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Why Is Tom Steyer Running? New Primary Rules And Democrats’ Weak Field


The last thing Democrats needed was yet one more presidential candidate whom no serious observer thinks has much chance of winning their party’s nomination. Yet even as Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), one of the many no-hope candidates, faced reality and dropped out last week, yet another candidate was added to the list when billionaire investor Tom Steyer declared his intention to run.

Steyer’s entry brought the current total of Democratic presidential candidates to 25 and, as with so many of the other two dozen running, left many observers asking why he’s doing it. With no national following or constituency, his name not registering at all in any of the presidential polls, and the serious contenders having a huge head start in organization and fundraising, Steyer would seem to have no chance.

Considering that he won’t make the cut for the second round of Democratic presidential debates this month, which will only include 20 of the 25 candidates running, the general assumption is that he has even less of a chance of ultimately prevailing than a number of better-known candidates like Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Julian Castro, who have been running for months and still languish in the low single digits in all of the polls.

Just as damaging, there was a general consensus among liberal pundits that there was no rationale for Steyer’s candidacy, with New York Times columnists Jamelle Bouie and Dave Leonhardt indignantly arguing that the billionaire ought to be spending his money in other ways that might better contribute to a Democratic victory in 2020. Leaving aside liberals’ predilection to tell other people how to spend their money, both had a point. It’s hard to characterize Steyer’s promise to spend $100 million of his own money on his candidacy as anything but a gargantuan waste of resources.

Nor does there seem to be much reason to think that a Democratic Party shifting hard to the left is in the mood to nominate a billionaire hedge fund manager who would be their own version of Donald Trump, even though he’s been spending his money freely promoting impeachment in a way that ought to endear him to the liberal base.

Who Cares What the Pundits Think

Although those liberals deprecating his decision aren’t wrong, Steyer is undeterred. After all, that $100 million puts him far ahead of even the frontrunners, let alone the also-rans. So the better question to ask about this is not just why Steyer is making a quixotic run for the presidency but what possible reason do most of the candidates outside of the top five or even the second tier of contenders have for doing it when no serious observer thinks they have any chance of winning?

There are a number of reasons an outlier run for the presidency makes sense in this election cycle. The first is that presidential nomination races for the party out of power traditionally generally produce a bumper crop of candidates. With the possible exception of 2008, when Hillary Clinton seemed the inevitable nominee until Barack Obama proved (as Trump also did eight years later) that she was a terrible candidate, there is usually no frontrunner who is considered so strong as to deter others from trying in.

The next reason for a lot of contenders is incumbent’s vulnerability. While Democrats tend to underestimate Trump’s ability to replicate his 2016 upset of Clinton, his favorability ratings have been underwater throughout his presidency. While there would still be plenty of Democrats wanting to run against him even if Trump’s polling numbers were much better, the perception of his weakness makes even obscure members of the opposition think they can beat him.

There’s also the fact that many of those running see its publicity as a good investment for the future. Some are running more for cabinet posts in a future Democratic administration than the presidency.

Others see even a failed candidacy as a stepping-stone to campaigns for other offices. Still others, like self-help guru Marianne Williamson, may be just selling books, although she may actually be operating under the delusion that her campaign of spreading more love may bring victory.

The Primary Rules Change Is a Big Factor

More important than those factors, however, is the fact that Democrats have changed the rules about primaries in 2020 to eliminate winner-take-all results or anything close. That means all Democratic primaries and caucuses will award delegates proportionately, reflecting the vote totals of contenders who pass certain thresholds.

That means it will be impossible for any candidate to wrap up the nomination quickly even if he achieves a series of victories won by pluralities (and it would be virtually impossible to win majorities with a field this large) in the early primaries. That’s how Trump wrapped up the Republican nomination in 2016. Assuming Biden maintains his frontrunner status, he could do the same in 2020. But even if he did, his delegate lead would be small rather than overwhelming as it would be under a different system.

Unless all but the top two or three contenders drop out after Iowa and New Hampshire (as would normally be the case), these new rules ensure that the fight for the Democratic nomination is going to be drawn out. It also means the possibility of an open convention cannot be ruled out if at least the top five stay win enough delegates and raise enough money to avoid being forced out.

The delegate rules also recreate the possibility of a political tradition that was a staple of presidential races until the late 1960s: favorite son candidacies. In the era before delegates were awarded by primaries or caucuses, state parties would promote one of their own to make a symbolic run for the presidency in order to keep their delegation in play at open conventions where the result was always decided in stereotypical “smoke filled rooms” by the various local machine bosses.

Most of these favorite son candidates traded their votes for promises of patronage to the major contenders, but sometimes a deadlock between the frontrunners led to one of these outliers becoming a compromise choice. Although it’s probably unlikely, should the primaries not decide the nomination, it’s possible that this process could be replicated in the smoke-free Democratic conference rooms at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee next year.

Seen from that perspective, there’s no reason any Democrat shouldn’t give the presidential race a try and stay in it as long as humanly possible in order to be available should lightning strike when the frontrunners fail. But the main reason for so many candidates and for some to be getting in as late as Steyer is obvious: the Democratic field is weak.

With a frontrunner like Biden, who has shown himself to be so easily bullied by his party’s left wing when he should be demonstrating his independence from them, it’s hard to blame Steyer for thinking that, in this cycle, no outcome is set in stone and any Democrat with a message and enough money could wind up winning.

Doubtless the chorus line of Democratic presidential candidates will thin out considerably before the votes start being counted next year. But the weak field and the rules changes will ensure that Steyer and anyone else who has the cash and the intestinal fortitude to keep running despite the odds will keep the number of candidates at record levels for far longer than in past elections.