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.

What We're Following See More »
MANAFORT STEERED HIM WORK IN UKRAINE
Prosecutors Weighing Whether to Charge Greg Craig
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

A long-running federal investigation into former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig "is reaching a critical stage, presenting the Justice Department with a decision about whether to charge a prominent Democrat as part of a more aggressive crackdown on illegal foreign lobbying." Federal prosecutors in New York have transferred the case to Washington. ... The investigation centers on whether Mr. Craig should have disclosed work he did in 2012 — while he was a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — on behalf of the Russia-aligned government of Viktor F. Yanukovych, then the president of Ukraine. The work was steered to Mr. Craig by Paul Manafort."

Source:
LOWER COURT HAD INVALIDATED LIFE SENTENCE
SCOTUS Will Hear DC Sniper Case
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider Virginia’s plea to reinstate the life-without-parole sentence of a man who as a teenager participated in sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington, D.C., region in 2002. The justices said they will take up the state’s appeal in the case of Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 when he and John Allen Muhammad fatally shot 10 people in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. Malvo was sentenced to life-without-parole terms in Virginia and in Maryland, and Muhammad was sentenced to death and was executed in 2009. Malvo was sentenced to four life terms for crimes he committed in Virginia. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled last year that while Malvo’s life-without-parole sentences were legal when they were imposed."

Source:
PROSECUTORS, DOT ARE INVOLVED
U.S. Grand Jury Seeks info on How 737 MAX Is Made
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Federal prosecutors and Department of Transportation officials are scrutinizing the development of Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX jetliners, according to people familiar with the matter, unusual inquiries that come amid probes of regulators’ safety approvals of the new plane. A grand jury in Washington, D.C., issued a broad subpoena dated March 11 to at least one person involved in the 737 MAX’s development, seeking related documents, including correspondence, emails and other messages."

Source:
HAS NOT ATTENDED HIGH-LEVEL MEETINGS OF LATE
MBS Stripped of Some Powers
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The heir to the Saudi throne has not attended a series of high-profile ministerial and diplomatic meetings in Saudi Arabia over the last fortnight and is alleged to have been stripped of some of his financial and economic authority, the Guardian has been told. The move to restrict, if only temporarily, the responsibilities of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is understood to have been revealed to a group of senior ministers earlier last week by his father, King Salman."

Source:
TURKISH MAN BEING SOUGHT
Mass Shooting in Dutch City of Utrecht
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login