How many Democrats are vying for the chance to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker this November? The list seems like it’s constantly growing, and with at least a dozen serious contenders hoping to win the party’s nomination, listing them off would require several hundred words.
To learn more about the candidates, I suggest you read my reporting on a recent candidate forum that took place in Menasha, Wisconsin in mid-January. But this story will focus on a question I’ve been trying to figure out for some time now: Is a primary field with this many candidates a good thing for the Democratic Party?
There are two schools of thought here. Some political analysts argue that any primary challenger limits the focus of the eventual nominee, making it more difficult for them to emphasize why they’re a better candidate than the incumbent before the November general election. If Democrats have to focus on each other instead of their ideas, it gives Walker more time to prepare, fundraise, and strategize in order to defeat whoever Democrats choose.
Another line of thought suggests that primaries allow weaknesses to be exposed, once again making it difficult for whoever wins to take on the incumbent. Whoever becomes the king- or queen-of-the-hill will be battered and bruised, leaving them vulnerable to the governor’s attacks in a limited amount of space in the run-up to the election.
But even these schools of thought can be debunked.
On the first issue, by having a number of candidates “battle it out,” it may make it harder for the primary winner to focus on the incumbent, but it also creates difficulties for the incumbent to put their own resources towards the eventual nominee. If the incumbent thinks candidate A will win, but candidate B becomes the nominee instead, they’ve just wasted months putting research into a person they thought would win, but didn’t.
On the second point, the eventual candidate’s vulnerabilities may be exposed by a tough primary. But whoever becomes the nominee will also be battle-tested. This person’s flaws will have already been exposed, and if they’ve proven they can still win, it will be a moot point for the incumbent to challenge them on those flaws.
We don’t have to go too far back to see how this has worked in the past — the 2016 presidential election gives us a good indication of how a stacked primary worked out for the eventual winner. President Donald Trump was considered one of the least likely winners at the start of the GOP primary season, but he ended up winning the nomination, despite 16 other candidates ran against him (including Walker himself, at least for a short while).
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was considered the frontrunner from the start. Though she faced a formidable opponent in U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, he wasn’t considered that much of a threat to her eventual candidacy. Despite not having too difficult of a primary challenge, she lost to Trump by way of the Electoral College.
Some may point out that Clinton did win the actual popular vote, disproving this theory. But her win was only by two percentage points, which still demonstrates that a crowded primary didn’t necessarily hurt Trump in the long run.
The same was true, albeit 26 years ago, in 1992, when her husband Bill Clinton ran for — and won — the presidency. In that year, he faced eight other challengers. When Clinton won the nomination, he defeated the incumbent President George H. W. Bush.
The overall point is this: Democrats in Wisconsin don’t need to worry about their crowded primary. It isn’t either “good” or “bad” — it is what it is. The eventual nominee will have a monumental task before them, no matter who it ends up being. But it may turn out that candidate will come out stronger because of the arduous nomination process, not in spite of it.