff member in the House, Senate, Interior Department and Clinton White House.