The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) This week saw three more entrants into the 2024 Republican presidential primary field. Former Vice-President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Governor, and failed 2016 presidential candidate, Chris Christie and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum could all be charitably described as extreme longshots. A more accurate and concise way to say that is that, like me, none of them will be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. If all three are still in the race when the first primary occurs in New Hampshire in February of next year, it will be a surprise if they combine for even 15% of the vote.
There are now, depending on how you count, about ten Republican candidates for President, and a possibility that the field will expand even more in the coming weeks. These kinds of enormous primary fields are now relatively common. More than 20 Democrats sought their party’s nomination in 2020 and the GOP field in 2016 was about that same size.
In most of these years, only a handful of candidates have any chance of winning their party’s nomination. In 2020, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio, Eric Swalwell, and several other Democrats never had a chance and dropped out relatively quickly. The same can be said for Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, or Carly Fiorina on the Republican side in 2016. On the one hand, all these people certainly have the right to run and are free to tell themselves whatever fantasies they want about how they can win. On the other hand, primaries with so many candidates are not helpful for voters and give what should be an important political process the feel of some kind of media and political freak show.
One reason so many candidates decide to run for president is that the threshold for running is very low. All you have to do is have some kind of political office or media footprint and raise, at first, a few million dollars. This is made even more tempting for a politician seeking to expand his or her national profile because there is little penalty for losing. Dropping out early, getting drubbed in a few states or failing to break through to voters have very few negative consequences for politicians. Eric Swalwell got nowhere in his 2020 presidential campaign and simply went back to being in the House. A similar thing happened to Rand Paul and Marco Rubio after they got no traction in 2016. They simply went back to the Senate. There are exceptions. Michael Bloomberg humiliated himself when he ran for President in 2020, but that quickly faded. Similarly, Texans Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro did not help themselves by running for President and both would have been better off eschewing higher office altogether and remaining in the House of Representatives.
For politicians who do not have a job to which to return, the incentives for running are even greater-even if they win few votes. When Christie ran for president in 2016, he was winding down his second term as Governor of New Jersey. Raising his profile in that race helped Christie land a lucrative position as a political analyst for ABC. He is now running an even longer shot campaign for 2024 that will keep his name in the national spotlight. Vivek Ramaswamy, another GOP candidate with no chance of winning the nomination, is clearly running so he can pivot from being a business executive to a media figure, perhaps as an anti-woke crusader on Fox. Another obscure Republican presidential candidate, Larry Elder, is already a radio host, but his campaign will help draw attention to his program and ultimately improve the show’s ratings.
These large primary fields are made possible by the absence of strong centralized parties in the US. The paradox of American democracy is that the two-party system is very deeply entrenched, but the parties themselves have little power. Third-party candidates almost never win, and have not won a presidential election since 1860, but the parties cannot control who enters the race for president, let alone who they nominate. This is why discussions of campaigns, elections, strategy, or other political issues that begin with “the Republicans…” or “the Democrats…” are generally unhelpful. In a very significant way, there are no “Republicans” or “Democrats.” There are, to be sure, people and elected officials who belong to and support those parties, but there is very little ability for the parties to act in a unitary and decisive manner in important matters like who they nominate or even what their policies are.
It has become a cliché to describe the American political system as broken, but cliches are often true. The candidacies of Pence, Burgum, and Christie are hardly the most egregious blemish on American democracy. Rather, they are political distractions that will fade away from lack of voter interest or lack of money. However, they are also a reminder that the problems of American democracy are not just Donald Trump or the fascist-friendly party he has molded, but they are deeply structural as well. A more functional and democratic way of choosing a president, rather than a free-for-all that looks more like a sporting event, or a wrestling exhibition than an important political process and where name recognition and entertainment value take on outsized import, might just be a better approach.