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Everyone’s Running — And That Could Be Dangerous For The Democrats

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar became the 10th major Democratic candidate for president on Sunday. She almost certainly won’t be the last addition to the field. Another 20 or so prominent Democrats are still considering a presidential bid, which could eventually send the number of candidates into the teens or even 20s — perhaps eclipsing the 17 major candidates who ran for the Republican nomination in 2016.

But is the number of candidates really a meaningful metric? Sometimes the field can winnow dramatically in the run-up to the first primaries and caucuses or shortly thereafter. By my count, 12 major candidates sought the Republican nomination in 2000. But many of them dropped out before anyone voted, and after New Hampshire it was really just a two-way race between then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain. And in 2004, then-Sen. John Kerry emerged from a crowded Democratic field to win the nomination fairly easily after strong showings in the early states.

Those cases are more the exception than the rule, however. In fact, the size of the field usually does tell us a lot about how the primary will play out. In particular, it tells us whether party elites are likely to form a consensus around a single candidate, as the Democratic establishment did around Hillary Clinton in 2016 but as Republicans famously failed to do in that year’s primary process, paving the way for the nomination of President Trump.

The crowded field developing for 2020 doesn’t necessarily imply that an anti-establishment candidate will prevail. Even when party elites don’t get their first choice, they usually get someone they can live with. But the high number of candidates does imply a higher-than-usual risk of chaos.

It also implies that the “next-in-line” candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, aren’t intimidating anyone. Neither Biden nor Sanders have officially entered the race yet, and it’s possible they’ll unveil a slew of endorsements when (and if) they do, which would show that the party backed them all along. But that seems unlikely. If they had strong support from party elites, we probably wouldn’t have so many other candidates already running or actively contemplating a bid — especially candidates who appeal to the same kinds of voters as Sanders and Biden do.1 That inference also aligns with reporting about Biden and Sanders that suggests they’re having trouble finding the support from party actors they were hoping for.

Let’s take a step back, though. How to define the number of “major” candidates running for president is a little tricky. Technically, there are already hundreds of people who have filed their paperwork to run for president in 2020, but most of them are people you’ve never heard of and never will. In a perfect world, you might evaluate a series of criteria to determine who’s a major candidate, including whether they’re regularly included in media coverage about the campaign, whether they’re included in polls, whether they’ve raise a significant amount of money, whether they’re invited to participate in the debates, whether they have traditional credentials for the presidency, whether they have ballot access in most states, and so forth. It’s probably worth erring on the side of inclusiveness, but you can go overboard and wind up with a list that’s dozens or hundreds of candidates long. For purposes of this article, though, I’m mostly using press coverage and credentials as the markers of major candidates. If the media is ambivalent about whether someone qualifies as a major candidate, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt if they’ve held elected office before, but otherwise not.

In my judgment, then, there are 10 major Democrats who have either officially launched their campaigns or formed a presidential exploratory committee. (Note that entering the race2 and withdrawing still counts as running; this will become relevant in a moment.) Here are the first nine, in alphabetical order:

  1. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
  2. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.
  3. Former San Antonio mayor and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
  4. Former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland.
  5. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
  6. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
  7. Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
  8. Sen. Klobuchar of Minnesota.
  9. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

You could probably argue against the inclusion of Buttigieg and perhaps even against Delaney and Gabbard, but there is some precedent (albeit not a lot) for U.S. representatives becoming president, and Buttigieg is getting a fair amount of media coverage (and he’s an elected official). But Andrew Yang, the founder of a nonprofit that teaches young people to run startups, and Marianne Williamson, an author and “spiritual teacher,” probably do not qualify as major candidates as they don’t hold public office, nor are they nationally renowned for other reasons. A harder case is former West Virginia state senator Richard Ojeda, who dropped out after entering the race in November. In terms of media coverage, such as number of newspaper articles written about them, Ojeda was about halfway between Yang and Buttigieg. I’m inclined to include him because, as mentioned, I prefer to give candidates who have held elected office the benefit of the doubt. Thus:

  • 10. Former state senator Richard Ojeda of West Virginia (withdrawn).

Which other Democrats might enter the field? Here is a possibly incomplete list of names. I’ve included everyone who is:

  1. Given at least a 10 percent chance of running at PredictIt.
  2. Or is included on The New York Times’s list of potential candidates.
  3. Or has expressed in a recent news story that they’re still considering a bid.3
Which other Democrats might run for president?

Chance that potential Democratic presidential candidates might run, based on PredictIt evaluations,* The New York Times and Nate’s guesses

Candidate Chance Source
John Hickenlooper 89% PredictIt
Bernie Sanders 88 PredictIt
Sherrod Brown 87 PredictIt
Jay Inslee 87 PredictIt
Beto O’Rourke 77 PredictIt
Steve Bullock 75 New York Times guesstimate
Joe Biden 74 PredictIt
Eric Holder 66 PredictIt
Eric Swalwell 60 Nate’s wild guesstimate
Terry McAuliffe 59 PredictIt
Jeff Merkley 50 New York Times guesstimate
Tim Ryan 40 Nate’s wild guesstimate
Seth Moulton 40 Nate’s wild guesstimate
Michael Bloomberg 33 PredictIt
Michael Bennet 25 New York Times guesstimate
Bill de Blasio 25 New York Times guesstimate
John Kerry 25 New York Times guesstimate
Stacey Abrams 20 Nate’s wild guesstimate
Mitch Landrieu 15 PredictIt
Hillary Clinton 11 PredictIt
Andrew Cuomo 10 PredictIt

* As of 5:15 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2019.

For Inslee, O’Rourke, Bloomberg and Landrieu, PredictIt asks bettors whether a potential candidate will enter the race by a certain date, rather than whether they’ll run at all.

These probabilities imply that an additional 10 or 11 Democrats will enter the race, although there’s still a fairly wide range of possibilities. If you assume (possibly dubiously) that each candidate’s decision is independent, the 95 percent confidence interval runs from seven additional candidates to 14. That means that we’ll end up with a total of between 17 and 24 Democratic candidates, including the 10 (one since withdrawn) we have already.

So while a handful of candidates have declined a bid — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick probably foremost among them — this is likely to be a very big, possibly even record-breaking field.

In primaries since 1972 that haven’t featured an incumbent president, parties have averaged about 10 major candidates for president. So Democrats are looking at roughly double the average. Here’s who I consider the major candidates to have been in past years — again, acknowledging that the term “major” is pretty subjective but that I’m erring on the side of inclusivity:

How many ‘major’ candidates ran in previous primaries?

Number of major candidates in presidential primaries since 1972, excluding primaries for parties with an incumbent president running for re-election

Year Party No. of Candidates Nominee Other candidates
2020 D 17 to 24 ? Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, Delaney, Gabbard, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Ojeda, Warren, others TBD
2016 R 17 Trump Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, Bush, Carson, Paul, Christie, Huckabee, Fiorina, Gilmore, Santorum, Perry, Walker, Jindal, Graham, Pataki
2016 D 5 Clinton Sanders, O’Malley, Chafee, Webb
2012 R 12 Romney Santorum, Paul, Gingrich, Perry, Huntsman, Bachmann, Roemer, Johnson, Cain, McCotter, Pawlenty
2008 R 12 McCain Romney, Huckabee, Paul, F. Thompson, Keyes, Hunter, Giuliani, Brownback, Gilmore, Tancredo, T. Thompson
2008 D 10 Obama Clinton, Edwards, Richardson, Biden, Dodd, Gravel, Kucinich, Vilsack, Bayh
2004 D 10 Kerry Edwards, Dean, Clark, Kucinich, Gephardt, Lieberman, Sharpton, Moseley Braun, Graham
2000 R 12 Bush McCain, Keyes, Forbes, Bauer, Hatch, Alexander, Buchanan, Dole, Kasich, Quayle, Smith
2000 D 2 Gore Bradley
1996 R 12 Dole Buchanan, Forbes, Alexander, Keyes, Dornan, Gramm, Lugar, Specter, Wilson, Fletcher, Taylor
1992 D 8 Clinton Brown, Kerrey, Harkin, Tsongas, McCarthy, Wilder, Agran
1988 R 7 Bush Dole, Robertson, Kemp, du Pont, Haig, Laxalt
1988 D 11 Dukakis Jackson, Gore, Gephardt, Simon, Hart, Babbitt, Traficant, Applegate, Schroeder, Biden
1984 D 8 Mondale Hart, Jackson, Glenn, McGovern, Askew, Cranston, Hollings
1980 R 9 Reagan Bush, Anderson, Baker, Connally, Crane, Dole, Pressler, Weicker
1976 D 16 Carter Brown, Wallace, Udall, Jackson, Church, Bayh, Bentsen, Byrd, Fauntroy, Harris, Shapp, Shriver, Washington, Sanford, Mondale
1972 D 15 McGovern Humphrey, Wallace, Muskie, Chisholm, Bayh, Harris, Hartke, Jackson, Lindsay, McCarthy, Mills, Mink, Sanford, Yorty

“Major” is a somewhat squishy term, and although this list errs on the side of inclusivity, a few candidates may have slipped through the cracks. The table includes candidates who withdrew before competing in any primaries.

I have the 17-candidate Republican field of 2016 as the largest since at least 1972, although the 1972 (15 candidates) and 1976 (16 candidates) Democratic primaries are close. You can also see how the number of candidates has tended to rise and fall over time. After the chaotic 1972 and 1976 nomination cycles, parties averaged 8.6 candidates per cycle between 1980 and 2000. The average has been 11 per election since 2004, however, and it will likely rise to 12 or 13 depending on how many more candidates we get this year.

As should be pretty intuitive, larger fields are correlated with more prolonged nomination processes in which both voters and party elites have a harder time reaching consensus. Below is a table comparing the number of candidates in each past cycle against the share of the overall popular vote the nominee eventually received. I’ve also included a more subjective measure of whether party elites were able to get their way. I consider the party to have decided — that is, for party elites to have gotten their preferred choice — if there was a clear front-runner in endorsements in advance of the Iowa caucuses and that candidate won the nomination. And I consider the elites to have failed if a factional candidate who lacked broad support from the party establishment won. Then there are in-between cases such as the 2008 Democratic primary, in which party elites didn’t necessarily get their first choice (or there wasn’t a clear first choice), but the candidate who emerged was broadly acceptable to multiple major factions of the party.

Bigger primary fields mean more uncertainty

Number of “major” candidates in presidential primaries since 1972* and whether the eventual nominee was favored by party elites

Year Party Nominee No. of Candidates Did party elites get what they wanted? Nominee’s share of pop. vote in primaries
2016 R Trump 17 No 44.9%
1976 D Carter 16 No 40.2
1972 D McGovern 15 No 25.3
2012 R Romney 12 Yes 52.1
2008 R McCain 12 Sort of 46.7
2000 R W. Bush 12 Yes 62.0
1996 R Dole 12 Yes 58.8
1988 D Dukakis 11 Sort of 42.4
2008 D Obama 10 Sort of 47.4
2004 D Kerry 10 Sort of 61.0
1980 R Reagan 9 Yes 59.8
1992 D B. Clinton 8 Yes 52.0
1984 D Mondale 8 Yes 38.3
1988 R H.W. Bush 7 Yes 67.9
2016 D H. Clinton 5 Yes 55.2
2000 D Gore 2 Yes 75.4

* Excluding nomination processes for which an incumbent president was running for that party.

“Major” is a somewhat squishy term, and although this list errs on the side of inclusivity, a few candidates may have slipped through the cracks. The table includes candidates who withdrew before competing in any primaries.

Source: Wikipedia

This table ought to worry establishment Democrats. The three past elections when the field was as large as its shaping up to be in 2020 all resulted in party elites failing to get their way. They also resulted in a nominee who failed to get 50 percent of the popular vote in the primaries, which could yield a contested convention since Democratic delegate allocation rules are highly proportional to the popular vote. In a field of 20 candidates, for instance, you’d project — extrapolating from the data above — that the eventual nominee would have either 32 percent or 40 percent of the popular vote, depending on whether you use a linear or logarithmic trendline. That could mean that the race is decided at the convention.

Granted, extrapolation can be dangerous in cases like these. If we do wind up with a field of 20 or so Democratic candidates, we’ll be in outlier-land because we’ve never had a field so large before.

But the past electoral cycles where the field was nearly as big as this one shouldn’t exactly be comforting to Democrats, and it should be particularly worrying for next-in-line candidates such as Biden. Democratic voters like a lot of their choices and feel optimistic about their chances of beating Trump in 2020. The large field is both a sign that there may not be consensus about the best candidate and a source of unpredictability.

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  1. Such as Klobuchar for Biden or Sen. Elizabeth Warren for Sanders.

  2. Including formulating an exploratory committee.

  3. For candidates who don’t have PredictIt prices, I treat a New York Times categorization that they’re “likely to run” as equivalent to a 75 percent chance of running, “might run” as 50 percent, and “unlikely to run” as 25 percent. For candidates who neither have New York Times categories nor PredictIt prices, I’m just using my own subjective estimate of their likelihood of running.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.