And in 2016 the GOP used two debate stages to accommodate the 17 declared candidates.
I study political parties and their role in electoral politics. And I believe the rise in the number of presidential candidates in recent years results from divisions within the party coalitions and from easier access to vital campaign resources – money and media – that were not present in previous election cycles.
For example, within the Democratic Party there are labor organizations, environmentalists and civil rights groups, each with different priorities. Each group would ideally prefer a candidate who will champion their ideas and strongly support their policy preferences.
But a primary filled with many candidates who attack one another risks harming the eventual nominee’s standing with voters.
Likewise, these divisive primaries may cause supporters of a candidate who fails to win the nomination to withhold their support of the nominee.
As my research shows, unified parties are able to discourage candidates from running or encourage them to drop out.
They do this by making it difficult for the candidates they don’t prefer to acquire the vital electoral resources that are necessary to win the nomination: media coverage, campaign funds and quality campaign staff.
Donors, staff and the media take cues from party elites about which candidates are the party’s choice. They are less likely to support, work for or cover those lacking the party’s support.
While these resources are available in abundance within the party network, they were previously harder to find outside of that network. In previous years, candidates who realized it would be hard to amass the necessary resources through party support ultimately declined to run or dropped out quickly, resulting in much smaller presidential fields.
Declining Party Influence
In recent years, things have changed.
Parties may still have the ability to push a candidate through the nomination when they are united. But I believe party unification and power over electoral resources has also declined in these four areas:
1. Media control: In the past, candidates were reliant on the media to publicize their candidacy and get their message to voters. Party leaders and elites consistently have better connections with the media establishment and use those connections to promote preferred candidates.
But today’s media environment allows candidates to bring their message directly to voters. Social media bypasses reporters and editors and those who have connections to them so more candidates have easier access to this key campaign resource.
2. Candidate ambitions: Before, running for president was almost entirely about advancing one’s political career. As Paul Tsongas, the former senator and presidential candidate, once said, “When you get to the Senate, half the people around you are running for president. You see them and you think you are just as good as they are…So you start to think about running yourself.”
While parties still pressure candidates to withdraw, candidates may be less responsive than in the past. That’s because they care less about the desires of party elites since they may not be as interested in a career in party politics.
3. Fundraising: Changes in campaign finance have also helped candidates find sufficient money outside of the party network to launch their campaign.
The rise of super PACs and other independent political entities has allowed candidates to gain access to large sums of money from a small number of donors. Campaign finance rules previously encouraged candidates to rely on a larger base of wealthy donors – many of whom took cues from party elites.
While the number of candidates running for president in 2020 may be unprecedented, a crowded debate stage is unlikely to be a strange sight in the future.
The divisions within parties and the availability of money and media coverage outside of the traditional party network mean that potential candidates will continue to see – and take – opportunities where previously they did not.
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