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  • Hans Noel

What can 2016 tell us about 2020?

Now that we have cleared the first two debates, and there is a chance that several candidates won’t make the higher thresholds for participation in the next debate, a lot of Democratic observers are eager to see the field narrow from its unwieldly 20-plus candidates.

Some of that eagerness comes from comparison with 2016. One reason Donald Trump, an outsider candidate disliked by most in his party, won the nomination in 2016 was the large field. A candidate with a narrow but intense following can come in first with a rather small plurality of the vote.

The 2020 Democratic field is even broader than the Republicans’ was. Shouldn’t that worry Democrats?

I’m not so sure. There are clear similarities between the two races, but also one enormous difference. There is no Donald Trump running for the Democratic nomination.

A Divided Party

It’s not merely that the Democrats have a lot of candidates. Some of the same dynamics as 2016 are at play.

The Republicans had a lot of candidates in 2016 partly because they had a significant internal division, not over policy per se, but over tactics and ideological compromise. Laying aside Trump for the moment, most of the candidates were conservative on most issues. Some plans were bolder than others, and there were notable eccentrics (Rand Paul) but from Jeb Bush to John Kasich to Ted Cruz, the majority of the field was conservative.

They differed on how much they trusted the Republican establishment to fight for their interests, and in how far they thought they should try to push policy. That’s not a meaningless fight, but it is not a fight between, for example, a socially conservative faction and an economically conservative one.

This mirrors the present divide in the Democratic Party. Political scientists have had lively and productive debates over whether there is a “Tea Party of the Left.” It seems to me obvious that there is a force in Democratic politics that one could meaningfully compare to the Tea Party. It has been less successful, and it played a far, far less meaningful role in 2018 than the Tea Party did in 2010. But we can only make comparisons like “more or less” successful if we acknowledge that the dynamics are similar.

In short, there is a meaningful comparison between the 2016 divide in the Republican Party in 2016 between supporters of Ted Cruz and supporters of Jeb Bush and the 2020 divide in the Democratic Party between supporters of Bernie Sanders and supporters of Joe Biden.

This kind of divide makes it hard for party leaders, activists and voters to do what they want to do in a nomination, which is find someone who is broadly acceptable. Partisans can get over minor differences. InThe Party Decides, we discuss several cases in which politicos agree to set aside some important goals to nominate a clearly stronger candidate. Many black leaders backed Mondale over Jesse Jackson in 1984. Many labor leaders backed Bill Clinton over Tom Harken in 1992.

Most of the candidates in both races were aiming for this compromise. Marco Rubio and John Kasich each had legitimate conservative credentials while still being able to speak the language of compromise. Likewise Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke and others.

Biden as Bush; Bernie as Cruz

So why could Republicans make such a compromise? Why is it hard for Democrats?

The Republicans problem was in large part because the supporters for the leading candidates for the two wings could not fathom compromise. In our measure of endorsements in 2016, we found that Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush led the field, but in a completely fragmented world. Meanwhile, it wasn’t just that Cruz’s Tea Party supporters preferred Cruz. They hated Bush. And Bush’s inside-the-Beltway supporters didn’t just prefer Bush. They, along with most of the Senate, hated Cruz.

Before the first round of debates, this is exactly where Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders found themselves. They led in polls and each had a lot of elite support in the form of endorsements. Importantly, however, both candidates also have a lot of opponents. In his interviews with Democratic activists, Seth Masket finds that both Sanders and Biden, while popular with many, are also strongly opposed by many.

The comparison to 2016 is less than perfect. Biden has far more support, both from party leaders and especially from voters, than Jeb Bush ever did. But in broad strokes, I think the Democratic Party is facing the same dynamic.

In 2016, the best solution for the party seemed obvious. Go to one of the more compromise oriented candidates, like Rubio or Kasich. Polls of party activists suggest these two candidates were broadly acceptable in the party.

The difficulty, I suspect, was that Trump sucked up all the attention, making it hard to figure out whether Rubio or Kasich (or someone else) was the best choice, or whether Cruz or Bush could draw enough support to beat their cross-cleavage rival. The tool that party leaders might use to influence nominations, if you believe The Party Decides, is indirect and blunt. Trump’s challenge showed just how limited it can be.

Democrats don’t have a Trump

But there is no Trump in the 2020 Democratic race. Sure, there are some … colorful candidates with a similar lack of political experience or policy expertise. But none of them command the kind of media attention that Trump had from the start. Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer are all more similar to Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina than to Trump.

What this means is that as the debates move forward, support among the top candidates will narrow, as Seth Masket showed on Monday. That support may never coalesce around a single candidate, the way it did for Hillary Clinton in 2016 or for so many other candidates since 1980. But it is unlikely that a complete outsider will capture control of the nomination the way Trump did in 2016.

It has become fashionable to say that since Trump won, both the nomination and the presidency, that anything can happen. I don’t think a serious look at the how it happened supports that. A large field can have its other problems, and more than 20 candidates come Iowa will be troubling.

It may be that 2020 teaches us more about 2016 than the other way around. What if Trump hadn’t run, or what if hadn’t received the intense boost of free media attention that drove his campaign? Could a divided party in the current era overcome those divisions? We may be about to see.

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