Domestic Affairs

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen: The 2020 Democratic Primary

Joe Sestak. Wayne Messam. Eric Swalwell. For those of you who aren’t familiar with any of these names, they are just three of the Democratic candidates who formed the largest primary field for a presidential election that we have seen in decades. While some candidates, including Swalwell, have since dropped out of the race, there were initially 25 candidates in total. Such a large competition creates a difficult challenge for every candidate: setting themselves apart from the throng. 

This feat seems unachievable for most when they have received virtually no national media coverage. These three men don’t even rank among the top 20 candidates by the number of mentions on network or online news sources. A fair comparison of the candidates’ stances on various issues seems impossible when the average voter won’t remember all of their names. Such a convoluted and complex primary field will only force Democratic candidates to turn against one another to gain the media attention, bringing division and sensationalism to the Democratic party right before a critical 2020 election. Democratic candidates must evaluate whether their campaign for president is truly viable or whether their presence in the race is actually detrimental to the image, unity, and finances of the Democratic Party. 

Over the past summer, news networks held two Democratic debates in an attempt to give candidates the chance to have a media platform where they could establish themselves as credible options for the presidential nomination. However, the debates had to be split into two nights on each occasion, with ten candidates participating each night. Even with ten candidates, the debates seemed complicated, rushed, and hard to follow. The human brain can only concentrate on so much at a time, and the chaotic nature of the debates seemed to place a significant strain on the attention span of the viewers. The second round of debates, which experienced a sharp decline in ratings, was only able to retain a fraction of the viewers who tuned in to the first debate.

Besides their lack of popularity, overpopulated debates prevent proper discussion of policy. CNN was strongly criticized for its strict enforcement of timing rules during the second round of debates. The debate moderators continually cut off candidates in the middle of their responses in an attempt to grant others time to speak. Many felt this was problematic because it inhibited substantive conversation about issues, forcing candidates to speak vaguely about policy plans in order to get their point across in the allotted time frame. Yet, even with these strict rules, the candidates had far from equal coverage, with some candidates having well over twice the amount of speaking time as other candidates.

Because of these seemingly insurmountable circumstances, many candidates take aim at each other, criticizing policy plans and voting records. The second round of debates alone involved a swath of heated exchanges between the presidential hopefuls. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard attacked Senator Kamala Harris over her time as the Attorney General of California, and Harris responded by later calling Gabbard an apologist for Bashar al-Assad. Former Congressman John Delaney condemned Senator Elizabeth Warren’s policies as unachievable and unrealistic, eliciting a harsh rejoinder from the Senator questioning why someone running for president would be so pessimistic. Yet these criticisms have not prompted significant changes in voter opinion. Despite being attacked continuously throughout the debates, former Vice President Joe Biden has remained the clear front runner in this primary cycle so far, averaging a 10 point lead in the polls while Gabbard and Delaney remain dismally low.

This trend contradicts what could be observed in the 2016 Republican primary. When then-candidate Donald Trump coined another nickname for one of his rivals or made an outrageous claim against them — like his affirmation that Ted Cruz’s father assisted in the assassination of JFK — he only seemed to gain popularity. His quarrels with his fellow candidates kept him in the eye of the public, earning him millions of dollars in news coverage and helping him defeat the other 16 Republicans in the race.

Perhaps no Democrat has been able to dominate the media in this manner because none of the remaining candidates are as outrageous, eccentric, or eye-catching as Trump had been. Therefore, candidates may be hesitant to attack their Democratic opponents when sensational claims in the political sphere are now inextricably associated with Trump. Anyone who engages in more provocative rhetoric may receive shame for “stooping to Trump’s level.” The legitimacy of Democratic objections to Trump’s behavior during the 2016 campaign becomes questionable if the candidates begin to emulate him. This, overall, could fracture the Democratic voting base. Yet, the temptation to attack each other lingers for candidates as they attempt to gain popularity and media attention.

The organization of the primaries helps political parties essentially vet their candidates. Through debates and town halls, voters are able to view possible shortcomings of the candidates as well as determine who has the greatest chance against the other party’s nominee in the general election. However, the primaries are truly only able to test the campaigning prowess of the candidates. Just because someone is able to run a stellar campaign doesn’t mean they are best suited for the presidency. When more candidates are contending for the nomination, the focus of the media and the American public shifts more from political policies and future plans to campaign logistics. This turns the election into a sort of popularity contest, masking the true abilities and potential of the candidates as political leaders.

Having such large primary fields also presents financial problems for the party. Candidates need constant monetary support from voters in order to continue funding their campaigning. Yet, when there are around 20 candidates still in the running, the race for donors and funding is intensified. Together all of the candidates have raised around $400 million already, even with still more than nine months until the Democratic convention. Imagine all of the money given to campaigns that won’t make it past the first few state caucuses and primary elections. This money is effectively wasted, when it could have gone towards the nominee in the general election. Continually asking the American people for money on such a large scale is bound to turn away potential donors in the future, especially when many candidates are demonstrating that the extra money leads to virtually no change in the polls.

While it is important that anyone qualified and experienced enough should be able to run for the presidency, it appears that having too many individuals in the ring may actually be detrimental to the party. Candidates face great temptation to attack their fellow candidates to gain media attention, which will only give Republicans fuel for their own attacks in their 2020 campaigns and discredit the integrity of the individuals running for office. If too many candidates stay in the race into the primary elections, Democrats risk wasting millions of dollars on short-lived campaigns that could have been better used in the general election. There is also a risk of nominating a Democrat who may not reflect the people’s true values or be the best suited for the office, just because they were believed to be the most electable. Regardless, the Democratic candidates must value party unity over personal ambition if they wish to win the critical 2020 election, which in some cases may mean dropping out of the race for the greater good of their party.

1 reply »

  1. A key portion of the Democratic argument in the 2020 primary is going to be whether they see the Obama administration as a success or not, and what lessons they take from the Obama years. And month by month, year by year, more Democrats become more comfortable with discussing the way Obama’s presidency did not live up to their hopes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s