Why the 2020 Democratic primary could turn into ‘Lord of the Flies’

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — The 2020 Democratic presidential race has just begun, but party insiders and strategists are running out of terms to capture the potential for chaos if several candidates raise enough money — and win enough delegates — to keep the race competitive deep into the primary calendar.

“Free for all,” “Thunderdome,” and “Lord of the Flies” are among the analogies.

It’s even possible — many Democrats say more likely than at any time in modern history — that the leading candidate will finish with a plurality but not a majority of delegates, leading to a brokered convention.

“It’s a real possibility, particularly if the field remains large until the end,” said Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee and a former chair of the South Carolina branch of the party. “The DNC officer in me is cringing, while the political junkie in me is fascinated.”

If several candidates run deep into the race, the competition for cash and delegates could turn brutal, according to Jeff Berman, who devised delegate strategies for Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 and helped rewrite the party’s nominating rules.

“It could be like ‘Lord of the Flies,'” Berman said.

Jan. 8, 201905:09

Return of the superdelegates?

After the 2016 election, the party made an important change to its rules, which had long awarded delegates to candidates proportionally based on formulas taking into account their performance in congressional districts and at the statewide level during primaries, and also allowed “superdelegates” — a set of party leaders not bound to any candidate — to vote for their choice at the convention.

Under the new rules, the universe of delegates has been changed to exclude the superdelegates unless no candidate wins a majority of the delegates on the first ballot at the national convention. Candidates still win regular delegates based on their proportion of the vote in congressional districts and across states (with the exception of a handful of states that use state legislative districts rather than congressional districts for boundaries).

The idea was to reduce the influence of superdelegates, whose early endorsements could help shape the horserace and who, in theory, could tip the balance of the overall race against the winner among regular delegates.

But the new rules and a crowded field, along with the long-standing proportional award of delegates, could combine to put the superdelegates in the position of determining the nominee for the first time.

“With up to 15 or 20 viable candidates, there is a real chance no one gets a majority on the first ballot — or, worse, that three or four candidates could make the case that they should be the nominee,” said Chris Kofinis, a longtime Democratic strategist and public opinion researcher. “In that case, it’s Thunderdome politics at its worst, with superdelegates playing king- or queen-maker.”

One of Sen. Kamala Harris’ first presidential campaign hires was David Huynh, known in Democratic circles as “Delegate Dave” for his role in hunting delegates for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Hyunh has deep relationships with many of the superdelegates — as well as an intricate knowledge of how delegates are awarded, ballot-access regulations in each state and the party’s nominating rules. Those are advantages that could come into play for Harris, D-Calif., in a tightly contested race.

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