There are at present 15 candidates in the Democratic presidential field for 2020 that are serious enough that they will likely make the cut for the first official debate in June. According to the New York Times, there are three others likely to run, (Biden, Bullock and Swalwell) and another four who might (Bennet, McAuliffe, Moulton and Ryan). The odds are good this will be the largest presidential field ever in either party (Republicans had 17 candidates in 2016, while Democrats had 15 in 1972 and 16 in 1976).
Eventually, of course, one candidate will win the nomination at the national convention in Milwaukee a little over 15 months from now. But how is the field going to get from here to there? What, to use the popular term, will “winnow” candidates from the race, and how soon will a likely nominee emerge?
One thing to remember in trying to apply historical precedents to these questions is that the Democrats’ current rule requiring that delegates be awarded in strict proportion to the popular vote in any given state (after a 15 percent threshold is met) wasn’t in place before 2008, and isn’t how Republicans (who still allow winner-take-all primaries) operate even now. So there’s no entirely predictable process for quickly winnowing out candidates.
Here are some scenarios that could make it easier to reduce the field pretty quickly:
1. A front-runner emerges and takes flight. Part of the reason for the crowded 2020 field is that there’s no early front-runner or “inevitable” nominee that very few rivals want to take on — like, say, Hillary Clinton in 2016. But by the time voters begin to vote, it’s possible someone — either the already familiar and strongly polling Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, or some newer figure who captures the imagination of media and voters alike — has caught fire and starts winning from the get-go, pushing more and more rivals below the 15 percent threshold for winning delegates and starving others of media attention and funds. A relatively “front-loaded” calendar like 2020’s, with a lot of big states (including the biggest, California) voting by March, makes this take-the-country-by-storm scenario more plausible.
2. A front-runner emerges and is upset and then replaced by a rival. This variation on the automotive-racing phenomenon of a car “drafting” on and then booming past a lead car actually happens more often that you might think. In 1972, one of those large-field Democratic cycles, Ed Muskie was the early front-runner. But then the lightly regarded George McGovern held Muskie below expectations (didn’t beat him, mind you, but just did better than expected) in New Hampshire, and in less than a month, the South Dakotan was the clear front-runner. The same thing happened in 2004, when John Kerry (ironically, the very early front-runner who was all but left for dead before the actual voting started) upset front-runner Howard Dean in Iowa, and never looked back. A variation occurred among Republicans in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was in deep trouble after losing Iowa to George H.W. Bush, but then trounced Bush in New Hampshire and romped to a relatively easy victory thereafter.
3. A candidate strategically outflanks the field. One scenario for a radical reduction of the field is a candidate winning in the right places at the right time, closing off paths to the nomination to others. If, for example, Kamala Harris develops early overwhelming strength among African-Americans, she could doom Cory Booker’s campaign and endanger Joe Biden’s. The fact that her gigantic home state, California, votes right after the first four contests on March 1 means she could build a near-unsurmountable delegate lead that would only begin to materialize after Iowa and New Hampshire. This is in some respects how Jimmy Carter won his surprise nomination in 1976 — which had the largest Democratic field before the current one. Carter was left alone by most rivals, who wanted him to get rid of the terrifying George Wallace in the South. When he did so, Carter built such a head of steam and won so many delegates from the South and southern-inflected border states that he became unstoppable.
4. Candidates drop out after running bad campaigns. It’s sometimes forgotten that many candidates who look strong on paper just aren’t when things get real. Two recent Republican candidates who didn’t even make it to the formal starting line in Iowa, Tim Pawlenty in 2012 and Scott Walker in 2016, are good examples. Rick Perry in 2012 also looked like a world-beater until a terrible debate performance sent his campaign into a spiral from which it never recovered. In other words, some people who see the next president of the United States in every mirror winnow themselves.
But there are also developments that can prevent the field from shrinking very quickly.
5. Buyer’s remorse about front-runners. Time and again presidential candidates have taken big leads but lose steam and nearly succumb to late challenges. Jimmy Carter attracted late opposition from Frank Church and Jerry Brown (yes, that Jerry Brown) in 1976 and lost some primaries. In 1980, after trouncing Ted Kennedy in most early contests, Jimmy Carter’s popularity steadily sank and Kennedy beat him in several late primaries, emboldening anti-Carter forces to attempt a convention maneuver to deny Carter pledged delegates. Similarly, Gary Hart won a host of late primaries against Fritz Mondale in 1984; only Mondale’s support from unelected “superdelegates” enabled him to nail down the nomination. A large field makes it easier for voters to shop around — and for a front-runner’s rivals to tackle her or him from different directions in different places.
6. Guerrilla campaigns that just won’t die. Very ideologically motivated campaigns often don’t give in even when their odds of victory become slim, as Bernie Sanders’s (and for that matter, Ted Cruz’s) 2016 campaign showed. Persistence can also be fed by relatively low-cost social-media efforts and broad-based, reliable small-donor resources. And even beyond the formal defeat of primary candidacies, some candidates and their backers can prove troublesome at party conventions, like Ron Paul’s forces in 2012.
7. Post-primary candidacies aimed at contested conventions. The huge 2020 field and the proportional representation rules have led more than one observer to suggest that the Black Swan phenomenon of a contested convention might finally happen next year. One reason is that superdelegates, who no longer vote on the first ballot, would spring to life on and subsequent ballots, and could decide the whole thing. As noted earlier, there have been efforts in the past to change the rules at conventions to wrest away an apparent nomination from the “putative” winner. In 2020, it could happen without skullduggery if no one has a majority of delegates going in, and that could affect candidate strategies in the late stages of the primary season. One variable as well could be a putative nominee who’s beginning to look like a general-election loser. Given the panic likely to seize Democrats if that happens heading toward the fall of 2020, you could see extraordinary efforts to produce a better ticket.
All in all, the odds of 2020 producing that sort of wild scenario are relatively low. More likely than not, some one or two or three candidates will quickly emerge in the early contests and the field will shrink rapidly, leading to a reasonably decisive victory for someone before the weather turns brutally hot. But it’s not a sure thing, and Democrats who see the crowded stages of a two-day candidate debate in June will be right to feel nervous about the sheer humanity of it all.