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 TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts 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 SandersBernie SandersNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote 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 ClintonAppeals court pauses 6-day extension for counting Wisconsin absentee ballots Trump, Pentagon collide over anti-diversity training push Sunday Shows: Trump's court pick dominates 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 HarrisTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Dwayne Johnson backs Biden in first public presidential endorsement Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Suburban moms are going to decide the 2020 election MORE (D-N.Y.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker says he will ask Amy Coney Barrett if she will recuse herself from presidential election-related cases Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election The movement to reform animal agriculture has reached a tipping point MORE (D-N.J.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Democrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds 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 BidenJoe BidenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Biden campaign sells 'I paid more income taxes than Trump' stickers Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose 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 GoreTrump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations Interest in presidential election hits near-record high: poll Gallup: 61 percent support abolishing the Electoral College MORE in 2000, John KerryJohn Forbes KerryTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Trump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations The Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates 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 ClintonIs Congress reasserting itself? Trump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote MORE, New Democrat; Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Is Congress reasserting itself? Trump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations 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.