The Rules of the Game

James Ferguson
Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren

The fight for the Democratic presidential nomination will begin to assume a more concrete shape on the nights of June 26 and 27, when twenty candidates take the stage in Miami for the first round of debates. They qualified to participate by meeting one of two criteria before June 12: securing a minimum number of donors (at least 65,000) or registering more than one percent support in three major polls. The qualifying criteria are the same for the second round of debates in Detroit on July 30 and 31. For the third round, to be held on September 12 and 13 (in a location not yet chosen), the criteria are essentially doubled, which could winnow the field considerably. The Democratic National Committee has sanctioned twelve debates, to be held until next April.

The nomination is usually settled by that point in the election cycle—perhaps not officially or mathematically, but practically. It was clear by mid-March 2016, for example, that Bernie Sanders would not catch Hillary Clinton, and it was equally clear by around the same time in 2008—if not earlier—that Clinton would lose to Barack Obama. In 1992 Bill Clinton essentially wrapped up the nomination by winning the Illinois primary on March 17.

There are reasons to think that this time the nomination battle could drag into June 2020, when the primaries end, or even, some have suggested, all the way to the convention in July, making for the first truly contested Democratic convention since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson arrived and declared himself to have no interest in the nomination but delivered a welcoming speech so good that it ultimately led to the delegates choosing him on the third ballot over Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver. The reasons have to do, first, with new rules the party wrote after the Clinton–Sanders battle in 2016, and, second, with a growing schism in the party between its two poles of influence in the age of social media: the younger, urban, and more left-leaning people who carry out a daily and often pestiferous political dialogue on Twitter, and the older and more traditionally liberal-to-moderate people who make up the actual backbone of the party across America. If there is a division within the party that will bring it to ruin in 2020, this is it.

One might wish that this schism did not exist during an election in which the fate of the republic is at stake in a way it arguably has not been since 1860, or that the Democrats had not made these particular changes to its nominating process. But it does, and they have. Both reflect the seriousness of the fight to define the party anew as it crawls out of the Clinton “New Democrat” era in search of some as-yet-unnamed identity. I think both factions more or…

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