Too many Democrats? History shows that a large presidential field bodes well for our chances in 2020


The question posed in the headline is being asked about the sheer size of the Democratic presidential field, in particular now that Beto O’Rourke has officially joined the race, with Joe Biden apparently poised to do so as well. Depending on whom you include as a major candidate, it looks like we’ll end up with around 17 to 20 folks running, at least at the start. That’s more than in any previous Democratic race, and would match or exceed the most ever in either party (the 2016 Republican primary race). One thing before we start: Although I’ve expressed a preference for Elizabeth Warren, I’m not going to criticize any Democrat in the field, and would obviously support the Democratic nominee with every fiber of my being against Individual 1. Back to the topic at hand.

Do we have “Too Many Democrats?” For some, it’s not even a question (see: “Too Many Democrats!”) Heck, even the folks at Fox News—who certainly have the best of intentions on such a matter—published an opinion piece by a presumably well-meaning Democrat with the title: “Democrats beware: Ever-growing field of 2020 contenders could be too much of a good thing.”

Rather than pontificate or speculate, I decided—historian that I am—to do a little research. Thankfully, Nate Silver and his staff had already gathered the raw data I needed for his own discussion of the matter. He argued, in his headline at least, that having such a large field “could be dangerous for the Democrats.”

However, Silver’s analysis wasn’t as clear, as the article itself noted that having so many candidates could lead to a “weird” primary race, and “a higher-than-usual risk of chaos.” He concluded that a large field “ought to worry establishment Democrats” and “should be particularly worrying for next-in-line candidates such as Biden … The large field is both a sign that there may not be consensus about the best candidate and a source of unpredictability.”

However, would such an outcome necessarily be “dangerous” for the Democratic Party as a whole? If one defines “dangerous” in terms of whether such an outcome would harm the chances of a Democratic victory in November 2020, the answer from Silver’s own data appears to be “no.” In fact, the historical data shows that having a large field of candidates fighting for the nomination and, in particular, having a lack of consensus about whom to nominate are, if anything, more likely to lead to victory in the general election than having a small field and a “next-in-line” candidate who leads the race from start to finish. Let’s dive into the specifics.

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