What then could we expect in a Democratic field with 20 or so contenders?
First, the candidates might actually have to define themselves in positive ways. You can’t run oppo attacks on the 19 or so other contenders. Each candidate has to explain why he or she is different and better than the rest. That means talking in a positive way about their visions for the country and their talents. We might, in other words, wind up with a more positive and revealing campaign. Candidates who can present themselves as experts on some issues (e.g. Michael Bloomberg on climate change and guns) can have an outsize impact on the race, forcing candidates to address the issues in a credible way and keeping the issues front and center at the debates. If every candidate has to figure out whether he or she can be as credible as Bloomberg on climate change and guns, as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on work and unions, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on financial reform, etc., the quality of the debate might be higher than in the usual presidential race.
Second, the mainstream media, shamed from 2016, is unlikely to rule out long-shot candidates. There will be stronger and weaker ones, candidates with funding and those operating on a shoestring, but who’s to say that any specific contender “can’t win”? Less horse-race coverage (which is harder with a zillion candidates all bunched up) would be a blessing.
Third, it will be hard for candidates to survive on free TV as President Trump did in 2016. With no TV celebrity (at least not yet) and so many candidates in the race, TV news producers will find it hard to justify giving what amounts to an open mic to one or two candidates. With so many candidates, carrying any of the rallies live will be problematic — at least until the field narrows considerably.
Fourth, the ideological labels and posturing become somewhat meaningless among those clearly identified as progressives. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is not more progressive than Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) in any meaningful way. Even Warren’s voting record will be much the same as other contenders from the Senate (yes on saving Obamacare, no on Trump’s tax cuts, no on weakening Dodd-Frank). Simply slapping a label on the other guys or picking out one for yourself will be of little utility. That doesn’t mean there aren’t critical differences on foreign policy, taxes and the rest; it simply means that candidates will have to do more than say, “I’m from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
Fifth, candidates will have little incentive to drop out to narrow the field. In the era of online fundraising and billionaire donors, most candidates directly or indirectly via soft money will have enough to keep them going for just about as long as they’d like. In a primary race where delegates are awarded proportionally, the race might go on for a good long time. That really will test the eventual winner and also provide Democrats with the chance to expand their electorate and keep more voters engaged.
Sixth, Democratic primary voters are desperate for a winner. As they meet the candidates, watch them on the debate stage and learn about their record, they really are going to ask themselves which one can take down Trump. Look for the search for “gravitas” and someone who can be more presidential than the actual president. “Electability” is derided by true believers and party activists, but choosing someone who is not temperamentally equipped to take on Trump is a luxury that Democrats don’t have.
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