UW-Madison: Experts weigh in on record number of candidates

MADISON – If you can’t name all of the Democrats running for president, don’t feel bad. 

It’s even a struggle for Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Without any effort, he rattles off the names of 15 candidates. 

“It gets a lot harder after 15,” Burden says. “Who am I overlooking? Is there another senator or governor in the mix? I’m going to kick myself for not getting these last few.”

It’s not usually such a challenge. 

A record 20 Democratic presidential candidates will participate in the second 2020 primary debates, being held Tuesday, July 30 and Wednesday, July 31 at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. The debates, hosted by CNN, air at 7 p.m. CST each night. 

Burden and colleagues from the Elections Research Center will provide real-time analysis while live-tweeting Tuesday’s debate. Follow Burden at @bcburden; Professor of Political Science Kenneth Mayer, @uwkenmayer; Associate Professor of Political Science Ellie Powell, @EllieNeffPowell, the Elections Research Center at @ElectionsCenter, and #UW2020debate.

Twenty is a lot – but that doesn’t even include a few more Democratic candidates who failed to meet the debate criteria of registering at least 1 percent in three polls from a predetermined set of surveys, as well as recruit 65,000 individual donations.

Many of the candidates’ names are familiar. Others are destined to be footnotes in political history. 

So why are there so many people running? Burden weighs in while recalling a few more candidates along the way. 

Is this an unusual number? 

We think it’s the biggest field of presidential candidates ever. There’s never been anything like it. The biggest field before this was the Republicans in 2016 when there were 17 running. That seemed totally aberrant at the time, but now looks like a new normal. 

In the end a candidate needs to win votes and win delegates. How you get there has been shaken up in the past few years in a way that has opened up a lot of possibilities.

Parties are supposed to be big tents with a lot of voices. The race and gender makeup of these candidates is also the most diverse in American history.

What does it say about a party when there are a lot of candidates?

The Democrats view this as an opportunity. They think the current president is beatable. And that opportunity draws in a lot of candidates who think if they become the party’s nominee, they’re going to have a good shot at winning the election. 

So often times a big field is a sign of enthusiasm. 

A small field can be a sign that candidates are being scared away. They think they can’t beat the other side. That is what happened to Democrats who feared running against George H.W. Bush in 1992.

The bad side of a big field for the party is that it may no longer have an orderly way to decide who the nominees are. For a long time, an ambitious candidate would run for office at a lower level and work their way up. You’d become a state legislator, maybe a governor, a U.S. Senator, vice president or cabinet secretary and you’d have military experience. 

The party would do a lot of vetting so that limited the field. In a more traditional era, Trump would have screened himself out as not being viable. Both Obama and Trump in different ways are examples of parties not being able to seal the gates in terms of who is going to run for office. 

Why do people run when they know they’ll lose? 

Sometimes candidates run knowing the odds are long but they’re setting themselves up for a future in their party down the road. It’s paying your dues to the party and building a national network, building a brand, and establishing a fundraising list. It’s viewed as the first step in a long career-focused process. 

There can be an issue that’s motivating a candidate and they want that issue to be part of the party’s dialogue. The presidential campaign provides a huge platform. If Bernie Sanders only ran in 2016 and never again, he still would have pushed the party to address Medicare expansion, the minimum wage, college debt, and other issues that he was trumpeting that looked at the time like they were out of step with the party. 

What’s the risk of running? 

A lot of campaigns end in debt and it takes them years to get out from under it. There are consultants, media firms, staff salaries. How do you pay that off? Right now, we’re at a point where some of these Democratic candidates are on life support. Many never financially recover. 

Another risk is costing your party an election or damaging it or making it difficult for the party to succeed. Then you’re a point of blame. 

There’s also the embarrassment factor. Jeb Bush is the poster child for embarrassment. His campaign raised more than $100 million. He is the son of a former president and brother of another president. He was the governor of one of biggest swing states. He was a mainstream Republican and policy wonk. Now he’s a meme. That’s the end of his political career. He was the logical person to plug into the Republican nomination, but the party went with Donald Trump instead. That’s a sign of a party not being able to control itself. 

It’s a very public affair. Most of the time party politics is behind closed doors. In primaries and caucuses, it’s open. We see it all. This is a wonderful thing because you get to watch the parties evolve in public in real time. 

When do you think we’ll start seeing the field narrow?

The debates are going to winnow the field because the criteria to get into them are going to steepen. Both the polling standard and the number of donors will have to be higher. 

Some winnowing will happen in the fall. Campaigns will be running out of money. As the field winnows, it creates more resources for each remaining candidate. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if the field is half its size when we get to Iowa in February next year. Even then it will still be much bigger than we’re accustomed to.

Who was one of the longest longshots? 

Jimmy Carter was such a longshot. He was a peanut farmer and governor of Georgia when the south didn’t have the clout it does today in American politics. 

People didn’t know who he was. He hadn’t been raising money for months, he hadn’t published a memoir, and he lacked support from party insiders. But Jimmy Carter realized the value of the Iowa caucuses and spent a lot of time there to jump start his run to the nomination.