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Democrats in 2020 don’t have the Republican safety margin

Democrats will do more coordinating in picking a 2020 candidate than Republicans did for 2016.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford And Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Testify To Senate Judiciary Committee
Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), who are considered potential 2020 contenders.
Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images

One of the central questions in understanding the Democratic presidential nomination race for 2020 is simply: Are Democrats now where Republicans were four years ago?

Will the party be confronted next year with one or two dozen viable candidates on the debate stage, each with their own financial base of support, and no way to cull the field before voting begins in Iowa? Will that create the conditions for a wealthy celebrity or some other untested non-traditional populist to emerge from the pack and win the nomination?

Jennifer Victor, Richard Skinner, and I had some debate along these lines during our podcast discussion with Ezra Klein last summer. (I had a separate discussion with Lilliana Mason on this topic around the same time.)

I didn’t have much of an answer then, but I wanted to return to the question. I believe the answer is no, as I will explain below. It’s not that Democrats don’t face some of the same coordination problems that Republicans faced in 2015-16, but rather that they have greater incentive to overcome those problems than Republicans did. Failure to coordinate is more dangerous for Democrats than it is for Republicans right now, and both parties know it.

Julia Azari nicely summarized the challenges faced by Democrats in a recent piece at FiveThirtyEight. Simply, the system that the major parties have used to pick presidential nominees over the past few decades is under a great deal of strain.

As the authors of The Party Decides recently noted, changes in fundraising rules and the rise of social media have made coordination more difficult. And the populist resistance to anything smacking of elite influence in either party makes party coordination even more challenging.

Democrats, after all, did in 2016 what a healthy party normally does — coordinate early behind an ideologically acceptable candidate and give her material support for the primaries — but her opponent and many of his supporters continued to claim the process was corrupt up until and through Election Day.

And judging from early Democratic activity for the 2020 race, it looks like it’s going to be a very crowded field. At least two dozen candidates have made their intentions known, even if few have officially declared. The first primary debates next summer could well have more competitors than the Republican ones did in the summer of 2015.

So why would I expect Democrats to do more actual winnowing during the invisible primary than Republicans did? For one thing, there were numerous moments in 2015-16 when the Republicans could have coordinated around an alternative to Donald Trump.

At least early in the process, there was a substantial portion of the party, including Fox News, that was opposed to his candidacy. There were numerous opportunities for party leaders to rally behind Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, or even Ted Cruz, or perhaps to encourage Mitt Romney or John McCain to run as a consensus anti-Trump candidate.

Almost no influential Republicans ever made such commitments, other than a few expressing doubts about Trump. There are and were important factional rifts in the GOP coalition that would have made such coordination difficult, but it was barely even attempted in 2016.

Although the Democratic field for 2020 is very wide open right now, with no obvious coordination point (and, in a rarity, no one named Clinton running), there will be many opportunities for influential Democrats to pick a favorite and rally behind him or her. This is, indeed, what’s happening right now as candidates meet with donors and activists in early primary and caucus states. The candidates are being evaluated, although whether those doing the evaluating will actually coordinate with each other remains to be seen.

I believe Democrats will see more actual coordination and winnowing than the Republicans did because the costs for Democrats getting the nomination decision wrong are higher.

First, as Hans Noel reminded us, the geographic arrangement of the national political institutions has a substantial partisan bias built into it.

The Senate represents states, rather than people, and in an era when the population size of a state increasingly correlates with its partisan lean, Republicans are simply getting extra representation. (The majority of the Senate that approved Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, for example, represented just 44 percent of the American population.)

And, of course, the Electoral College has much the same bias, giving a louder voice to smaller (and often more Republican) states. This helps explain why Republicans have managed to win the White House in three of the past five presidential elections while only winning the popular vote in one of those.

As the 2016 election showed us, a presidential candidate can make monumental errors — deviating from the party’s core principles, insulting various constituencies needed to win, threatening to jail one’s opponents, being overtly racist — and only pay a modest electoral penalty for it.

But thanks to the current arrangement of the Electoral College and the distribution of the population, Republicans simply have more of a safety margin. They can pick a bad candidate and still have a decent shot of winning.

No Democratic candidate could seriously expect to lose the popular vote by 3 million votes and still take the Electoral College. Every Democratic party leader knows that this geographic disadvantage exists and that they may have to win the popular vote by more than three or four points to win the Electoral College.

The second reason is somewhat more delicate and has to do with racism. There has long been a nontrivial faction of nihilistic white supremacists in American politics, arguably since the nation’s beginnings.

That faction has jumped around in its loyalties. It was a major part of the Democratic Party for many decades, and it has sometimes been largely unaligned. Today, it is a component of the Republican Party. To be clear, I am not claiming that the Republican Party is a nihilistic white supremacist party (it isn’t) or that most of its members are nihilistic white supremacists (they’re not).

But the party with that faction in it will be more likely to take extreme stances or to pursue extreme tactics in support of their goals because they feel they have less to lose if American political institutions fail. It was that same faction that pushed to break apart the United States rather than give up slavery and to violently repress peaceful marchers and ignore federal law rather than grant African Americans voting rights a century later.

Similarly, as I argued here, Tea Party Republicans were no more ideologically extreme in 2013 than the Congressional Black Caucus, but only the former shut down the federal government and threatened the nation’s credit rating in pursuit of its policy goals. If you believe you’ll be okay whether or not political institutions survive, you may be more reckless with the care of those institutions.

This is why Republican elites did less than they could have to prevent Trump’s nomination, and ultimately rallied behind his candidacy in the general election. Most of them probably didn’t appreciate his dismissal of various American institutions and norms, but they likely figured that the costs of undermining those norms and institutions weren’t that great for them.

Democrats, thus, have more to lose from a failure to coordinate. Nominating a wealthy celebrity with no real political experience and no real policy commitments other than despising the other party is less acceptable to the Democratic coalition, which (currently) holds institutions and norms in higher esteem than Republicans tend to.

This certainly doesn’t guarantee that Democratic leaders will be able to agree on a presidential candidate during the current invisible primary or that they will be able to ensure that such a candidate prevails in the subsequent primaries and caucuses. But the “let’s just see what happens” approach is far less acceptable to the Democrats, and they’re going to be doing what they can to thwart it.

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