Back in 2016, I wrote that Sen. Bernie Sanders shouldn’t drop out of the Democratic primary to help Hillary Clinton. That’s because, contrary to conventional wisdom, there’s no consensus on whether a long, divisive primary contest hurts a party in the general election.
In 2019, with more than a dozen candidates still in the running, Democrats are confronting another iteration of this question. The field has narrowed in the last few months, but there are still several potential front-runners, not to mention a bumper crop of second- and third-tier candidates. This means that even though many voters are still undecided, many of them likely won’t see their first-choice candidate — or maybe even their second pick — become the nominee.
What are the implications of this for the party? Well, the reality is we don’t have a lot of examples of presidential primaries with fields this large. But as Hans Noel, an author of “The Party Decides,” wrote in 2016, the parties want a candidate who appeals to all their factions, not just some of them. This was one concern about Donald Trump in 2016. It’s not just that he lacked elite support, but that he might alienate key Republican constituencies like the business community or evangelicals. (Both groups ultimately embraced Trump in 2016.) Nevertheless, when the party elites were unable to select the nominee, the large primary field yielded unpredictable results.
There are already signs that Democratic Party leaders may be slow to decide this year. But does this year’s unwieldy primary actually spell trouble for the Democrats? Or is the crowded field just evidence of natural fissures within the party?
As FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver wrote earlier this year, the size of the primary field can signal a lack of consensus within the party. In previous cycles, it has meant that both party elites and voters are slower to rally behind a single candidate. But as you’ll note in the table below, a crowded primary field hasn’t led to more losses at the general election level — in fact, there isn’t a real pattern at all.
Big primaries don’t spell general election losses
Number of “noteworthy” candidates in presidential primaries since 1972* and whether the eventual nominee was favored by party elites
|Year||No. of Major Candidates||Party||Nominee||Won General Election?|
As to why some primaries are so much more competitive than others, there isn’t a straightforward answer. Some in political science have argued that competitive primaries occur only when the party is already divided, which sounds like a plausible explanation for the 2020 Democratic primary, given the fractures that emerged in the party last cycle. The differences between the progressive and moderate wings of the party have arguably been exacerbated since 2016. Candidates in these two wings have already had some pretty serious disagreements over whether to scrap private health insurance entirely and how to reform the immigration system.
There are other splits in the party, too, that aren’t about policy. These divisions are generational and, at times, deeply personal. For instance, the Democratic Party is continuing to hash out how it will talk about race, as shown by a clash between Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden in the first debate over his remarks about working with segregationist senators and his opposition to school integration via busing in the 1970s. Gender also remains a flashpoint in the party, as some feel that gender worked against Clinton in 2016 and now have reservations about nominating a woman.
But these internal party conflicts aren’t necessarily a harbinger of failure. Sometimes a party split over big issues in the primary still wins the general. Take the 1980 Republican primary. There was an insurgent movement among conservatives like Ronald Reagan, who didn’t adhere to party orthodoxy and instead pushed for things like massive tax cuts without cuts to government spending, while more traditional Republicans like George H.W. Bush toed a more moderate, establishment-friendly line. (True, Bush later became Reagan’s running mate, but the 1980 contest still exposed a rift in the party that ultimately reshaped the party’s ideological direction.) Yet despite that intraparty turmoil, Reagan still managed to beat President Jimmy Carter resoundingly.1 A similar thing happened in the 2008 election. Despite a hard-fought competition — and an incredibly close one that had serious implications about gender and race — Obama still managed to win the general election handily.
Intraparty divisions are more visible in some cycles than others (such as this year), but I’d actually argue they’re a constant, not a variable. The idea of party unity tends to be an illusion. For example, Democratic and Republican parties winnowed their respective fields fairly quickly in 2000, giving the impression of unity. But serious policy divisions among Republicans affected George W. Bush’s agenda throughout his presidency. Notable Republicans like the late Sen. John McCain criticized efforts to enact a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage, and Bush’s efforts to reform immigration were deemed them insufficiently tough by members of his party.
Similarly, even though Obama was popular among Democrats and faced no real competition in the 2012 primaries, the fissures among Democrats were clear by the end of his presidency. Critics on the left had long been dissatisfied with the compromises the administration had made on the economic stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act, as well as the environment and immigration. And these complaints — particularly about economic issues — found a voice in the 2016 Sanders campaign.
But ultimately, as history shows us, a big or fragmented Democratic field doesn’t carry real general election risks. A large and unwieldy primary field can produce an unexpected nominee, but it doesn’t mean a party can’t or won’t rally behind a candidate by the time of the general election.
Granted, we can’t be totally sure of the effects of a field this large. But I’d argue that a primary as competitive as the current one can be better for the party than artificial unity (even if 12-candidate debates are a bit exhausting). The primary thus far has helped to clarify what those factions actually are — and what they’re not. It tells voters important things about the state of politics in the party, including divisions over policy solutions and among different demographics. It also illustrates the challenges faced by parties trying to resolve these issues and highlights the fact that democracy, even within parties, is difficult and often full of disagreement. All that said, having 10 or two candidates in the race by the Iowa caucuses should have little bearing on whether Democrats are competitive in 2020.