The Democrats are now likely to have even more presidential aspirants in 2020 than the 17 that the Republicans had in 2016, a precedent that ought to inspire concern about the outcome. A large field favors a candidate who enters the race with certain assets—high prior name recognition, a big personality, personal wealth or a large donor network, perhaps a talent for capturing attention by stoking intense reactions.
In the first Iowa poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers by CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom, three male B’s—Biden, Bernie, and Beto—dominated the field (Joe Biden at 32 percent, Bernie Sanders at 19 percent, and Beto O’Rourke at 11 percent), with all the other candidates in single digits, though Elizabeth Warren trailed O’Rourke only slightly, at 8 percent. Of course, it’s an early poll, with a large margin of error (4.6 percent), but with the first poll testing an incomplete list of 20 candidates, it’s not too early to be concerned about the process for consolidating the field.
In 2016, the Republican Party effectively subcontracted a critical part of the winnowing process to the television networks, which used polls to divide the candidates into two tiers for debates. The candidates consigned to the junior varsity never recovered, and the top-tier debates were still so large that the participants were forced to clamor for 30 seconds to respond to one-minute answers. It’s a great format if you’re good at zingers, but no one would mistake it for the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Any day now, the Democratic National Committee is expected to take the first step in laying out plans for a series of debates in 2019. The initial step will likely be an announcement of the number of debates and the date for the first one, with other decisions deferred until a DNC meeting in March. There is talk about mixing together high- and low-visibility candidates in the debates and using other criteria besides polling numbers, such as the extent of campaign organization, to determine who gets included at all.
But even with these modifications, the DNC-sponsored debates are likely to be too big and unwieldy. There are just too many incentives for candidates to run, and not enough filters to screen out secondary candidates who represent the same views as stronger candidates from the same wing of the party. Smaller but more clarifying debates would be more valuable to help decide which candidates ought to represent which viewpoints.
Here’s where the two major caucuses among congressional Democrats—the Progressive Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition—could play a constructive role in sponsoring their own debates among limited groups of candidates whom they could vote to invite.
For example, the Progressive Caucus might invite Sanders, Warren, and Sherrod Brown to debate the issues and explain why they should receive the support of the party’s left. A straw vote by secret ballot in the caucus would be a strong signal to progressive voters. Once the Progressive Caucus took that step, the New Democrats might do the same. Both the debates and straw votes could help winnow down the presidential field in a constructive way.
Am I talking about bringing back the “elites” into the nomination process just after the DNC stripped superdelegates of their vote on the first ballot at the Democratic Convention?
Yes, I am. Another name for this is “peer review.” I’d like to know what the candidates’ peers collectively think of them as potential presidents. After all, the members of Congress get a close-up view of most of the candidates that few of us have.
These early debates wouldn’t have to be carried by a television network. In fact, with all the available platforms for live-streaming events, there’s no longer any need for the parties to depend on the television networks to carry debates, much less an imperative to negotiate with them about the format and the participants.
These early debates would also have a different function from the ones held closer to the voting. The critical early audience consists of the most politically engaged, the kind of people who are going to talk to their friends about the candidates, work in campaigns, and help build the enormous collective effort the Democrats will need in 2020. The DNC and the party’s congressional caucuses should take that process directly under their own control.
There is a distant historical precedent for the involvement of members of Congress. In the early history of the United States, the congressional caucuses chose the candidates for president. I’m not suggesting we resurrect that system. But instead of ceding the winnowing process to the TV networks or to big donors—or allowing the field to grow to such unmanageable proportions that it becomes impossible to have constructive debates—the members of Congress could again play a useful role in presidential nominations.