Hamilton’s most recent installment of Common Ground, featuring Reince Priebus and Jim Messina, was notable less for on-stage disagreement and more for the political and campaign wisdom both participants displayed. One of the most striking points was their agreement that the current large Democratic primary field is positive for the Democratic Party. Such a claim seems counterintuitive, and demonstrates an evolution in thinking from the punditry in the 2016 primaries.
Conventional wisdom has held that bruising primary fights damage candidates’ prospects in the general election by dividing the party’s base among many candidates. Such a division occurred in both the Democratic and the Republican primaries in 2016. The Republicans saw a crowded field of establishment-type candidates divided and picked off one-by-one by Donald Trump, an unconventional candidate. A single establishment Republican opposing Trump might have won the nomination, but the fracturing of the more establishment-friendly primary voters proved impossible to overcome.
The Democratic Party is still dealing with the fallout from its 2016 primaries. Many in the Bernie Sanders camp were peeved by what they viewed as the desire of the party elites to shut down Sanders and hand the nomination to Hillary Clinton. The Clinton camp, desperate to explain its own general election failure against one of the least popular candidates of all time, blamed its loss partly on the Sanders primary challenge. In a concession to the Sanders camp, however, and to ensure that the nomination process better aligns with the will of the voters, the Democratic Party greatly reduced the power of superdelegates -- elites within the party.
The density of the Democratic field (almost 20 declared candidates) reflects the unpopularity of the incumbent president and a Democratic Party that is now fearful of delivering the nomination to a preordained candidate. Since the 2020 campaign began, in a sense, immediately after Election Day in 2016, multiple contenders have seen their stocks rise and fall with alarming speed. This raises the question: does a large primary field ensure the most successful candidate in the general election?
The answer depends on whether the eventual Democratic candidate is elected. In the primaries, the Democratic Party risks a series of purity tests that would weed out moderate candidates, and trigger candidates to trip over themselves in a race leftward with their competitors. While this may produce a nominee who pleases the far left of the party, such a candidate is not well-positioned to win moderate voters in the Midwest and other swing states. On the other hand, a large primary field that draws from across the Democratic spectrum may lead to a nominee with a strong understanding of the broad base he or she must bring together in order to be elected. It remains to be seen who else may get in.
A loss for the Democrats in 2020 would be damaging, sparking four more years of finger-pointing, soul-searching, and rage at each successive tweet from President Trump. A victory would raise a new question: did the Democratic primaries produce a winning candidate who can also govern well for the entire nation?
For the sake of the party, of both its ability to win and its ability to give the country a good president, Democrats must use the 2020 primaries as an opportunity to pitch a wide tent. This election cycle provides the party a chance to correct its errors of 2016, by sidelining progressive identity politics in favor of a policy platform inclusive of many others who have felt left behind by our nation’s contemporary politics. Voters of both parties should hope that the Democratic primaries elevate the candidate who is most articulate and effective in communicating a unifying national project, rather than sinking the candidates with the most chinks in their ideological armors.