Early Returns

How the Democrats Can Sidestep Disaster in 2020

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Not normal.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With Donald Trump's approval ratings in the dumps, it's no surprise that early maneuvering for the 2020 Democratic nomination is already fairly visible. Ed Kilgore assesses the field as some of the longer of the long shots get ready for visits to Iowa, and he raises the question of whether a very large field will be vulnerable to the kind of mess that Republicans wound up with in 2016. 

Yes, I know: Trump won. Nevertheless, the nomination was a disaster. Odds are that there was nothing magic about Trump and that any Republican candidate would have won in 2016, whether it was because of the fundamentals of the election or because Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate (my bet is on fundamentals). Meanwhile, Republicans were left with a president who is breaking records for unpopularity and is unlikely to achieve as many party policy goals as most plausible other options. Disaster.

Back to the Democrats. Will Cubbison is right that the raw number of candidates wasn't really the Republicans' problem:

So how vulnerable are the Democrats? 

We can't know.

On the one hand, it seems likely -- not certain, but likely -- that Democratic Party actors will do a better job of selecting and then backing a single candidate than Republicans did in 2016, and that if a rogue candidate emerges they'll be more likely to coordinate against him or her. Democrats have no history of wildly inappropriate presidential candidates temporarily leading the polls or otherwise giving strong indications of viability. Republicans before 2016 did have that history.

On the other hand, if media norms really have changed, then even if Democrats choose one candidate or attempt to veto another, it's possible that the news media won't follow party cues. That, it seems to me, was above all what happened in 2016: The "neutral" media, led by CNN, decided to turn the 2016 nomination fight into "The Donald Trump Show" and failed to follow cues from Republican Party actors to portray the reality-show star as unacceptable. What we can't know at this point is whether Trump was just a special case, or if we should expect similar media behavior next time. 

At the very least, Democratic Party actors in 2020 will have one big advantage over Republican Party actors in 2016: They'll have seen it before and presumably will be able to react more effectively. Stable rules and norms are good for political parties, and I suspect they'll eventually be able to work with almost any new set of media norms, as long as the new way of doing things stays in place for a while. 

Of course, parties have it easier when there's an obvious candidate who is acceptable to all factions, clearly "presidential" (whatever that means these days), and appears to be an clear choice. Democrats are very unlikely to have one of those this time, so we can expect a more chaotic situation similar to 1988 or 2004 than the more structured competitions in 2000 and 2008. Which, as Republicans found out in 2016, may make party influence a lot easier to evade if the rules of the game do change unexpectedly. 

1. Lynn Vavreck on public opinion and American identity.

2. Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins at the Monkey Cage on Trump, policy and the Republican Party.

3. Also at the Monkey Cage, Alexandra Filindra and Laurel Harbridge-Yong on constraints on Republican members of Congress from constituents when it comes to criticizing Trump. 

4. Trevor Nace interviews Hans Noel about ideology and Trump

5. And my Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith on breaking up monopolies.

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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:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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