Primary Numbers

Dr Phi wants to know why the GOP so frequently seems to have more candidates than the Democrats:

But since 1992, it seems like the Democrat field has never been as crowded. Of the three elections since then in which the Democrats haven’t run an incumbent, the number of candidates with non-trivial delegate counts or vote totals have been:

2000: 2 (Gore, Bradley)

2004: 4 (Kerry, Edwards, Dean, and Clark (barely))

2008: 2 (Obama and Hillary)

The Republicans, in contrast, run more candidates:

1996: 5 (Dole, Buchanan, Forbes, Alexander, and Keyes

2000: 3 (Bush McCain, Keyes))

2008: 4 (McCain, Romney, Huckabee, and Paul)

2012: 4 (Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul)

Which brings us to 2016. The Democrats have two declared candidates (Clinton and Sanders), one undeclared candidate (O’Malley), and one rumored to be testing the waters (Biden). Meanwhile, the Republicans have some 15 candidates serious enough to participate in one of the Fox debates.

On Twitter, Mike Drew questioned the methodology, and he had a good point. Phi uses the number of candidates with non-trivial delegate counts. That’s one way of going about it, but it’s a relatively rough measurement for how many candidates each party has. It may well be true that the Democrats weed candidates out more quickly than the GOP – or maybe not – but delegate rules differ between the parties and it excludes entirely candidates that at least in some point in the process had credibility (think Edwards in ’08) and included some with little (Alan Keyes). I also wanted to go back further than 1996.

So I looked at three different metrics: How many candidates actually announced (the GOP will have 17 by this metric)? How many were still there in Iowa and New Hampshire (so Perry and Walker would be excluded from this count)? And how many were around for the long haul? The last one was most difficult, but I defined it as getting more than 10% of the vote in any state (excluding their home state) in one of the last 25 primaries. I went all the way back to 1976, which was the second election in the primary era and the first that included competitive races for both parties.

The end result is… well, there’s just not that much difference in the parties in the longer run. Since 1996, there is, but that’s because it excludes the two elections where the Democrats smelled blood and had huge fields and no obvious candidate (1976 and 1988). Since then the GOP had large fields (ten or more announced candidates) three times (2016 is the fourth) while the Democrats haven’t. However, in terms of announced candidates the Democrats actually had eight in ’04 and ’08. But the end result going back to 1976 is that the GOP had an average of 7.1 candidates compared to 6.9 for the Democrats. The numbers don’t actually change all that much if you look at Iowa and New Hampshire or candidates in the race for the long haul. The Democrats have 5 and 2.9 respectively, compared to 4.6 and 2.6 for the GOP.


If you look at announced candidates since 1996, you do get the biggest difference of 8.8 Republicans to 4.2 Democrats. By the time we get to Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s still a difference but less of one as there are 3.8 Democrats to 5.6 Republicans. By the end of the primaries, it’s 3 to 2.

1996cSo that’s… not insignificant. To the point that it complicates the original “the parties are the same” thesis. The question is, how significant is it? Why has the tide turned? Before this year, the two largest fields were Democratic ones before ’96, but since then the Democrats haven’t hit ten once while the GOP has three times?

The most obvious question is whether this is merely a product of incumbency, but if that’s a factor it’s not an especially large one. Especially over the whole data set, where the GOP had two uncontested primaries (1984 and 2004) as did the Democrats (1996 and 2012). Republicans had contested incumbents in 1976 and 1992, but so did the Democrats in 1980. Broken down to before 1996 and after that does skew things a little bit, but the overall trends hold even if you entirely exclude incumbent party primaries.

One possibility is that there are just random trends, and it will go back and forth. Or maybe it’s not random. A theory I can imagine gaining traction is that it coincides with the crazification of the GOP and it’s a symptom of that. If so, though, how crazy were the Democrats during the 70’s and 80’s? Maybe very crazy, if Jane’s Law (“The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.”) is true. Or if we wish, we can come up with a benign reason for one and a less-than-benign reason for the other.

Notably, though, most of the largest fields have come in circumstances like 2016, where one of the parties has been in office for eight years. That ties into my (very tentative theory), which is that large fields come when parties are trying to find themselves and dealing with internal conflict. In 2008 and especially 2000, despite in each case the party being out of power for eight years, there had been a consensus on which direction the party should go. The Democrats had eight candidates in 2008, but they did not represent terribly different visions of what the Democratic Party should be. It was a matter of who should advance a shared vision. In 1976, candidates ranged from George Wallace to Scoop Jackson to Jimmy Carter. It’s more complicated in 1988, but you can still see it. And in 2016, it’s very much there.

That’s just a theory, and not a hill on which I am going to die defending. And it relies on a degree of chance. The problem with the political science of presidential elections is that the sample set is always small. Sure, we are nearing sixty elections, but the facts on the ground change regularly. The parties and issues and coalitions change. With primaries in particular, there have only been eleven elections that they’ve picked the nominee, and those eleven elections have taken us all the way from Vietnam to here.

Perhaps the biggest mystery to me is why – with all of the senators and governors and celebrities looking for their chance to shine – we don’t have a dozen or more candidates every election.

All charts generated by Trumwill using LibreOffice.

Feature Image Credit: By Ericci8996 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

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13 thoughts on “Primary Numbers

  1. I suspect that your theory is largely right. A good chunk of the GOP can admit from time to time that their base is aging and they are not replacing these people in good numbers. There is also debate about how much they are at a disadvantage for the White House and what is the best path to the White House. Yet they have a lock in Congress and an advantage in mid-terms. There are other collective action problems in the GOP where it might make sense for the party has a whole to support something but doesn’t make sense for the individual reps and senators to do so.

    There is tension in the Democratic Party but it isn’t as strong or contradictory as the tension in the GOP. Matt Y reported that liberal is no longer a dirty word. The party seems to be willing to focus on stuff its base wants like gun-control and has abandoned squaring the circle and hemming and hawing when it comes to social issues because Millennials and late Gen Xers are largely socially liberal.

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    • I think there is some truth to your comment, but that it is overly specific. I think there are some structural issues at play. What does the modern GOP have in common with the 70’s/80’s Democrats? Two things: First, being mostly at an electoral disadvantage. But second, and perhaps most importantly, a leadership vacuum.

      The two being related, of course. In both cases, the last party president destroyed the coalition: LBJ on account of the Civil Rights Act and the Vietnam War, GWB on account of Iraq, the economy, and spending. And the vacuum, coupled with the perception of an opposing party that itself seems vulnerable, leads to a very large number of people believing that they are especially equipped to fill that vacuum.

      Matt Y reported that liberal is no longer a dirty word.

      This corresponds with my view that the self-identified moderates on the left are mostly just as moderate as they have to be. If/when they decide they don’t have to care what the rubes think anymore, then things will get really interesting!

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  2. Sounds right to me. I’m wondering how third party and independent candidates change things, too. The prominence of Nader in 2000 was really down to a lack of a similar candidate in the democratic primary, but as I understand it, the Prominence of Ross Perot was down to the appearance-but-early-loss of similar candidates in the 1992 Republican Primary.

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  3. “Perhaps the biggest mystery to me is why – with all of the senators and governors and celebrities looking for their chance to shine – we don’t have a dozen or more candidates every election.”

    Because it’s physically and emotionally exhausting and expensive. Starting about 2 years out, you need to start to assemble the dark money that will allow you to have any kind of campaign presence. 18 months out you need to be on the road. A year out (now), you need to be building a presence in every state, and from there to every county, and from there to every key precinct. Every moment is spent working the phones fund-raising. Every moment not doing that is developing and refining a message, hiring and supervising staff, getting on TV, being seen, raising public awareness.

    Obama and W. Clinton were seen as tremendous ‘natural’ campaigners. Hogwash. They had a vision of what they wanted to do on the campaign trail years in advance, then hired incredible talent, then worked tirelessly. Bill is better off the cuff; Barack was deeply involved in crafting his best speeches. But both of them put in the hours necessary to hone their craft.

    Senators and governors know better, having at least some campaign experience. Celebrities fade fast. (Trump seems to be serious. I’ve read that he is actually investing in the ground game that is needed to win. Carson is a surprise. I wonder how much is him and how much is his team.)

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        • Seconded. I am an introvert. I also am a decent (but not great) public speaker and comfortable handling the Q&A portion. Two days ago I gave a talk to a Civil War history group on baseball and the Civil War. The Q&A ranged widely. Fortunately it was mostly within my area of competence, so I was comfortable with it. This all was after the dinner-and-socializing portion of the evening. In all I spent about three and a half hours in a room full of strangers. Being an introvert, the drive home was a relief. But I was fine with the public speaking, including the extemporaneous part.

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  4. Well, off the top of my head, I’d say that it has most to do with the whole three-legged-stool for the Republicans and the various combinations and permutations of the legs… I mean, you can have up to seven with just the three issues of social, fiscal, and hawkish conservativism, once you get into the fiscal and social, social and hawkish, hawkish and fiscal (though, granted, maybe this one doesn’t exist in the wild) and the Reaganesque All Three.

    So in any given election, you’ve already got room for seven candidates right out of the gate. Throw in a handful of toggles (immigration, trade) and you can already have distinctions between all kinds of conservatives without having to ask “why is John Jackson running when Jack Johnson is already running?”

    Compare to Democrats.

    Off the top of my head, there are a handful of big issues that have litmus tests… abortion, say. But there’s a lot more toggles and a lot more room to be mushy on any given issue such as guns or free trade or national defense or what have you. It’s more of a “be good on 14 of these 20, and be pro-choice, and you’re a suitable candidate” kinda dynamic. Which, you’d think, would allow for a veritable deluge of democratic candidates but since there are so many different places to be mushy, it becomes a lot more difficult to tell Jane Jillson from Jill Janeson if they agree on a dozen of the 14 of 20 things.

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    • Yeah, I think that’s right, especially when you couple it with (what sure appears to be) a pretty radical transition currently occurring within conservative “establishment politics” and that new technologies provide aspiring candidates easy access to a target constituency and a funding apparatus and the appearance of “support”. I still think it’s an open question how this little conservative revolution turns out, myself.

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      • And actually, thinking about that some more, I’m not sure it’s so much that conservatives campaign on different policies (tho surely that happens) but that they each think they exemplify “true” conservatism, which exists at an emotional level more than anything about specific policies, and is more subject to variance across the conservative base (at least right now) than the liberal base.

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  5. That ties into my (very tentative theory), which is that large fields come when parties are trying to find themselves and dealing with internal conflict.

    I think the second part of that (large fields come when parties are dealing with internal conflict) is basically a tautology: When parties have internal conflict, a lot of people are struggling for control. So, duh, they will have a lot of people running for office.

    People run for presidential primaries for a combination of two reasons. a) They want the power/respect/whatever (Both of merely being a candidate, and of actually winning), and b) They think they’d do things differently than someone else/they want to push the debate in a specific direction even if they think they won’t win.

    When a party is not divided, (b) disappears. It happened with the Democrats in 2008, and it’s mostly what’s happening currently with them….but, of course, even now, it’s not *completely* gone. (And, despite the Republican’s constant projection of their own attitudes, the Democrats aren’t that big on cult of personalities…or, at least, the Dem politicians seem to resist them. So (a) isn’t quite as large there.)

    What is happening on the RNC side, OTOH…is a moderate amount of (b) on the second tier, and a hell of a lot of (a) on the first tier. (Trump barely appears to even *have* policy positions, or at least not understand they are supposed to important. And Carson’s tax plan is insane.)

    …and now I’m not sure what I just proved, because that didn’t actually go in the direction I was intending to argue. What’s going on in the GOP primary isn’t *really* due to policy disagreements. Hrm.

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