Off to the Races

Why Dems Shouldn't Fear a Long 2020 Campaign

The huge field will probably mean a protracted nomination battle, but that's not a bad thing for the party's chances of winning.

The 2016 Republican presidential field was huge, but the party won in November anyway.
AP Photo/John Minchillo
Dec. 17, 2018, 8 p.m.

It is surprising how many Democrats react with alarm at the suggestion that they are likely to have a very large field of presidential candidates in 2020 and the probability that with such a big field, the nomination fight will likely go on for an extended period of time. While there is plenty of logic behind both concerns, they ignore the long primary fights in 2016 for Republicans, with a field of 17 candidates, and in 2008 for Democrats, with the titanic Barack Obama-vs.-Hillary Clinton contest. Both still won.

There is a clear perception, most likely correct, that President Trump is extremely vulnerable and that the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 has great value. It is also true that there is a pent-up supply of ambitious Democrats, that Obama’s reelection in 2012 and the apparent inevitability of Clinton’s nomination in 2016 (though Bernie Sanders definitely beat the point spread) kept the fields to a minimum, meaning that this will be the first wide-open Democratic nomination race since 2004. But the big field and probable long-duration campaign is as likely to be an asset as a liability.

Henry Ford once said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it is black.” We now know that people like a wide selection to choose from, presumably resulting in better choices. Many are describing the upcoming campaign as a Baskin-Robbins field, with 31 flavors of candidate.

There is more to fear from a quickly consummated contest than a long, drawn-out affair; a party is better off with a nominee who wears well over time and undergoes a political stress test. A marathon would be a better indicator of political stamina than a sprint.

To the extent that there are lessons to take out of 2018, it may well come from the large number of candidates, particularly House candidates, who were able to tap into an unprecedented pool of small, out-of-state donors. That Beto O’Rourke could raise $40 million in donations of $200 or less, en route to a total of more than $80 million, is truly astonishing, like the $220 million in mostly small denominations that Bernie Sanders raised in 2016. This is a sign of the passion and engagement of the Democratic base, a universe of donors far exceeding anything we have seen before. While Democratic candidates will no doubt still pursue the big donors in New York, California, and elsewhere, my hunch is that the proportion of smaller donations will be very high. It’s not that big donors will give less, but that there are going to be many more smaller donors, so the pie will be so much bigger.

Ultimately, it seems the question is whether Democrats want to nominate someone new, young, and exciting, or someone who is broadly acceptable, with electability a guiding principle—someone who can enthuse the base, or someone who can reach out into the middle and persuade swing voters. Looking at 2016, there are cases to be made for both sides. The Clinton campaign can be criticized for focusing almost exclusively on getting out the Democratic base and neglecting to persuade those outside of the base. The Pennsylvania campaign was a prime example, with a focus on the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the suburbs, virtually ignoring everyone in between. But at the same time, the failure to get out a strong urban-minority vote in Detroit very likely cost Clinton Michigan. The best answer is that a campaign should seek to do both simultaneously—that they need not be mutually exclusive, even if it is a more complicated equation.

One consideration that Democrats should keep in mind is the broad mind-set of the electorate. The just-released Dec. 9-12 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 900 adults nationwide asked, “Do you want the candidates that were elected to office this year to make compromises to gain consensus on legislation, or stick to their campaign positions even if that means no consensus on legislation?” It found that 60 percent preferred consensus, while just 29 percent favored sticking to campaign positions. Among Democrats, 57 percent favored consensus, while 33 percent preferred sticking to promises; among Republicans, the margin was 63 to 27 percent. There does seem to be a desire for a “bring us together” candidacy at a time when many believe our country is more divided than it has been since the end of the Civil War. Perhaps a long campaign will yield just such a candidate—we’ll have to wait and see.

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