On Nov. 8, congressman and former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the race.
I’m sure hardly anyone was surprised by the announcement. With 17 Democratic candidates still in the race — maybe 18 if the rumors about wealthy businessman and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg running are true — pre-nominee proclamations of defeat have only just begun. There are 112 days until Super Tuesday, when most states will hold primary elections; assuming there is only one candidate left in the race by then, someone must drop out every seven days. Given that new presidential campaigns are still being announced, it doesn’t seem like anyone is planning to leave the race anytime soon. This is a problem.
We’ve all heard this before, but it must be said again: the nature of American politics has radically changed since President Donald Trump’s victory. It is evident that his presidency made the expression of white supremacist, sexist, homophobic beliefs much more acceptable to manifest through harmful action, as evidenced by the uptick in hate crimes since 2016. But less obvious have been the ways in which he has legitimized authoritarian tendencies in the United States, such as the “Fifth Avenue argument” his lawyer is making to claim that a sitting US executive is immune from criminal prosecution even if they shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight. Clearly, it would be dangerous to settle into a sense of complacency over the “new norm” of politics set by the Trump administration. Silence in the midst of atrocity allows the administration’s policies to disproportionately harm marginalized groups.
I want to challenge Trump’s abhorrent presidency just as much as the next person. But is joining, or, if your poll numbers are low, staying in the Democratic presidential race the right way to go?
In past years, there have been far fewer candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination: five in 2016, none in 2012, nine in 2008, ten in 2004 and two in 2000. The party should have learned from the 2016 Republican presidential nominee field, which, at its peak — a bit over a year before the general election — contained 17 candidates. We all know how well that race went: Trump’s personality outdid the qualifications of other notable candidates, such as Senator Ted Cruz and former Governor of Ohio John Kasich, leading him to victory.
Beyond political tradition, however, is the real-world impact of having a crowded 2020 election field. The tensions produced from this overcrowding are evident in the Democratic debates. For example, on Oct. 15, O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg warred over gun control, a topic that the Democratic party — particularly its voters — generally agrees upon. The two got into a nasty fight after Buttigieg expressed skepticism about O’Rourke’s plan to buy back assault weapons.
Would this situation have occurred if there had been three to five people on the stage instead? It’s possible, but it is far more likely that debate discordance on common partisan stances is solely an attempt by candidates to stand out on an overcrowded stage. My interpretation of some of the sharpest attacks in the debates is that candidates, desperate for a surge in the polls, tend to go for soundbite quotes most likely to be replayed on news channels and other media. As a result, debates have become messy, unfocused and generally unpleasant to watch. Many voters rely on watching debates to get a feel for the candidates and develop an informed vote by Super Tuesday. How can voters decide on a candidate when debates are so disorganized and discordant?
On their official website, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) claims: “Democrats have a moral imperative to win back the presidency in 2020.” However, when candidates are relying on ad hominem attacks to gain notoriety, it creates a level of disunity that deters voters from core partisan beliefs listed by the DNC, such as health care as a basic human right, preventing gun violence and equality for marginalized groups. Now, with the crowded 2020 field, voters focus on which candidate “wins” each debate — or, which candidate delivers the most polished attacks — instead of candidates’ policies. This attitude erodes the idea of elected officials actually representing constituents’ interests, threatening the core of the United States’ so-called representative democracy.
Beating Trump in 2020 is Democratic candidates’ main priority, plastered on most major campaign websites. Many Americans may identify with this sentiment and support this ultimate goal. Victory seems unlikely, however, if the large pool of candidates and split voter base remains. This overcrowding enables more constituents to devote themselves to candidates unlikely to win the nomination, and the divisive nature of subsequent debates encourages voter proclamations like “my candidate or bust.” The broad and subjective notion of “electability” should not necessarily play a role in which Democratic presidential candidate voters like myself choose to support, but with such a large pool of candidates, concerns over electability might be valid.
To be representative of voters’ interests, only the top four candidates — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg — need to stick around for the next debate and onward. Imagine if previous Democratic debates presented only these four candidates and how much more information voters would get out of watching. I am talking to you: Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer and more. Drop out of the race before the Democrats hand victory to Trump yet again.