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Two Campaign Latecomers Are a Warning to Democrats

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Is the Democratic presidential nomination process in trouble? Probably not — but there are some warning signs that the party might want to be aware of.

Every time a candidate drops out of the presidential nomination contest I tweet, #WinnowingWorks. That’s because the process works by attrition: Candidates drop out when they no longer have a realistic chance to win. 

In most cycles, the winner is just the last one standing after voters make their choices in the earlier rounds of primaries and caucuses. That’s what happened for Donald Trump on the Republican side in 2016. Sometimes, instead, two or even three candidates make it deep into the primary season. Winnowing is important because it produces a winner in a process that otherwise has no way to prevent a stalemate. 

That’s why it’s worth noting the new candidacies of former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also owns Bloomberg LP, of which Bloomberg Opinion is a part.

Neither appears at this point particularly likely to win the nomination. Entering late hasn’t been a successful strategy in the modern era, and Bloomberg is compounding that by skipping the first two contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, another strategy that has never panned out. We all learned the hard way in 2016 that nothing is impossible, but even if Patrick and Bloomberg had strong polling numbers and solid support from party actors, I’d be hard-pressed to put them in the group of six or seven plausible nominees with the strongest polling and endorsements.(5)

But it’s definitely interesting that two serious politicians jumped in this late — especially after about 25 candidates had already reached the formal announcement stage and another dozen or so did candidate-like things even though they never made it official. In other words, there’s at least some indication that the barriers to entering the race, and perhaps remaining a candidate, are lower than ever. Maybe winnowing won’t work — and maybe a lot more of the remaining candidates have plausible paths to the nomination.

If winnowing no longer works the way it traditionally has, then there’s a greater chance that the system won’t produce a winner at all. If multiple candidates continue running without any realistic chance — perhaps even without any mathematical possibility — of accumulating the majority of delegates needed to win the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, then it’s possible that no candidate will reach that majority before the convention opens on July 13, 2020. After all, if losing candidates are able to stay active and keep adding to their delegate counts, there will be fewer delegates available for the eventual winner to get to 50% plus one.

And that’s a potential disaster for the party; there is simply no mechanism for resolving a deadlocked nomination at the convention. The possibility of a descent into multi-ballot chaos would be real, as the party squanders the normal advertising function of the modern convention, which is to begin the process of unifying and mobilizing the party.

Even if a candidate does wind up with a majority of the delegates from the primaries and caucuses, significant recent changes in how the process works make it harder for parties to compete over and coordinate on the nomination. The results could become almost random, with the winner determined more by media attention or factional maneuvering than by any kind of party consensus.

That would be bad for the party; it would also be bad for the nation, since candidates chosen that way are less likely to govern well.

All that said, the evidence so far about whether winnowing still works is hardly definitive. We do have a record number of candidates still active at this point, including the two newcomers. But it’s also true that plenty of candidates have dropped out, both before and after formally announcing their candidacies. And perhaps the main reasons for all the candidates are the traditional ones that produce large fields: An unpopular president, and the lack of any obvious consensus challenger.(6)

In a lot of ways, the 2020 Democratic nomination cycle is similar to what the Democrats went through in 1988 and 2004, two years in which large fields of candidates and shifting polling made everything seem murky and uncertain right up to the February Iowa caucuses, the first opportunity for voters to weigh in. In those years, too, there were concerns about whether winnowing would work and whether the primaries and caucuses would produce a winner. There was even a candidate in 1988, Tennessee Senator Al Gore, who skipped Iowa and New Hampshire. There was also a late entrant in 2004, General Wesley Clark. In the end, however, it turned out that winnowing worked both times, with party actors eventually deciding to back a candidate who did well early, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Senator John Kerry in 2004, and Democratic primary voters eventually went along. 

The most likely outcome in 2020 is more of the same. The party will rally to one of the candidates by the time the early events are over, voters will go along, and the losers will rapidly drop out. But if winnowing really doesn’t work anymore, then almost anything could happen.

(1) It's increasingly unlikely that New Jersey Senator Cory Booker will qualify for the December debate, and if he doesn't it will be hard to see any plausible path to the nomination for him. That will leave only former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg as candidates who poll well enough to make the debates and also have significant support from Democratic party actors.

(2) What counts as an "obvious" nominee is hard to define. Generally, sitting vice presidents would included, as would candidates who were (like Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Hillary Clinton in 2016) close runners-up in the previous contest and who also were broadly accepted by the party. This time there's a recent vice president, Joe Biden, as there was when Walter Mondale ran in 1984, but Biden's age has prevented him from being regarded as a strong candidate.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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