Two front runners will always lead an open field

The starting gun has been fired on the Democrats’ primary candidate race but two names will lead from beginning to end.

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Over the last couple of weeks, a host of names have formally and informally announced they’re running to be the Democrat nominee for president in 2020. The reality, of course, is that this race started long ago (perhaps even before Obama won the nominee in 2008) and, as ever, the speculation will continue until the maths confirms who it is.

There has been a lot of talk about how open the Democratic field is, but, because an ‘open field’ can be measured in a number of ways, the statement is only partly true. Numerically, ideologically, and demographically. Each context comes to a slightly different conclusion about the state and possible uniqueness of the primary field.

Numerically:

There is an understandable fear amongst some that a crowded field — that is to say, a field whereby a high number of candidates are competing — can make the party look disjointed, chaotic, provoke internal argument (not debate), and pull the party so far apart that it cannot heal in time for the general election.

I do not think there is need to worry about this. In 2008, for example, there were 8 candidates competing for the Democratic nominee; in 2004, there were 9 (plus Bob Graham who pulled out before the primaries had begun). In both instances there were handfuls of potentials who decided against running but who attracted much media attention before doing so. It’s not an exclusively Democrat thing either. In 2000, the GOP primaries had six names, with a further seven dropping out during the course (including one, John Kasich), and of course, in 2016 a total of 17 candidates were in contention at any one time.

An open field therefore is not a precondition for a disunited party, whatever you think of the way primaries are fought. Of all the 21st century examples I’ve listed above (2000, 2004, 2008, 2016), it was only 2012 that saw a modest number of four candidates attempt to challenge the incumbent, Obama. That said, an open field of candidates is as close to a political certainty as you are likely to get, especially with just under two years until the general and candidates are testing the waters.

Note: I would not be at all surprised if we saw a high number of potentials eventually deciding not to run and fairly high profile candidates withdrawing earlier than expected, thus initially increasing the size of the field.

Ideologically:

This is where it gets a little more interesting and hard to compare historical examples. As the centre ground of American politics shifts, one would expect the parties to reflect this. It is particularly difficult when comparing what the GOP offered in 2016 because no one is still sure what Donald Trump thinks, let alone believes. Nonetheless, the field had:

  • Ted Cruz “we can build the fence…we can end sanctuary cities” (Conservative)
  • John Kasich, former Conservative of the Year, generally seen as moderate due to fall outs with his state legislature over gun control (Moderate)
  • Rand Paul “I believe we should work to end all racism in American society and staunchly defend the inherent rights of every person” (Libertarian)

Regardless of what you think of these candidates, they do at least represent some ideological diversity, albeit underpinned by a mainstream of beliefs that keep them within the Republican establishment.

The same can be said for the upcoming Democratic field. While there will be some who apologetically push an agenda from the Left (i.e. Bernie), some will have a more moderate view (i.e. Biden), some will campaign hard on women’s issues (i.e. Harris, Gillibrand, Klobuchar), others might have worker’s rights at their heart (Beto), and some will speak of the need for large scale reform (i.e. Warren).

Ultimately, and this is perhaps credit to the Democrats’ hard work in opposition, I would be extremely surprised if any candidate went on record and didn’t campaign for an increased minimum wage and Medicare for all. It is during opposition where the party can re-calibrate its ideological position, but during an election campaign it remains fairly fixed. When this is combined with the expectation the candidates embrace an openly progressive agenda to social issues and environmental issues, the field suddenly looks a lot less open.

Demographically:

This is where the race is open. In 2016, of all the 17 Republican candidates, one was a woman (Carly Fiorina) and one was non-white (Ben Carson), 2012 primary candidates were all white men, and 2008 only had one non-white male (Alan Keyes). Despite the household names of Obama and Hilary Clinton, the remaining 6 Democrat candidates in 2008 were all white men, and four years earlier, out of a field of ten, only two were non-white men (one, Rev. Al Sharpton had his campaign ran by Roger Stone!)

There is absolutely no doubt therefore that the upcoming Democratic field will be the most demographically open in recent history. I have previously written about how the Democrats’ rainbow coalition will continue to grow, as demonstrated during November’s mid-terms, but selecting a candidate to run for the highest office in the land will be the greatest signal of intent so far that that is the direction the party wants to head in.

What next?

The message from this is a fairly simple one. Although the Democrats will like to think they’re exceptional, they are not. They might campaign is a less than mainstream way, use social media and micro donations to a way even Obama would envy, but the are destined to eventually end up on the common path.

One of the best examples of this historical precedent is that somewhere along the line, two front runners will come to the fore and battle it out. While stragglers might hang on, hoping to either increase their personal brand for a re-run in four years’ time, or attempt to push the debate ideologically left or right, they know they do not stand a chance. Bernie/Hilary, Obama/Hilary, Trump/Cruz, Kerry/Edwards, and to a lesser degree Romney/Santorum have all had their mini head to head before going on or dropping out.

The open field therefore is not as striking as it appears. Numerically and ideologically the party is sticking to the play book, and, while the demographics of the field are set to be unique, the Democrats already have their front runners.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

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Writing on US politics from across the pond. Occasional comments in the build up to the 2020 election week. Views rarely my own. Especially the funny ones.

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