The 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary Will Not Be a Repeat of 2016

I’ve been arguing that those who want 2020 to be a replay of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary are not only being divisive, they are looking in the rear-view mirror. That is because some important things have changed since the last presidential election.

Beyond the political landscape and the candidates, there will be a major change in how Democrats chose their presidential nominee for 2020. California has decided to join at least eight other states in holding their primary on March 3—otherwise known as Super Tuesday. While some states haven’t yet confirmed when their primaries will take place, here is the list of those that have already signed on to that first Tuesday in March:

Alabama
California
Massachusetts
North Carolina
Oklahoma
Tennessee
Texas
Vermont
Virginia

Those states will follow the usual early caucus/primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. While the delegates-by-state haven’t been released yet, this means that by March 3, roughly one third of all the delegates will have been allocated. If you’d like to learn more about what this means for the 2020 Democratic primary, here are some early adopters who have already weighed in:

Reid Epstein at the Wall Street Journal
David Byler at FiveThrityEight
Christopher Cadelago at Politico
Lauren Dezenski at CNN
James Oliphant at Reuters
Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos

Conventional wisdom suggests that an early California primary would benefit a local candidate like Sen. Kamala Harris, but most commentators think that assumption is wrong. Our politics are far more nationalized than they used to be. The same would hold true for Beto O’Rourke in Texas or Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts.

Also, any home-state advantage is muted by the fact that Democrats allocate delegates proportionately, meaning that—especially in a crowded field—second place can be almost as beneficial as first. On the other hand, a front-loaded primary is bad news for more marginal candidates, who will be required to garner at least 15 percent of the vote to earn any delegates at all. So if the field is as big as anticipated, it is likely to winnow pretty fast.

Even more important than California voting on Super Tuesday is the fact that it’s essentially a vote-by-mail state. Voters will get their ballots the first week of February, about the same time as the Iowa caucuses. That means candidates won’t be able to spend the months leading up to the caucuses traveling around Iowa doing “retail politics.” Moulitsas describes what candidates will be required to build in 2019 to compete in 2020.

It’s this simple—the candidates who will be competitive are those who can build mass movements behind them. I’m talking strong social media presence, email list in the millions, and the ability to rally tens of thousands  of people instantaneously. There are just a handful of candidates, out of the 25 or so Democrats who we think are running, who fit the bill at the moment: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, maybe Beto O’Rourke, and … I’m having a hard time coming up with more (though undoubtedly, additional candidates will get there during the next year). If you can’t build that movement in 2019, then you have no business running for president.

In addition to all of that, Al Giordano noted recently that almost 70 percent of the pledged delegates will be chosen by the end of March; and according to new rules, superdelegates won’t be allowed to vote on the first ballot at a contested convention. That is the playing field with which candidates will need to grapple in the 2020 primary. As Giordano concludes, “Those who fight using the last war’s rules and presumptions always lose the next one.” In other words, those who assume 2020 will be a replay of 2016 haven’t been paying attention. 

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.