A Milestone in the Democrats' Race for 2020

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Monday was a milestone in the fight for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. A candidate — former Missouri secretary of state and defeated Senate candidate Jason Kander — dropped out of the race. Or, rather, he entered the race for mayor of Kansas City.

For the first time this cycle, I was able to trot out my old hashtag, #WinnowingWorks. So far, the Democratic field had only got bigger. How large? The Washington Post’s Fix counted 15 in March and listed another eight as “worth watching” — and still didn’t include them all. I count some 26 people doing the things candidates do at this point, and it’s likely I’m missing a few.

Was Kander a candidate? This early, there’s no way to definitively answer that question, other than for the small group who formally declare far earlier than most. Still, he had formed a national PAC, hired someone to work for it, and visited Iowa as well as New Hampshire. That’s what candidates for president — not for mayor of Kansas City — do two years out.

In political scientist Josh Putnam’s terms, these candidates are running for 2020; we won’t know for some time whether they will be running in 2020, or even in fall 2019. Except for Kander. The mayoral race is in 2019, and it’s fairly safe to say that no presidential candidate would seek a new office next year.

Was Kander winnowed out? Again, there are no formal rules for this kind of thing, but, it's safe to say he was. Had Kander received a strong enough reception, he presumably would have stayed on the national campaign trail.

One of the paradoxes of the “invisible campaign” — the jockeying for support among party actors that begins well before voters get involved — is that very visible campaigning is sometimes necessary to get the attention of important people within the party. That lets the candidate handicap their chances, and decide whether it’s worth taking the next step or dropping out. 

For party actors, the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, activists and donors, and party-aligned interest groups and the partisan press who care deeply about nominations, the invisible primary is an opportunity to coordinate and compete over policy preferences and priorities — and win commitments from candidates. Where the party is in agreement, they ensure potential nominees are on board; where the party is divided, candidates have to deal with the different factions. Party actors see how candidates react (by fighting or compromising) and use that information in choosing whether to fight it out in the primaries or to try to cut a deal. 

All of that is happening now, and has been happening since the 2016 general election. As we move beyond the midterms, more candidates will drop off the national campaign trail; we’re unlikely to see 20 formally announce, let alone 25. There’s no way to predict how many will make it to Iowa. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s closer to a dozen, and if only five or six survive the New Hampshire primary.

Winnowing works — or has always worked so far, allowing someone to emerge from the primaries and caucuses as a winner. It will be tested in 2020: the Democrats have both an enormous original set of candidates and a mega-super-colossal Tuesday scheduled for March 3, right after the four early states have spoken. It's possible several candidates could remain active to that point and split the delegates available.

There’s no fail-safe mechanism to ensure that a party avoids chaos or, as Republicans found out in 2016, to make sure that party actors get the candidate they want. We’ll have to see whether the Democrats have learned any lessons from last time around.

1. Rick Hasen on voting rights after the latest Supreme Court decision. 

2. Sarah Binder on what happened with immigration in the House last week.

3. Dan Drezner on why Democrats can’t strike an immigration deal with the Trump administration — and probably shouldn’t even try. 

4. Lots of primaries on Tuesday. Here’s NPR’s Jessica Taylor on Trump’s endorsements on the line in South Carolina and New York. Keep in mind that he’s endorsing the incumbents in these primaries. While the contests have seemed close, it’s still rare for incumbents to lose primaries.

5. While at Daily Kos, Jeff Singer has the full rundown of all the races to watch on Tuesday.

6. Perry Bacon, Jr. on the failure of Republicans to elect women.

7. Joshua Green and Sahil Kapur at Bloomberg Businessweek on Democrats campaigning on the Affordable Care Act.

8. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on Trump’s bigotry – and his party’s

9. Matt O’Brien on the Trump economy and the Obama economy.

10. And an excellent item from Phillip Klein about the futility of sending a message with a vote. One caveat: I would certainly say Democrats are trying to win back white working class votes — it’s just that they’re doing it by running on traditional Democratic issues such as universal health care. At any rate, the way to change a party to adopt one’s preferences is through nomination politics, not by losing elections. And don’t put more weight on the ballot than it can handle.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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