In a week and a half, on June 26 and 27, the 2020 presidential election will begin in earnest. The Democratic Party will hold its first official two-night television debate between the party’s more than 20 candidates.
Why is the campaign beginning so early — more than one year and four months prior to Election Day in November 2020? And just who is in charge of making the rules for this process? Now, as the process begins, is a good time to step back and review our presidential nominating system.
This is an unusual democratic institution. In no other country is nomination for a major national office determined by a series of regional primary elections (state caucuses and primaries) conducted in no particular order and under no form of centralized control. With four exceptions, individual states are given a general time period, set by the political parties, in which to schedule a presidential primary, presidential caucuses, or hold a state convention to select delegates to the party's national convention.
The four exceptions are Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Back in 2008 they were assigned the hugely influential first four dates for presidential caucuses and primaries. The national Democratic Party decided to do it that way, and the national Republican Party, less concerned with such matters, went along with it.
The point is this. State law governs certain aspects of presidential primaries and caucuses in the United States, but other aspects are controlled by rules passed by the two principal political parties, although the Democrats make most of the rules changes. In addition, rules for raising and spending money by presidential candidates, as they run in primaries and caucuses, have been passed into law by Congress.
No one person or group is in charge of this process. In addition, the calendar of presidential primary elections in the United States undergoes changes every four years. Periodically, these changes have a major effect on how the nominating system operates and which candidates receive a major political party nomination for president. These changes often are undertaken haphazardly, sometimes by individual states and sometimes by one or both national political parties, with no single body coordinating the overall effect of one particular change upon another. The presidential nominating process is, thus, a totally random process with multiple centers of control.
Before our very eyes, we can witness this evolutionary process as the Democratic Party struggles to bring some kind of order out of the upcoming presidential nominating debates. These uncommonly early nationalized debates are a relatively new wrinkle in the nominating process, caused by the tremendous expansion of American television in the 1950s. Now that there is cable TV as well as streaming TV news on the internet, there is plenty of screen time for these early debates. Back when there were only three national television networks, there would have been no TV time for such a minor political event.
This tells us something else about the presidential nominating process in the United States. The news media are active players along with the states and the political parties. It is the news media that took what are really minor political events, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and turned them into major national news events. The news media get at least 50% of the credit for making a minor candidate debate such as the one 10 days from now into a must-see political event.
And so we witness the Democratic Party trying to make up sensible rules as to which of their two-dozen candidates can be included in the two-night debate. So far, the party has adopted two standards: 1. How are the various candidates scoring in early public opinion polls. 2. The number of small-dollar contributors each candidate has gathered so far. If these new rules for limiting debate participants work for the Democratic Party, they will likely become a new permanent part of the U.S. presidential nominating process.
That brings up another issue — the outsize role of polls and pollsters. Until the first real votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary early in 2020, the polling industry will provide a constant supply of rankings of the competing candidates, one against another. These pollsters are totally unregulated. No one oversees the skill or accuracy of their work, yet they will be one of the principal sources of information about who is leading and who is not prior to the actual voting in Iowa and New Hampshire. Within days after these June 2019 presidential candidate debates are over, the polling industry will be giving us a first solid reading on who the most competitive candidates are.
Because of the controversial governing style of incumbent Republican President Donald Trump, there should be a keen interest on the part of the American people in the 2020 caucuses and primaries, beginning with the Democratic Party debates slightly more than a week away. Take time to pay attention to the process as well as the daily events of the 2020 major political party presidential nominations. Is this really the best way for the world’s model constitutional republic to nominate candidates for its highest and most powerful elected office? Probably not — we will explain why as the process continues.
Colorado College political scientists Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy have, between them, written more than 10 books on the presidency and U.S. presidential elections.