A 36-Candidate Democratic Primary in 2020?

by Jonathan Hobratsch

The Democratic primary will see at least 12 debates, starting with one as soon as June 2019 (only 6 months away). Apparently, the DNC are allowing for the possibility that there could be as many as “three dozen” candidates.

Obviously, this is unlikely. However, if true, 36 candidates would be unprecedented. The 1920 Democratic National Convention had 35 nominees (they picked James M. Cox/Franklin D. Roosevelt for the ticket), but this was before primaries really played a factor for the nominee. 1972 is the first year in which every state had a primary. Since then, only the 1972 and 1976 Democrats and the 2016 Republicans have had 15 or more candidates for president. There have never been more than 17 candidates for a party since 1972.

I suspect that we will see about 15 candidates. Let’s look at the 1972, 1976, and 2016 primaries to see if the large number of candidates generally brings in high-quality candidates. I’ll throw in the 1920 election and 36 hypothetical nominee fort 2020 just for fun.

1920 Democrats

As stated, the primaries were not much of a factor. Most of these people were nominated at the convention. McAdoo and Palmer were initially far ahead of Cox. Like with many contested conventions, an acceptable but underwhelming nominee is usually nominated. Young Franklin D. Roosevelt was selected as the VP nominee to bring some excitement to the ticket.

  1. Gov. James M. Cox (OH), the nominee.
  2. Former Treasury Sec. William G. McAdoo (CA)
  3. Former Attorney Gen. Mitchell Palmer (PA)
  4. Gov. Al Smith (NY), future 1928 nominee.
  5. Gov. Edward Edwards (NJ)
  6. Former VP Thomas Marshall (IN)
  7. Sen. Robert Owens (OK)
  8. Ambassador to UK John W. Davis (WV), future 1924 nominee.
  9. Agriculture Sec. Edwin Meredith (IA)
  10. Sen. Carter Glass (VA)
  11. DNC Chair Homer Cummings (CT)
  12. Sen. Furnifold Simmons (NC)
  13. Former Amb. to Germany James W. Gerard (NY)
  14. Sen. John S. Williams (MS)
  15. Sen. Gilbert Hitchcock (NE)
  16. Former Speaker Champ Clark (MO)
  17. Gov-Gen. of the Philippines Francis B. Harrison (NY)
  18. General Leonard Wood (NH), a Republican
  19. Former State Sec. William Jennings Bryan (NE), nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908.
  20. State Sec. Bainbridge Colby (NY)
  21. Navy Sec. Josephus Daniels (NC)
  22. Fmr Rep. William Randolph Hearst (NY), the famous publisher
  23. Sen. Oscar Underwood (AL)
  24. President Woodrow Wilson (NJ), post-stroke
  25. Asst. Att. Gen. Annette Adams (CA), the first woman to hold this position.
  26. Judge Eugene C. Bonniwell (PA)
  27. Laura Clay (KY), women’s rights activist
  28. Irvin S. Cobb (NY), newspaper editor
  29. Walker Hines (KY), railroad executive
  30. Sen. Andrieus A. Jones (NM)
  31. Ring Lardner (NY), sports columnist
  32. Former Sen. J. Hamilton Lewis (IL)
  33. General John J. Pershing (MO), famous WWI general and a Republican
  34. Sen. Joseph T. Robinson (AR), future VP nominee in 1928.
  35. Cora Wilson Stewart (KY), social reformer

The nominees were a mix of high-profile names, local favorites, and low-level politicians. Most of these were nominated without consulting the nominee. Some of these, like incumbent president Woodrow Wilson, pretended disinterest but hoped to be nominated in the even that the frontrunners could not win nomination. It took 44 ballots for Cox to win, even though he took the lead on the 12th ballot.

1972 Democrats

Never had so many people run for nomination for a position destined to lose. Richard Nixon would defeat George McGovern in one of the greatest landslides in US History. McGovern was the leading architect of assuring that primaries were held in every state. This helped him defeat Hubert Humphrey, who had become the nominee in the previous election by avoiding primaries and winning an endorsement with backroom wheeling and dealing.

  1. Sen. George McGovern (SD), and chief architect of primary election reform.
  2. Former VP Hubert Humphrey (MN), the nominee in 1968.
  3. Gov. George Wallace (AL), independent nominee in 1968.
  4. Sen. Edmund Muskie (ME), VP nominee in 1968.
  5. Sen. Henry M. Jackson (WA)
  6. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (NY), the first African-American woman elected to Congress.
  7. Former Gov. Terry Sanford (SC)
  8. Rep. Wilbur Mills (AR)
  9. Sen. Vance Hartke (IN)
  10. NYC Mayor John Lindsay (NY)
  11. Fmr Sen. Eugene McCarthy (MN)
  12. Rep. Patsy Mink (HI)
  13. LA Mayor Sam Yorty (CA)
  14. Sen. Fred Harris (OK)
  15. Sen. Birch Bayh (IN)

The top 4 major candidates were all major figures in the previous election. While the field of candidates were large, it seemed no major new figure wanted to risk losing in a landslide. In a way, McGovern seems to have experimented with his system. Humphrey couldn’t win the nomination using the old rules for securing nomination, and McGovern was able to successfully secure the nomination under the rules he helped put in play.

1976 Democrats

Unlike 1972, Democrats had a legitimate shot to defeat the Republicans in 1976. Gerald Ford was neither election as VP or as President, he had served only part of a term, and the economic situation was becoming perilous. Thus, the field in 1976 was much more exciting than the field in 1972. Despite the relative star power of this primary, the somewhat unknown Jimmy Carter won the nomination and the presidency.

  1. Former Gov. Jimmy Carter (GA)
  2. Rep. Morris Udall (AZ)
  3. Gov. Jerry Brown (CA)…yes, the same 21st century governor Jerry Brown of CA.
  4. Ellen McCormack (NY), “housewife” as she listed herself
  5. Sen. Birch Bayh (IN)
  6. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (TX)
  7. Sen. Robert Byrd (WV)
  8. Sen. Frank Church (ID)
  9. Delegate Walter Fauntroy (DC)
  10. Former Sen. Fred Harris (OK)
  11. Sen. Henry M. Jackson (WA)
  12. Gov. Milton Shapp (PA)
  13. Former French Amb. Sargent Shriver (MD), 1972 VP nominee
  14. Gov. George Wallace (AL), independent nominee in 1968.
  15. DC Mayor Walter Washington (DC)
  16. Former Gov. Terry Sanford (NC)
  17. Sen. Walter Mondale (MN), who would be named Carter’s VP.

The previous election saw only 4 strong candidates. This election saw eight: Carter, Brown, Wallace, Udall, Church, Jackson, Bayh, and Harris. Some of these had run in the previous election, but gained steam over the course of the Nixon/Ford second term. If Beto O’Rourke, if he runs, will likely be the strongest US Rep candidate since Morris Udall.

2016 Republicans

There’s a long gap between large primary groups. 1980-2012 generally saw smaller groupings. As the primaries developed the pre-primaries sort of took the place of the convention-era backroom dealings. Endorsements and monetary backers are often secured before the voters have any say in who they want to elect.  Some factor unique to 2016 caused the backers to withhold supporting candidate early and, therefore, narrowing the field down for voters to a select few. The Democrats in 2016 were forced to swallow Hillary Clinton, who had won the pre-primaries with Joe Biden staying out of the election, but many opted for Bernie Sanders’s insurgency campaign, which originally ran only to influence the platform and had no illusions of making the nomination competitive. Here are the Republicans that sought their party’s nomination.

  1. Donald Trump (NY), professional self-promoter and eventual nominee.
  2. Gov. John Kasich (OH), and possible anti-Trump Republican candidate in 2020.
  3. Sen. Ted Cruz (TX)
  4. Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), considered the favorite to win nomination during pre-primaries.
  5. Ben Carson (MD), physician
  6. Former Gov. Jeb Bush (FL), initial front-runner and brother of George W.
  7. Sen. Rand Paul (KY)
  8. Gov. Chris Christie (NJ)
  9. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR)
  10. Carly Fiorina (CA), CEO and first pre-preemptive VP nominee for a ticket failing to secure nomination.
  11. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore (VA)
  12. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA)
  13. Former Gov. Rick Perry (TX)
  14. Gov. Scott Walker (WI)
  15. Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA)
  16. Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC)
  17. Former Gov. George Pataki (NY)

This primary was packed with high-profile names. Unfortunately for the establishment Republicans, whether moderate or conservative, they seemed to have canceled each other out, allowing for the populists in the party to give Trump a majority as the election went from primary to primary. Had any of them won the pre-primary–Rubio, for instance, I doubt Trump would have won the nomination.

Hypothetical 2020 Democrats (36-candidate version)

This is unlikely, but since the DNC is considering the possibility, then so will I. Just to make it interesting, I’ll number the candidates according to how long I think they’ll last in the primaries. Let it be known that it was hard to come up with 36 candidates most likely to run:

  1. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (TX)
  2. Sen. Kamala Harris (CA)
  3. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN)
  4. Sen. Sherrod Brown (OH)
  5. Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT)
  6. Sen. Cory Booker (NJ)
  7. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI)
  8. Rep. Seth Moulton (MA)
  9. Tom Steyer (CA), CEO and Trump impeachment advocate
  10. Former VP Joe Biden (DE)
  11. Former HUD Sec. Julian Castro (TX)
  12. Sen. Chris Murphy (CT)
  13. Former State Sec. Hillary Clinton (NY), the 2016 nominee
  14. Gov. Steve Bullock (MT)
  15. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY)
  16. Fmr Mayor Andrew Gillum (FL)
  17. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA)
  18. Gov. Jay Inslee (WA)
  19. Sen. John Bel Edwards (LA)
  20. Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA)
  21. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper (CO)
  22. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (VA)
  23. Rep. John Delaney (MD)
  24. Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (PA)
  25. Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (NY)
  26. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg (IN)
  27. Sen. Michael Bennet (CO)
  28. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti (CA)
  29. Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR)
  30. Rep. Tim Ryan (OH)
  31. Rep. Adam Schiff (CA)
  32. Howard Schultz (WA), former Starbucks CEO
  33. State Sen. Richard Ojeda (WV)
  34. Former Att. Gen. Eric Holder (DC)
  35. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley (MD)
  36. Oscar de la Hoya (CA), boxer

It’s hard to predict how a field of 36 candidates will work. Some candidates might seem strong on paper, but they may have more competition for a limited demographic of voters, for instance. Joe Biden is the strongest candidate as 2018 comes to a close, but I doubt any candidate wins the pre-primaries, unless it’s someone knew–like O’Rourke. A true open field will probably see Biden’s support falter, while I believe his favorability will still remain high–voters like novelties as presidents it seems. If these were the 36 candidates in an unlikely hypothetical 36-candidate race, who do you think would win?




2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lot of research here. But no media personalities for the Dems? Oprah? Chris Cuomo?


    1. historymonocle says:

      I list only people who have shown interest in running or whom financial backers are considering as likely to run. Chris Cuomo hasn’t shown any interest in running. Oprah had, but then she opted not to. She hasn’t been suggested as a possible candidate in months. Either one would make an interesting candidate.


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