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What does history tell us about the 2020 presidential election? Not as much as we’d like to know.
We’re an old republic, and our two political parties are the oldest and third-oldest in the world. But we’ve still had only a limited number of presidential elections.
Three were uncontested (1789, 1792, 1820), and six more were conducted under rules significantly different from our current system (legislatures selecting presidential electors, for example). That leaves just 48 elections. And when I was in the polling business, we wouldn’t show any results for subgroups of less than 50 because of the huge statistical margin of error.
And then there is the presidential nominating procedure. There have only been 11 presidential elections in which most national convention delegates have been selected in primaries, and the rules have been different in each election cycle. Plus, the two parties have two different delegate allocation rules. The Republicans tend to favor winner-take-all, and the Democrats prefer proportional representation.
The Democratic field looks to be ballooning to at least 18 candidates with some claim to seriousness, bigger than the Republicans’ 17-candidate field last time. Why so many candidates? Social media deserves some of the credit — or blame. It’s easier than it used to be and much, much quicker to locate and rally possible supporters, and particularly to raise money.
The obverse of this advantage is that your appeal tends to be limited to, or mostly directed at, a category of hyperpolitical people who are not typical of the larger electorate that candidates will face in primaries, let alone the much larger electorate a nominee faces in the general election.
In this era of partisan, polarized politics, hyperpolitical Democrats tend to be highly educated and to be enamored of intersectional identity politics. That’s the gist of a detailed analysis by the New York Times’ Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy. They conclude that the Twitter-happy Left is outnumbered about 2-to-1 among Democratic primary voters by a “more moderate, more diverse and less educated group of Democrats” who may end up nominating “a relatively moderate establishment favorite.”
Cohn is the same writer who, in June 2016, argued that noncollege-graduate whites were a larger share of the electorate than indicated in exit polls and other surveys. That analysis and the extensive interviews by current Washington Examiner columnist Salena Zito, more than any other journalism I can recall, presaged Trump’s surprise victory that November.
One obvious lesson of the Cohn-Quealy thesis is that Democratic candidates shouldn’t be quick to kowtow to the demands of the “woke” Twitterati and take unsustainable positions on the Green New Deal, racial reparations, and Supreme Court packing. But most are already busy doing so.
Another lesson is that Joe Biden, who’s been busily apologizing for his touchy-feely past, already has a bigger potential constituency of moderates than most analysts think. But it’s not nearly as big as it was among Democrats a dozen years ago.
And it won’t be as easy for a Democrat to win this year the way Trump won among Republicans in 2016, by winning a plurality of popular votes in primaries. That’s because Republican winner-take-all rules gave Trump a majority of national convention delegates, while Democrats’ proportional representation rules split the delegates among multiple candidates. In addition, the Democrats have allowed the nation’s largest and second-largest states, California and Texas, to vote early, on March 3.
As the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman points out, that means that at least 36% of delegates will have been allocated by then and that it’s entirely possible that no candidate will be able to win a majority of delegates before the convention.
Which could mean the first convention second ballot since 1952, at which point the party’s 765 superdelegates (elected and party officials) get votes and presumably will choose the nominee, if they haven’t already done so behind the scene.
Of course, there won’t be any protests or sharp words about that. (Er, just kidding.)
Democrats have reason to blame all this on Trump. If their two current front-runners, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, are deep into their 70s, Trump was the oldest president to take office. And if multiple candidates with thin credentials are clogging this year’s race, each probably feels he or she more qualified than Trump was.
Whatever your party, it looks like 2020 and 2016 may reinforce my longstanding conviction that the presidential nominating system is the weakest feature of our democratic republican form of government. Sad!
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