Weâ€™ve gotten used to a certain style of presidential primary campaign. A leader or â€śfavoriteâ€ť stakes out an apparent advantage and then one challenger (e.g. Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016) or a series of them (e.g. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul in 2012) battle to dislodge him or her. In the binary matchups, negative ads, opposition research dumps and supposed gaffes (a game changer! a fatal error!) play outsize roles in the race. However, with a field of 20 or more, with no clear front-runner for months or possibly a year, itâ€™s hard to knock out your opponents by resorting to these familiar tricks.
What then could we expect in a Democratic field with 20 or so contenders?
First, the candidates might actually have to define themselves in positive ways. You canâ€™t run oppo attacks on the 19 or so other contenders. Each candidate has to explain why he or she is different and better than the rest. That means talking in a positive way about their visions for the country and their talents. We might, in other words, wind up with a more positive and revealing campaign. Candidates who can present themselves as experts on some issues (e.g. Michael Bloomberg on climate change and guns) can have an outsize impact on the race, forcing candidates to address the issues in a credible way and keeping the issues front and center at the debates. If every candidate has to figure out whether he or she can be as credible as Bloomberg on climate change and guns, as Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, on work and unions, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on financial reform, etc., the quality of the debate might be higher.
Second, the mainstream media, shamed from 2016, is unlikely to rule out long-shot candidates. There will be stronger and weaker ones, candidates with funding and those operating on a shoestring, but whoâ€™s to say that any specific contender â€ścanâ€™t winâ€ť?
Third, it will be hard for candidates to survive on free TV as President Trump did in 2016. With no TV celebrity (at least not yet) and so many candidates in the race, TV news producers will find it hard to justify giving what amounts to an open mic to one or two candidates.
Fourth, the ideological labels and posturing become somewhat meaningless among those clearly identified as progressives. Simply slapping a label on the other guys or picking out one for yourself will be of little utility.
Fifth, candidates will have little incentive to drop out to narrow the field. In the era of online fundraising and billionaire donors, most candidates directly or indirectly via soft money will have enough to keep them going for just about as long as theyâ€™d like. In a primary race where delegates are awarded proportionally, the race might go on for a good long time.
Sixth, Democratic primary voters are desperate for a winner. As they meet the candidates, watch them on the debate stage and learn about their record, they really are going to ask themselves which one can take down Trump.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.