Too Many Candidates Undermine Democratic Elections

Democratic elections require at least two candidates, both of which, at least in principle, have a shot at winning. But, while two office-seekers may be the minimum, is there a maximum? Might adding candidates eventually diminish the election’s democratic character? Let me suggest that the answer is “yes,” -- -a plethora of choices undermines democracy. Mae West’s quip that too much of a good thing is great does not apply to democratic election.

Recent presidential primaries -- 17 candidates in the 2016 Republican primary and, most recently, 24 candidates (so far) in the 2020 Democratic primary -- perfectly illustrate the unfortunate consequences when voters are overwhelmed; culling the herd to down to three or four would far better serve democracy.

Most plainly, if we assume that voters should have at least minimal information prior to pulling the lever, it is obvious that information costs correspondently grow as ballot choice expands. It is arduous enough to be even moderately informed in a two-person contest but having even a modicum of information about a dozen-plus candidates is beyond the reach of all but political aficionados. Everything usually just comes down to name recognition (think Joe Biden). Can the average voter watching a debate digest a dozen or more glibly stated plans addressing climate change or any other issue, for that matter?

Moreover, given the high cost of gathering detailed information on too many competitors, superficial information must suffice. Seth Mouton, Steve Bullock, Michael Bennet, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper and Tim Ryan will invariably be reduced to a group of generic “middle-aged white males.”  while Tulsi Gabbard is just one of several female candidates. It is no wonder that identify politics triumphs when the list of candidates is so long -- it is often the only fact that can be discerned and remembered.

The upshot of this crowded field is that enormous power flows to unelected, obscure mass media executives who decide which of the two dozen contenders warrant close media attention. Airtime or newspaper column inches are always limited, so business necessity will doom some (if not most) candidates to obscurity. In effect, unelected and unaccountable media executives now replace the old party kingmakers such as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley who, despite all their faults, were elected and thus publicly accountable. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s current president, might even propel Seth Moulton into a top contender for the Democratic nomination simply by ordering CNN talking heads to give him extensive TV coverage.

The implications of this power shift are huge. Old-time bosses like Mayor Daley were concerned with electability, a credible political record, and party loyalty; by contrast, the Jeff Zuckers and others allocating airtime focus on ratings, and this probably explains why the inexperienced but flakey Beto O’Rourke far outshines the dull but politically accomplished and more experienced Jay Inslee, the current governor of Washington. Even better for juicing the rating is Pete Buttigieg, another near amateur, an openly gay mayor of modest sized city with an eye-catching resume (Harvard, the military) and a husband.  

The need to draw media attention in an extremely crowded field tilts the agenda to newsworthy stunts, often proposals that are illegal, ill-advised and have zero chance of ever being implemented. But they might, hopefully, get NBC or CBS airtime and thereby boost poll numbers. Does Bernie Sanders really believe that incarcerated felons ought to vote? Bizarre (and probably quickly forgotten) but it did get Bernie a little free airtime. In effect, the battle of ideas now becomes a contest to extract free publicity and boost name recognition, not a serious discussion of issues. Candidates whose talents do not lend themselves to 10-second gimmick sound bites are uncompetitive. Recall the past two Democratic TV debates with a mere 20 candidates where “winning” meant a snappy 10-second shallow repartee to an equally inane 15-second remark by a rival. Alas, such superficiality is inevitable when ten candidates compete for attention.

What contemporary TV network will send the crew out to cover a plain vanilla untelegenic candidate who as governor reduced taxes, eliminated corruption, revitalized rust belt towns and cut crime? Boring! Imagine Dwight D. Eisenhower, an outwardly bland, often purposely inarticulate man, trying to compete in a contemporary TV debates against a dozen or more rivals each regularly announcing Quixotic schemes to excite a blasé public? Who would vote for the dull Ike?  

This need to stand out from the crowd also gives a huge advantage to those who are already celebrities, the more colorful and famous the better. What TV producer back in 2016 would waste airtime on Chris Christie, the portly wonkish governor of New Jersey, versus Donald J. Trump, who hosted the highly rated TV show, The Apprentice, for 14 seasons and otherwise lived a glamorous life as a hotel magnate and girl-chasing man-about-town?    

Perhaps the most serious defect of the current more-the-merrier format is that it disadvantages candidates who can attract a broad range of voters necessary to create a winning coalition. After all, this is the fundamental aim of the primary -- find the potential winning candidate, not uncover the candidate with a knack for mobilizing an impassioned sliver of voters. The American electoral system requires majorities (or at least large pluralities), and a candidate whose support may be 35%, tops, in field of two dozen may be the clear front-runner, but 35% will not by itself win a presidential election. Conversely, a candidate who attracts, say, 10% of the first-choice preferences may be acceptable to a majority and thus a far stronger candidate under our majority-based electoral system (though as Trump showed, you can win with less than a majority of the popular vote but it has to within close hailing distance of a majority).  

Unfortunately, polls only solicit first choices and thus are ill-suited for determining broader appeal. In principle, this defect can be fixed -- just ask for second, third, and fourth choices in addition to first choices. It is conceivable, for example, that while Amy Klobuchar is hardly among the top 10 as the most preferred, she might be widely acceptable, and could assemble a winning coalition in 2020. But, as we noted above, while such information could be extracted via a poll asking for rankings, it is unlikely that more than a handful of voters know anything about Senator Klobuchar given all the clutter.

Might matters change? Unlikely. The current more-the-merrier arrangement is unlikely to disappear for the simple reason that it is profitable for the mass media and the armies of consultants and advisors who counsel all these candidates. Given the mass media’s falling advertising revenue, these financial benefits are no small matter. A two-candidate race may be better for democracy, but having 24 candidates means more TV commercials and jobs, and so anyone participating in this gravy train will help keep it going.        

Democratic elections require at least two candidates, both of which, at least in principle, have a shot at winning. But, while two office-seekers may be the minimum, is there a maximum? Might adding candidates eventually diminish the election’s democratic character? Let me suggest that the answer is “yes,” -- -a plethora of choices undermines democracy. Mae West’s quip that too much of a good thing is great does not apply to democratic election.

Recent presidential primaries -- 17 candidates in the 2016 Republican primary and, most recently, 24 candidates (so far) in the 2020 Democratic primary -- perfectly illustrate the unfortunate consequences when voters are overwhelmed; culling the herd to down to three or four would far better serve democracy.

Most plainly, if we assume that voters should have at least minimal information prior to pulling the lever, it is obvious that information costs correspondently grow as ballot choice expands. It is arduous enough to be even moderately informed in a two-person contest but having even a modicum of information about a dozen-plus candidates is beyond the reach of all but political aficionados. Everything usually just comes down to name recognition (think Joe Biden). Can the average voter watching a debate digest a dozen or more glibly stated plans addressing climate change or any other issue, for that matter?

Moreover, given the high cost of gathering detailed information on too many competitors, superficial information must suffice. Seth Mouton, Steve Bullock, Michael Bennet, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper and Tim Ryan will invariably be reduced to a group of generic “middle-aged white males.”  while Tulsi Gabbard is just one of several female candidates. It is no wonder that identify politics triumphs when the list of candidates is so long -- it is often the only fact that can be discerned and remembered.

The upshot of this crowded field is that enormous power flows to unelected, obscure mass media executives who decide which of the two dozen contenders warrant close media attention. Airtime or newspaper column inches are always limited, so business necessity will doom some (if not most) candidates to obscurity. In effect, unelected and unaccountable media executives now replace the old party kingmakers such as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley who, despite all their faults, were elected and thus publicly accountable. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s current president, might even propel Seth Moulton into a top contender for the Democratic nomination simply by ordering CNN talking heads to give him extensive TV coverage.

The implications of this power shift are huge. Old-time bosses like Mayor Daley were concerned with electability, a credible political record, and party loyalty; by contrast, the Jeff Zuckers and others allocating airtime focus on ratings, and this probably explains why the inexperienced but flakey Beto O’Rourke far outshines the dull but politically accomplished and more experienced Jay Inslee, the current governor of Washington. Even better for juicing the rating is Pete Buttigieg, another near amateur, an openly gay mayor of modest sized city with an eye-catching resume (Harvard, the military) and a husband.  

The need to draw media attention in an extremely crowded field tilts the agenda to newsworthy stunts, often proposals that are illegal, ill-advised and have zero chance of ever being implemented. But they might, hopefully, get NBC or CBS airtime and thereby boost poll numbers. Does Bernie Sanders really believe that incarcerated felons ought to vote? Bizarre (and probably quickly forgotten) but it did get Bernie a little free airtime. In effect, the battle of ideas now becomes a contest to extract free publicity and boost name recognition, not a serious discussion of issues. Candidates whose talents do not lend themselves to 10-second gimmick sound bites are uncompetitive. Recall the past two Democratic TV debates with a mere 20 candidates where “winning” meant a snappy 10-second shallow repartee to an equally inane 15-second remark by a rival. Alas, such superficiality is inevitable when ten candidates compete for attention.

What contemporary TV network will send the crew out to cover a plain vanilla untelegenic candidate who as governor reduced taxes, eliminated corruption, revitalized rust belt towns and cut crime? Boring! Imagine Dwight D. Eisenhower, an outwardly bland, often purposely inarticulate man, trying to compete in a contemporary TV debates against a dozen or more rivals each regularly announcing Quixotic schemes to excite a blasé public? Who would vote for the dull Ike?  

This need to stand out from the crowd also gives a huge advantage to those who are already celebrities, the more colorful and famous the better. What TV producer back in 2016 would waste airtime on Chris Christie, the portly wonkish governor of New Jersey, versus Donald J. Trump, who hosted the highly rated TV show, The Apprentice, for 14 seasons and otherwise lived a glamorous life as a hotel magnate and girl-chasing man-about-town?    

Perhaps the most serious defect of the current more-the-merrier format is that it disadvantages candidates who can attract a broad range of voters necessary to create a winning coalition. After all, this is the fundamental aim of the primary -- find the potential winning candidate, not uncover the candidate with a knack for mobilizing an impassioned sliver of voters. The American electoral system requires majorities (or at least large pluralities), and a candidate whose support may be 35%, tops, in field of two dozen may be the clear front-runner, but 35% will not by itself win a presidential election. Conversely, a candidate who attracts, say, 10% of the first-choice preferences may be acceptable to a majority and thus a far stronger candidate under our majority-based electoral system (though as Trump showed, you can win with less than a majority of the popular vote but it has to within close hailing distance of a majority).  

Unfortunately, polls only solicit first choices and thus are ill-suited for determining broader appeal. In principle, this defect can be fixed -- just ask for second, third, and fourth choices in addition to first choices. It is conceivable, for example, that while Amy Klobuchar is hardly among the top 10 as the most preferred, she might be widely acceptable, and could assemble a winning coalition in 2020. But, as we noted above, while such information could be extracted via a poll asking for rankings, it is unlikely that more than a handful of voters know anything about Senator Klobuchar given all the clutter.

Might matters change? Unlikely. The current more-the-merrier arrangement is unlikely to disappear for the simple reason that it is profitable for the mass media and the armies of consultants and advisors who counsel all these candidates. Given the mass media’s falling advertising revenue, these financial benefits are no small matter. A two-candidate race may be better for democracy, but having 24 candidates means more TV commercials and jobs, and so anyone participating in this gravy train will help keep it going.