(The article originally appeared in The New York Times on March 13, 2019) 

Donald Trump’s low approval ratings have attracted a crush of Democrats vying to make him a one-term president. But he might have an unlikely ally in his re-election bid: Democrats’ mess of a primary system.

The most valuable commodity in a zillion-way presidential primary is attention: In 2016, much of Mr. Trump’s primary success owed to saying and doing so many outrageous things that none of the other 16 Republican candidates could compete for media oxygen against the more than $2 billion in free media his relentless antics generated.

But an overlooked key to Mr. Trump’s 2016 upset was the Republican primary system, which winnowed the 17-candidate field quickly and gave Mr. Trump a head start at jackhammering away at Hillary Clinton.

The party’s free-market-oriented rules give states the leeway to allocate all or most of their primary delegates on a winner-take-all basis. In 2016, this allowed Mr. Trump to build a commanding delegate lead with meager pluralities in many primaries. For example, he won about one-third of South Carolina’s primary vote but captured all 50 delegates at stake. Ultimately, he was able to avoid a convention fight and clinch the nomination in May — more than two months before Bernie Sanders formally endorsed Hillary Clinton.


By contrast, the Democratic Party’s egalitarian-minded rules allocate all pledged delegates to its convention on a proportional basis: A presidential candidate who receives at least 15 percent of the vote in any state or congressional district receives a corresponding share of delegates, making it difficult for a leading candidate to become a runaway train. In fact, had the 2016 Republican primary played out under Democrats’ rules, it would have almost assuredly resulted in an ugly, contested convention.

A brokered convention wasn’t a grave concern for Democrats in 2008 or 2016, because those races distilled to two main candidates quickly, virtually guaranteeing one would win a delegate majority. But for 2020, Democrats' jam-packed field is already on track to surpass the Republican 17-way rumble of 2016 and lacks an obvious front-runner. At the dizzying pace small- and large-dollar donors are bankrolling their favorite hopefuls, many Democrats could have the financial wherewithal — and even pressure from their backers — to campaign deep into the primary calendar, dramatically increasing the odds no candidate will capture a majority by the convention. Translation: Democrats could still be fighting among themselves little more than three months before the general election.

Democrats’ increasingly front-loaded primary calendar only adds to the chaos. California and Texas — the two largest states in the country — have moved up their primaries to Super Tuesday, on March 3. This means 36 percent of Democrats’ 3,768 pledged delegates will be allocated in early March, before the herd has truly been culled, making it even harder for one candidate to build a delegate majority. And if Colorado, Georgia and New York decide to join the Super Tuesday stampede, that share could rise to a whopping 46 percent.

Finally, consider the third rail of Democratic primary politics: superdelegates, the unpledged party leaders and elected officials who have automatically been seated at the convention in the past. In 2016, Mrs. Clinton won a clear majority of pledged delegates in the primaries and didn’t need these party elders’ help to prevail. But a common misconception among supporters of Bernie Sanders that this collective of “insiders” robbed him of the nomination played right into Mr. Trump’s assertion that Democrats had “rigged” the primaries for Mrs. Clinton.

In 2020, Democrats have sought to tamp down the superdelegate hysteria by barring these leaders and officials — currently 765 of them — from casting votes on the initial ballot at the convention. But here’s the ultimate irony: They can still cast votes on successive ballots, so they could be more influential than ever if the Democratic primary devolves into a floor fight. And the potential for back-room deal-making or heavy-handed Democratic National Committee refereeing could only further fuel grass-roots suspicion that the party’s elites are running the show, setting ablaze the prospect of party unity.

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Some Democratic strategists argue that a large field is healthy for the party and that Democratic voters are so desperate to beat Mr. Trump they’ll pragmatically consolidate quickly behind a nominee no matter what. That could still turn out to be true.

But today’s Democratic Party is highly fractious. Some on its left flank insist on nothing less than full support for a Green New Deal, single-payer health care or disbanding Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, plenty of 2020 primary voters will be upscale suburban Republicans and independents whom Mr. Trump has converted to Democrats and who bristle at these proposals. There are also Democrats who believe that a white or male nominee can’t fully grasp the plight of Americans most vulnerable to discrimination. And there are Democrats averse to nominating a septuagenarian or a “coastal elite.”

Most Democratic primary voters aren’t this rigid in their desires and simply want to win. Moreover, the most hard-core members of each of the factions above might not represent more than a tenth of the party’s primary electorate.

But could a nominee named Joe Biden unify and galvanize all these elements? Could Bernie Sanders? Kamala Harris? Elizabeth Warren? Amy Klobuchar?

If an all-out fracas next July in Milwaukee were to leave even one of these groups embittered, it could cost the party. After all, Democrats are up against a highly manipulative politician who in 2016 pried open just enough cracks in their coalition to win the Electoral College by a combined 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin out of 137 million cast.

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