The incredibly useful website Ballotpedia reports that as of May 27, 738 candidates had filed to run for president in 2020—252 as Democrats, 94 Republicans, and 29 for the Libertarian nomination. Who knew? Depending upon who is counted, there are either 23 or 24 “real” contenders for the Democratic nomination, the largest field at least since 1924.
A commonly used metaphor in recent years is that a presidential campaign is more of a marathon than a sprint. (Perhaps the first use of the term in this context was from veteran political reporter Jules Witcover in his terrific book, Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-76, published in 1977.) But this year, given the two dozen or so credible Democrats contending for the nomination, it might be more apt to say that this is a Darwinian struggle, in which only the strong survive.
This point is reinforced by the Democratic National Committee’s announcement this week of the third debate among its presidential contenders, scheduled for Sept. 12 and 13 on ABC and Univision. If the field is still large, half of the candidates will debate on the first night, the other half on the second, just as in the party's first two rounds of debates in June and July. The DNC has put a cap of 20 on the number of candidates in debates.
While the criteria for the June and July debates was that a candidate had to receive at least 1 percent of the vote in certain polls or provide evidence of having 65,000 unique donors with a minimum of 200 in each of 20 states, the criteria for inclusion in the September debate is far tougher.
According to the ABC News announcement for the September debate(s), “Candidates must receive 2% or more support in at least four national polls, or polls conducted in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and/or Nevada. Each poll submitted must be publicly released between June 28 and Aug. 28" and sponsored by one of several reputable media companies or polling organizations. "Any candidate's four qualifying polls must be conducted by different organizations or—if by the same organization—must be in different geographical areas.” Furthermore, candidates will need to receive donations from at least 130,000 unique donors, with at least 400 donors in at least 20 states.
While some have argued that the size of the Democratic field somehow makes it harder to win the general election, there is no historic correlation between the number of contenders for a nomination and whether the eventual nominee won the general election. The more important dynamic of such a large field is how difficult it is for any of those in the bottom half or even two-thirds of the field to have any chance of punching through.
You can basically divide the Democratic field into two groups, the haves and the have-nots—those who are reasonably well known and/or have some base of support, and those who don’t. As of Thursday afternoon, in the RealClearPolitics.com average of major national polls, Joe Biden averaged 34.8 percent of the vote, and Bernie Sanders 16.4 percent, for a combined 51.2 percent of the vote. Add in Elizabeth Warren’s 9.8 percent, Kamala Harris’ 7.4 percent, and Pete Buttigieg’s 6 percent, and the total for the top five candidates is 74.4 percent. That sucks a lot of oxygen out of the room. Add in Beto O’Rourke’s 3.8 percent, Cory Booker’s 2.2 percent, and Amy Klobuchar’s 1.8 percent, and we've reached 82.2 percent among seven candidates, leaving just 17.8 percent of the vote for the other 17 candidates. Obviously, polls today are driven as much by name recognition as anything else, and voters can and will change their minds, but exactly how does one of those other 17 break through the cacophony of voices to make an impression?
As a matter of course, most candidates will get a town hall televised by CNN, Fox, or MSNBC, and each will likely get an invitation on each of the major Sunday morning shows. But without drawing eyeballs (read: ratings) or poll numbers of at least 2 or 3 percent, are candidates going to be invited back? That puts a lot of pressure on them during the first two sets of debates; they really are do-or-die. Then, of course, there are the June 30 and Sept. 30 Federal Election Commission reports for the second and third quarters.
That’s why this field is likely to be much smaller by Halloween or Thanksgiving: Once a candidate misses qualifying for a debate or two, they are ignored and their candidacies just wither and die on the vine. This is a cold and cruel process; there are going to be very bright and talented people, some of them arguably highly qualified to be president, who simply aren’t going to get more than a passing glance by Democratic voters. As President Kennedy once said, “Life is unfair.”