Are the 2020 Democratic primaries a repeat of the 2016 Republican primaries?

Ike Bryant
Nov 25 · 5 min read
Bernie Sanders rally at Pittsburgh University, April 14, 2019. Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash.com

Mark Campbell, a Republican political strategist in Chicago, founded his first consulting firm only two years after working on George H.W. Bush’s successful presidential campaign in 1988. As of 2019, Campbell has worked with presidential candidates in six of the past eight elections and has run with GOP nominees in four of those against liberal nominees, winning three presidencies total (1988, 2000, 2004).

Campbell is one of a group political strategists, presidential scholars and experts who say the primary candidate pool has grown in recent years.

The number of candidates vying for a presidential nomination has increased, with the highest numbers of candidates being present in recent elections. Five experts in the political field all agree that one thing that stands out with the 2016 Republican primary and the 2020 Democratic primary is “certainly the sheer number of candidates”, as said by Adam Probolsky, the President of a political research group in California.

According to an article titled Why are there so many candidates for president? written by Hans J. G. Hassell, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Florida State University, the 1988 field of candidates “pales in comparison to the 24 Democratic candidates.” Using this data, the 2016 Republican primary had seen a 243 percent increase in candidates running since 1988, and the 2020 Democratic primary had seen a 357 percent increase in candidates running since the same election, according to data found by Ballotpedia.com in relation to the primaries of each election. While notable names among the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bill de Blasio have dropped out of the presidential race, it does not change the increasing trend of primary contenders.

“The similarities start with the massive amounts of news and digital coverage about not just the candidates but what everyone has to say,” Campbell said.

He acknowledged that this is all an effect of the growing number of candidates entering the election, a comparison he found between the 2016 Republican primary and the 2020 Democratic primary.

“I think right now the main similarity is that there are two very huge crowds of candidates,” said Campbell. “Everyone is there trying to get as much exposure for their campaign as possible.”

One aspect of exposure for candidates is through the political debates, especially at the early stages of their campaigns.

“The debates were very much the same, but the Republican debates were different in the fact that the media didn’t fully understand the unhappiness of the middle/working-class Republican voters and how much they thought someone who acted like a ‘bull in a china shop’ was exactly what they wanted,” Campbell said.

Peter Slevin, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, agreed with Campbell and the other experts in that the sheer size of the potential candidate pool is similar between the 2016 Republican primaries and the 2020 Democratic primaries.

“What it does is it makes it very hard for individual candidates to break through,” Slevin said. “One of the hardest things is to find enough people to poll who actually know very much about a bunch of different candidates.”

What Slevin discussed is reflected in the polls that have been taken for the 2020 Democratic primary. In a poll from Emerson College, there are three “frontrunner” candidates with a voter share of 20 percent or above, and all the other candidates around with a voter share of lower than 8 percent.

The three frontrunner candidates are Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who happened to rank first, third and fourth respectively in speaking time during the November Democratic debate according to a graphic by the Washington Post.

Slevin believed that the highest success among candidates is due to prior recognition as opposed to their policies and ideas.

“None of the Democrats are seen in an unfavorable light,” Slevin said. “but the ones who are doing best are the ones who are best known.”

Candidates who have name recognition also tend to have a higher favorability among voters according to FiveThirtyEight.com, where 2020 Democratic candidates' net favorability was compared by how well Democratic voters already knew them. The top three candidates in this graphic by name recognition were Biden, Sanders and Warren, in that order.

A parallel to the 2016 election could be the frontrunner group of Republicans, which consisted of around three to four candidates periodically throughout the primary. These four were current President Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Surgeon Ben Carson, according to Real Clear Politics’ analysis of the 2016 Republican primary polling averages.

While the two primaries of 2016 and 2020 have shown many similarities, they also can be seen as very different in multiple aspects. Tim Malloy, an Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, saw close to no similarities between the two apart from the sheer number of candidates.

“There are almost no parallels, because there’s never been anybody like Trump,” Malloy said. “There is a sense of desperation among the Democratic party to find someone who can beat Trump. With 2016, there were a number of fairly viable candidates, and then Trump came along and blew the whole thing up. We don’t have a ‘Trump’ on the Democratic side this time around.”

Malloy believes that there are many contrasting factors between how the 2016 Republican primaries and the 2020 Democratic primaries are playing out among the candidates themselves, and the strategies each candidate has used.

“The two primaries are really apples and oranges,” Malloy says. “Trump just blew the whole thing up back in 2016. He caught everybody off balance and surprised the world. This time around you’re watching a completely different race. It’s more measured, it’s more polite, it’s more tactical. It’s totally a different scenario.”

When looking at the voter demographics of the 2020 electorate compared to the 2016 electorate, things start to contrast. According to the Pew Research Center’s article An Early Look into the 2020 Electorate, the 2020 election will be a historic point for Hispanic voters, who are projected to be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate. This accounts for more than 13 percent of the total voter share, slightly more than the projected percentage of 12.5 for African-American voters. In 2016, African-Americans stayed at 12.5 percent while Hispanic voters only accounted for less than 12 percent of the vote.

Slevin, the Northwestern professor, addressed how the uncertainty of the voter is impacted by the size of the candidate pool.

“What was surprising about the Republican primary in 2016 was how dramatically it changed,” Slevin said. “First Scott Walker emerged, then Jeb Bush was favored, and then out of nowhere you have surgeon Ben Carson. At one point he even came close to tying Trump. But in a big field you have surprises. When the field is this big, it really challenges voters to pay attention. We can never know how 2020 is going to turn out.”

Ike Bryant
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