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.
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.
"It's not only the single biggest hire to date" in all of the Democratic presidential campaigns, said Adam Parkhomenko, a former DNC official and a political adviser to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. "It will be the single biggest hire."
There are reasons other than the possibility of superdelegates coming into play at the convention for candidates to court their support. For example, some House members, senators and governors have extensive political operations in their districts and states that could be activated to help a candidate, and the districts with the best Democratic performance in past elections have the most delegates at stake.
"They've got juice in their states," said Harrison, a former leadership aide to House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.
The early skirmishes
It will be more than a year until the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses give the first readout on the mood of any Democratic voters. Until then, candidates are likely to be judged on less-certain criteria like fundraising, polling and crowd sizes, which all affect each other.
Top Democrats say that major candidates will have to raise north of $150 million to compete effectively through Super Tuesday — March 3 — after which more than a dozen states, including delegate-rich California and Texas, will have voted.
Voters in those two big states, which together are likely to account for more than 15 percent of the regular delegates to the Democratic convention, will begin casting ballots in early voting around the time of the Iowa caucuses.
Berman said there are two parallel races that run simultaneously: one for delegates, and one for momentum. That will require candidates to keep their eyes both on performing well in the early states and picking off delegates in the next wave of states.
"Traditionally, you can't do one and not the other," he said.
Craig Smith, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who has provided advice to some of the nascent campaigns, said it will be difficult for a back-of-the-pack candidate to rely on a strong performance in Iowa to slingshot into a sustainable lead in 2020.
"The days of being able to bet it all on Iowa, to catch fire and ride that rocket, I think this time that's going to be much harder to do, just because you have to be set up and operating in so many places," he said.
Indeed, it will cost a lot to compete everywhere at once, putting a premium on raising money early — to hire staff, show strength to donors and voters in order to get more money and boost poll numbers, and discourage other candidates from continuing their campaigns if they have trouble keeping up.
The challenge of doing that with so many candidates running, and at a time when many Democratic activists shun politicians who raise from corporate interests and executives, can be seen in the pledges Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., made when she jumped into the race last week.
She said she wouldn't take money from lobbyists or corporate political action committees. In truth, both of those categories of donor are relatively small sources of political contributions at the presidential level. Following Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's lead, she also said she didn't want a SuperPAC to help her. Technically independent, SuperPACs are often closely tied to individual candidates and can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on their behalf so long as they don't coordinate with the campaign.
'Free for all'
The fundraising pledges show that candidates are sensitive to the threat of political backlash over the sources of their contributions — a hammer that will make it harder for some of them to raise money directly for their campaigns or to benefit from outside spending.
Under federal law, a donor can give a maximum of $2,700 to a presidential campaign for the primary, but there are a limited number of contributors who can afford to "max out" at that level, and the candidates will be competing hard for that set. It would take more than 55,000 such max-out donors to put together $150 million.
Increasingly, candidates are turning to the crowd-sourcing of low-dollar donors to fund their campaigns — which requires the candidate to catch fire with activists who are willing to part with money. In 2016, Bernie Sanders' campaign was fueled largely by such grassroots donors. President Donald Trump, who took in far less than Clinton that year, also scored big with low-dollar donors. And former Texas Rep., who lost a Senate campaign in 2016 and is considering a presidential bid, raised more than $80 million, mostly on the strength of small contributions from around the country.
"The lesson of Trump and Bernie and Beto and so many others is the value of those low-dollar donors," said Scott Mulhauser, a Democratic strategist who worked on potential 2020 candidate Joe Biden's 2012 vice presidential campaign.
Mulhauser said that race for cash — and the overall jockeying for the nomination — is going to be an epic scramble.
"This is a free-for-all like the Democratic Party, and perhaps national politics, has never seen," he said.