The pitfalls posed by a crowded presidential nomination field are not just hypothetical. We only have to look back one election cycle to the horse race that was the Republican 2016 presidential nomination process to see the problem play out in real time.
As FairVote CEO Rob Richie and Senior Fellow Dave Daley write in a recent op-ed for Salon, the lengthy list of Republican presidential contenders created the perfect opportunity for a candidate to win without majority support - in this case, now-President Donald Trump, who “managed to assert himself as the GOP frontrunner without winning a state primary or caucus with more than 50 percent of the vote for almost the first three months of the race.”
In fact, as FairVote simulations reveal, had Trump been forced to compete head-to-head in an instant runoff style competition against every one of his challengers, he would have lost nine of 11 Super Tuesday states.
Looking ahead to the nearly-double-in-size Democratic presidential field for 2020, the same potential problem looms large, threatening to undermine voters’ true choices and fail to choose a nominee with both broad and passionate support.
Early polling puts frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders far from majority of support - 33 and 25 percent, respectively, - which is not surprising given the sheer number of names contending for voters’ recognition and respect. But when second choices are factored in, as a recent Morning Consult poll included, Biden’s lead appears much more decisive, not only as the leader in first choices but also in capturing the most second-choice support from Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg fans.
As analysis by political analysts with 538 highlights, polling rates at this point are based just as much on name recognition as true support, and the seemingly fluid shifts between different “lanes” of the Democratic Party make these early indicators even less telling of what will happen down the road to the 2020 White House.
Regardless of how the top of the heap shakes out, the problem remains constant. As Daley and Richie write, “In our two-party system as manipulated by campaign consultants today, with candidates selected via a winner-takes-all process, a plurality winner governs with an eye to the base, and can transform an entire party and our politics in the process. It shouldn’t have to be that way.”