It’s been obvious for a while that the Democratic presidential field for 2020 is going to be pretty large, and could produce an unexpected nominee, much like the comparably vast Republican field of 2016 that gave us our very strange 45th president. But as Nate Silver explains, this could be the largest presidential field in any one party since the advent of near-universal state primaries and caucuses made announced candidacies all but essential for anyone wanting to become a major-party nominee.
Silver counts nine announced candidates with at least potentially viable profiles (plus one, Richard Ojeda, who announced and then dropped out), and then another 12 that he figures are more likely than not to run in the end. So even without such remote possibilities as New Yorkers Michael Bloomberg, Bill de Blasio, and Andrew Cuomo, or retreads John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, or House backbenchers Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton, we are likely looking at the largest presidential field ever.
The largest Democratic fields up until now were in 1972 (15 candidates) and 1976 (16 candidates). Those two cycles, interestingly enough, produced the least likely Democratic nominees in recent memory, the ideologically marginal (by contemporary standards) George McGovern and then the very obscure one-term Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. McGovern, as you probably know, lost 49 states; Carter narrowly won what was supposed to be a Democratic slam dunk by putting together an unusual coalition rooted in the Deep South, a region where Democrats had not done well at all since 1960. So neither nominating contest went the way most party elites would have preferred, for sure.
Putting aside the aforementioned 2016, 1972, and 1976 cycles, there have been seven other presidential fields that reached double digits: Democrats in 1988, 2004, and 2008, and Republicans in 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012. Only two of them produced victory, and that includes a 2000 George W. Bush election that required overtime and an intervention by the Supreme Court.
So it’s reasonably safe to say that very large presidential fields have more often than not led to defeat and/or eccentric nominees. They’ve also often produced nominees who didn’t get anything close to a majority of the popular vote in the primaries, which was less problematic back when Democrats didn’t have the kind of strict proportionality in delegate awards that they do now. As Silver observes:
The three past elections when the field was as large as its shaping up to be in 2020 all resulted in party elites failing to get their way. They also resulted in a nominee who failed to get 50 percent of the popular vote in the primaries, which could yield a contested convention since Democratic delegate allocation rules are highly proportional to the popular vote. In a field of 20 candidates, for instance, you’d project … that the eventual nominee would have either 32 percent or 40 percent of the popular vote, depending on whether you use a linear or logarithmic trendline.
Now it’s also entirely possible that a giant field could get “winnowed” early on, as it was among Republicans in 2000 (when George W. Bush basically had a one-on-one fight with John McCain after New Hampshire) and among Democrats in 2008 (when Obama and Clinton largely stood alone after New Hampshire). If, say, Biden and Sanders both run and rout the field in Iowa and New Hampshire, a lot of candidates might quickly drop out. But as Silver notes, the size of the field itself represents a pretty big bet by a lot of people that nobody’s going to run away with this thing.
Democratic voters like a lot of their choices and feel optimistic about their chances of beating Trump in 2020. The large field is both a sign that there may not be consensus about the best candidate and a source of unpredictability.
If the list of Democratic candidates does top 20 and stays there as actual voting approaches, we should all get ready for a wild ride.