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State of Confusion – The Democrats’ Perilous Primary of 2020

     As of today, April 9, 2019, seventeen candidates have declared for the Democratic Party nomination to run against Donald Trump for President in 2020.  Four to eight more candidates are expected to announce in the coming weeks, and there is speculation the field may grow to thirty!  Such a large field is untenable and counter-productive.  It would be virtually impossible for voters to truly get to know and assess the candidates and for the candidates to get out their message.  The Republicans had a field of seventeen in 2016, with demonstrable challenges to an effective primary campaign. 

    Legally speaking, anyone who meets the Constitutional requirements and is able to file the requisite paperwork can run for President.  It does not mean it is a practical decision, a wise decision, or that they have the slightest chance to win.  In fact, they may not even make the ballot.  On the other hand, political parties are private organizations, not government institutions, thus the rules and limitations that apply to government do not apply to the parties.  They do have flexibility and discretion as to how to conduct their primary campaigns.  The biggest restraint is the fear of alienating voters and donors, and they do not want to risk the dire consequences of being seen as favoring certain candidates or even rigging the process.  That begs the question as to how parties should regulate an efficient primary process that serves the interests of voters and produces the right front-runners and ultimate winner.  Hopefully the party and voters will rally around the ultimate winner with financial, logistical, and enthusiastic support.   

     During the primary, the more candidates that enter the race, the harder it will be to raise the necessary money.  This is especially true in the Democratic Party where there is tremendous pressure on candidates to only accept money from individual donors and forego corporate, PAC, or institutional donors.  The travel, media, and campaign costs will be the same, perhaps even more in order for the candidate to break through the morass, but the donors will be spread thin.  The amount of money in our elections is unconscionable and we must strive to reducing spending, especially the dark money rooted in dishonesty.  However, we also must live in the reality of today and until we fix this problem, candidates have the right to be competitive in their races.  Democrats cannot unilaterally fix this problem while allowing Republicans to benefit from all the big money.  Additionally, it is highly likely that many donors will choose to wait until the field thins before supporting a candidate either for fear of backing someone who drops quickly or the inability to really evaluate so many choices.  Some may even wait until the general election because of all the money it will take to win.   

     Debates will be the biggest and most obvious challenge.  The large number of candidates led the Democrats to make similar adjustments as did the Republicans in 2016 and have two tiers of debates.  Assuming most candidates make it to the debates, there could easily be ten or more candidates on stage in both tiers.  In fact, if the number approaches thirty, they could almost need three tiers!  Democrats plan to hold the debates on consecutive nights with the “lower” tier debate on the first night and “upper” tier on the second.  The tiers will be based on how many individual donors the candidates have; those with more individual donors getting into the upper tier.  There is a clear disadvantage to being in the lower tier.  It is a safe bet that fewer voters will watch the lower tier debate and there is no guarantee it will have the same media coverage.  Candidates will fight and claw their way into the upper tier, but it may not be within their control or related to their message.  They are wholly reliant on individuals sending in whatever they can afford.  If they went by poll numbers, that would present similar challenges.  There is just not a perfect way to arrange such a large field. 

     The tiered debate structure will not fix the problem.  Having this many candidate on stage prevents any meaningful interaction, follow-up, responses, and limits the number of questions.  If every candidate has the opportunity to answer each question or address every issue, which would be fair to all, this will be nothing more than a series of mini speeches.  Viewers may forget the question by the time each candidate provides their comments.  While it is better to avoid the inevitable degradation of the debate wherein candidates trade negative retorts and lose control, this format will limit or prevent any opportunity for candidates to respond to other’s comments or the moderator to seek clarification.  There will need to be far fewer total questions in order to get through each candidate’s answers.  This will provide less insight to viewers and make it hard for candidates to distinguish and differentiate themselves.  The point is that the higher the number of participants, the lower the quality of the debate.     

     There will likely be a natural attrition of primary candidates before the contests begin with Iowa and New Hampshire.  If so, there is still a strong likelihood many candidates will make it to the actual voting.  The question is whether the best candidates, those most competitive and most able to lead the nation, can hang on long enough to get there.  Will name recognition or reputation supplant actual performance, policy positions or potential to be the next great leader?  With so many candidates ostensibly on the ballot, the “winner” may be the candidate who edges out the others, but because the votes are spread out may “win” with a relatively low percentage of the votes.  For example, hypothetically if the field narrows to ten candidates, one could technically “win” with eleven percent of the vote.  However, with the label and momentum that come from being called the winner, that individual goes forward with a huge advantage.  The stakes are high, and this will be a fight.  Hopefully the ultimate winner can move forward unscathed.      

     The Democratic Party cannot interfere with the outcome of the vote or be seen as favoring particular campaigns.  However, the party has some responsibility to maintain order in what could easily become a chaotic campaign.  They can try and persuade the less competitive candidates to drop out, especially once those candidates have had the opportunity to make their case, but not get the results.  It is crucial that voters have the chance to assess the candidates and that their votes matter.  It is also imperative to have an efficient process that produces a candidate ready to take on Donald Trump and the Republican machine in 2020.  It will be hard enough without the candidate entering the general election scathed from a fierce primary battle.  Democrats would be well served to keep the primary positive, focused on issues and defeating Trump, not with a candidate healing from wounds inflicted in their own primary.

     At this point, it does not appear as if President Trump will have a primary contest.  There are Republican leaders urging Senator Mitt Romney, former Governor and UN Ambassador Nicki Haley, former Governor John Kasich, and others to mount a primary challenge.  This could be good for the Republican Party.  The contest could define the modern GOP and either ratify it as the party Trump has transformed or modify back to more traditional conservative values.  The more the party becomes the Trumpist Party, the more traditional Republicans may search for a new home away from Trump’s racism, anti-trade, pro-Russia extremism, not to mention character and personal conduct, issues that used to be important for Republicans.  There is still time.  If there is a Republican Primary, that will add to the chaos and importance of the 2020 primaries. 

     Voters must remain informed and involved.  The future of our country, our policies, foreign relations, and role in the world are at stake.   

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