Against the Grain

Prepare for a Long, Chaotic Presidential Primary Fight

Democrats have drawn up rules that maximize the odds of a contested convention.

Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Dec. 18, 2018, 8 p.m.

One of the top Democratic pollsters, Mark Mellman, wrote a thought-provoking column in The Hill predicting a speedy conclusion to the nomination fight—even with the presence of dozens of prospective candidates. Mellman anticipates that the 2020 primary process will look awfully similar to the bouts of primaries past, with a front-runner emerging after the February Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. “That intense burst of positive publicity is sufficient to fuel the rise of any candidate, while those who fail to partake in the victor’s spoils never catch up,” Mellman writes.

If Mellman is right, he’s betting on history over the emerging dynamics of this large, unpredictable field. But the huge roster of credible candidates, the presence of Democratic nomination rules allocating delegates proportionally, and a drawn-out calendar with ample early voting all suggest that the 2020 process will be a never-ending mess.

Here’s why there’s a real chance that the Democratic nominee could end up being chosen at the convention—or at least deep into the months-long primary calendar:

1. Iowa and New Hampshire don’t reflect the diversity of the party. Mellman expects Iowa and New Hampshire to offer momentum for an early victor. But for a party that’s increasingly fixated on race, it’s easy to see how mostly-white Iowa and New Hampshire end up being outliers in the process. The Feb. 29 showdown in South Carolina (where over 60 percent of the Democratic electorate is black) should be more significant, and the March 3 delegate-rich California and Texas primaries look more consequential.

2. With a massive field, candidates will play to niche constituencies at the expense of a national message. Without a juggernaut in the field and a limited pool of financial resources, many candidates will focus on their strengths and limit their scope to a handful of favorable states. So Cory Booker could skip Iowa and New Hampshire to make a bet on the African-American vote in South Carolina, Kamala Harris could make a home-state play in California, and a blue-collar candidate (like Sherrod Brown) may decide it’s worth waiting until March 10 to make a Midwestern pitch for Michigan and Ohio. Candidates trying to win a narrow niche of the electorate usually are unsuccessful, but the dynamic will be different with such a large field.

3. Proportional voting will prevent any candidate from emerging with a big delegate lead. Unlike the Republican Party, which allows some states to award all their delegates to the victor, the Democratic Party requires states to allocate delegates proportionally. If no front-runner emerges early on, it will be easy to see many candidates sticking in the race and fighting for delegates throughout the whole process.

Meanwhile, the potential presence of several billionaires—Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Howard Schultz—makes the proportional system a recipe for gridlock. It will be harder to convince the self-funders to drop out, even if they struggle early on, given their limitless wealth.

4. Superdelegates won’t be able to weigh in for an establishment front-runner. Party leaders changed the nomination rules last year to dramatically limit the influence of superdelegates—party leaders and elected Democrats—in the primary process. But progressives may have unwittingly empowered the establishment wing of the party if the nomination heads to a contested convention. (Under the new rules, if no one receives 50 percent of delegates on the first ballot, superdelegates can then weigh in.)

The rule constraining superdelegates raises the odds that the establishment won’t be able to intervene to expedite the timetable of choosing a nominee—as they did on behalf of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But if no candidate has a majority of delegates heading into the convention, it’s possible that superdelegates may end up deciding the nominee—and they’re empowered to overturn the will of the voters if they think another candidate is more electable.

5. Early voting and slow California counting will stunt a contender’s momentum. All this volatility could be avoided if one contender emerges as formidable early on. But any expectations of a momentum-fueled campaign will be stunted by key states that have ample early voting. California Democrats will begin voting before the Iowa caucuses even begin. Ohio, Illinois, and North Carolina will commence early voting before the New Hampshire primary.

So if a candidate looks formidable early on, it’s less likely those successes will be reflected in future primaries because a significant number of voters will have cast ballots before the results were revealed. And that’s not even factoring in California’s glacial month-long voting count, which could delay the allocation of delegates in the critical delegate-rich state into April.

6. Trump’s vulnerability makes the nomination valuable, reducing odds of candidates prematurely dropping out. It would be easier to clear the field of lesser candidates if the nomination didn’t look like such a prize. But in addition to the rules incentivizing stragglers to stick around, President Trump’s unpopularity gives the nominee strong odds of becoming the next president. That’s going to make it challenging to weed out anyone with even a slight chance of winning.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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