« Running is becoming a personal initiative rather than a collective process »

Pierre Vercauteren is a political scientist specialized in the American electoral process at the Catholic University of Leuven. He explains why the number of candidates for the Democratic primaries is increasing and how it impacts the debate. 

Why are there so many candidates running for the Democratic primary in 2020 ? And who are they ?

There have already been many candidates in the past but never as many as now. This is due to two different phenomenons :

  • The presidential election has shown that the US cannot escape the current loss of legitimacy of political leaders across the world. The evolution in American politics is diluting the parties’ coherency. This is even more true for the Republicans. Running is becoming a personal process instead of a collective one. 
  • Easy access to mass means of communication can also push candidates to run. Social media outlets bring more hope to candidates than TV and newspapers ever did. But the skimming of candidates is faster and 15 of them have already dropped out. 

Two categories of candidates usually run for president : elected officials, sometimes they are members of the House of Representatives but they’re usually senators or state governors. There are also “atypical” candidates like billionaires, mayors of big cities or former army personnel.

Michael Bloomberg

The American billionaire announced he was running late in the
game, on November 24. He launched a blitz campaign supported by
a large number of TV ads. He spent $37 million in his first week

Despite their large number, the candidates don’t seem to have a lot of ties between them and the ones dropping out don’t automatically endorse another candidate. Why is that ? 

When a senator is running, the media usually digs up his political past and finds controversial choices. You could say that “the problem with senators is that they have to make decisions”. Whereas governors only have to “manage” so if they did it well, when they are running, they have the advantage of a clean record compared to senators.

There is little communication between those different categories. Representatives don’t mix with senators, who don’t mix with governors … Another factor is the difference in mentalities between states. For example, southern Democrats have to lean more to the right than some Republicans and in the North it’s the contrary. As a result, bringing everybody together at the country level can pose ideological problems. 

There’s a large political heterogeneity inside the parties. Which mostly reinforces the lack of instruction and non-alignment. This means that once a candidate drops out, he or she is likely not to endorse another candidate. It can also mean that – and it has happened in the past – drop-outs wait until the game is clearer in order to give a late endorsement, and avoid supporting another “loser”. 

Kamala Harris

She announced her candidacy on January 21 and dropped out on
December 3. Among those who dropped out she was the one polling
the highest. She hasn’t endorsed anyone yet but she’s being
courted by the candidates still running. Joe Biden called her
“a first rate intellect, first rate candidate, real competitor”
and Elizabeth Warren praised her “commitment to fighting for
people, for justice, and to holding Donald Trump accountable”.   

Is this large number of candidates bringing a larger array of subjects to the table  ? 

Traditionally, the president is elected on domestic policy, never on foreign policy. Except if it directly affects domestic policy, as was the case during the Cold War. Americans are mostly preoccupied by the infamous question : “Are you better today than 4 years ago?“ 

It means that, at this stage, candidates have to launch their campaign and try to distinguish themselves from the others. Each one is trying to find a specific topic which can be healthcare, budgetary rigour… So if there is a diversity in candidates, there is a diversity in topics. But there will still be domestic policy issues, as that’s what Americans care about most. 

The personality factor is absolutely crucial. For example, when George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 a recurring question was “Could I have a beer with this guy?” It played in Bush’s favour. John Kerry appeared distant from the average American because he seemed too wealthy and too elitist. 

Joe Sestak

The former vice-admiral of the US Navy announced his candidacy on
June 22 and dropped out on December 1. He focused his campaign on
foreign policy. But he soon realised that this topic wasn’t part
of the debate and decided to focus on climate change instead. 

This election is full of fresh faces but are there also fresh ideas ? 

We usually say that the American election is won at the centre, the mainstream electorate is there whereas the extremes are just backups. This is the electorate that the candidates must convince. 

One interesting fact to notice in the Democratic debate is the push from some candidates that are more on the left than ever. New ideas have appeared in the debate but a big part of it has been flooded by anti-trumpism. In their arguments some candidates are using an anti-Trump rhetoric to win votes. 

Looking at the Democratic primary polls we can see that competition is really only between 3 or 4 candidates and they are the ones most likely to beat Trump. Public opinion is now against the president. Democrats are likely to vote for the candidate they think is most likely to beat him. In this case it would be a vote of reason instead of a vote of belief and would bring the vote to a personal level instead of the political agenda. 

Bernie Sanders

The Vermont senator started his campaign on February 19. His main
campaign issue is the same as in 2016 : reducing the wealth gap
in the country. He is one of the top runners, alongside Joe Biden
and Elizabeth Warren. If he wins, he’ll probably soften his positions. 

Why is calling oneself a socialist no longer equivalent to political death in the US ? 

There are several reasons. The first is the lessons learnt from the last election. It a was an anti-establishment election because two anti-establishment candidates emerged : Bernie Sanders on one side, and Donald Trump on the other. One of the reasons that kept electors from voting for Hillary Clinton is that she seemed « too establishment”. Another factor is the legitimacy crisis in which political parties are involved, be it in Italy, France, the UK or even Germany and that has also affected the American parties. This has opened up new ways for more radical messages. But the elected Democratic candidate is going to have to rally the electors sooner or later. He or she is going to need to canvass the centre, and avoid alienating the right-wing votes, especially in the swing states. 

Jean-Baptiste Arcuset, Philippine Kauffman et Antoine Maffray