It’s Never Too Early for Democrats to Care About 2020

Remember: Hillary Clinton probably wrapped up the 2016 nomination by the 2014 midterms.

Too soon? Too bad.

Photographer: Olivier Le Moal/iStockphoto via Getty Images

It's on. So far this week, we've had the first major (albeit mostly speculative) listing of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020; the first candidate (Kirsten Gillibrand) to declare herself out of the contest; and the helpful article to correctly remind us that claims of noncandidacy three years from the Iowa caucuses aren't exactly binding. All that, and Joe Biden in New Hampshire, as he continues, more or less, his 30-plus year quest for the White House. 

So is this all just clickbait and hack journalism? 

Nope. Like it or not, the presidential nomination contest really does start this early. And while of course there's plenty of substance-free speculation at this point, the media would be irresponsible if it didn't cover very real maneuvering so far. Remember: Hillary Clinton probably wrapped up the Democratic nomination, or at least moved into a commanding position, by around the 2014 midterms, which means she was busy nailing it down months before that (see also: George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000). Or, to look at it from the other end, there are in most cycles quite a few candidates who quietly test the waters and find little or no interest, and then aren't even listed as contenders once the "real" campaign starts. That's news, too.

But in this age of strong parties and what is usually a partisan presidency -- present occupant excepted -- a party-centered point of view is even more important. Parties are defined by their nominations. That's true in the sense that the winning candidate will affect how the party is perceived and even how it acts going forward, especially if he or she wins the general election. But it's even more importantly true in the sense that groups within the party compete and cooperate over the party's agenda in the course of nomination politics. That is, party actors -- the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, and party-aligned interest groups and media who have the most at stake in the party and work hard to influence it -- start working, early, to bind presidential candidates to the party's consensus positions and to use candidate support for contested issues to hash those policies out. 

To put it another way: Even more important than Hillary Clinton's early domination of the 2016 nomination was the fact that in 2008 all of the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination had come to fully support the health care reform that became the Affordable Care Act. 

Granted, all of this collapsed in the 2016 Republican nomination contest, which wound up selecting a candidate who wasn't really a contender until 2015 and who was weakly committed at best to Republican Party policy positions and priorities. But even there, the failure of the party to rally behind one of the conventional candidates is partly what gave Donald Trump his opportunity, and that's a story which began in 2013. And besides, we're talking at this point about the Democratic nomination, and so far at least that party doesn't appear to be dysfunctional enough to do anything like that.

The most important caveat about the importance of (very) early nomination politics is that we're also in the middle of nomination politics for all the offices with 2018 (and 2017!) elections, and those choices define the parties, too. After all, not only are those offices important in their own right, but the winners of 2018 elections, and even in some cases the nominees who fall short in general elections, will become important party actors who will have a larger say in the 2020 presidential nomination. So neither party actors nor the media should get so carried away with 2020 that they ignore all the other important elections going on now. 

But, yes, the 2020 nomination fight probably started within days of the November 2016 elections. And visible or not, the early skirmishing really does have important effects.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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