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What's With All the Candidates?

There are a number of peculiar factors operating in today's political environment that have had the effect of boosting interest in running for office. But at what cost?
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One of the more interesting aspects of the coming election cycles is the sheer number of candidates involved. At least two dozen Democrats have indicated an interest in running for president in 2020, and we're seeing large numbers of candidates filing for many other offices as well.

I'd like to focus on a particular case—the 2018 Colorado gubernatorial election—to shed some light on what's going on. The lessons here have considerable bearing on other state and national elections.

This is an open seat, as Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper is term limited. Recent statewide elections in Colorado have been notable for their relative lack of intraparty competition. Democrats settled on Hickenlooper pretty quickly in both 2010 and 2014 and he didn't face strong primary challengers. The Republican gubernatorial contest in 2010 was messy, but, for the most part, party leaders have converged on a champion pretty early in statewide contests and not seen many divisive primaries.

This cycle it's different. A large number of candidates have filed for the 2018 election, including at least six Democrats and eight Republicans. What explains this?

As I wrote at FiveThirtyEight earlier this year, record numbers of Democrats are filing to run for Congress in 2018. This is reflective of the strong left-leaning protest movement that emerged after Donald Trump's election, and it's driven by out-party enthusiasm and strong candidate recruitment efforts. But this doesn't explain Republicans' interest in running for office.

I believe there are a number of peculiar factors operating right now that have the effect of boosting interest in running for office, many of them rooted in uncertainty:

  1. Uncertainty About Nomination Procedures: Colorado recently changed its complicated party nominations process. Every party politician in the state has come into office through a closed party system that includes a combination of caucuses and primaries. The primaries, however, will now be open to a much wider range of voters, including the unaffiliated. This may convince more moderate potential candidates that they'll have a better shot than they have in the past. It's also possible the unaffiliated just won't show up for this elections (because they usually don't, or because they'll be confused by the mail-in aspect of it) and it will benefit the same sort of candidates who have thrived in the past. But there's enough uncertainty that more candidates than usual think they have a shot at the nomination.*

    Note that this applies to the 2020 presidential cycle as well. Colorado is one of several states that has changed its nominating system. What's more, the Democratic National Committee is discussing several possible changes to its system for 2020, including the possibility of eliminating many superdelegates and allowing absentee participation in caucuses. These changes will likely make it a bit harder for party leaders to get their favorite candidate the nomination, adding to the uncertainty over which candidates are most favored.
  2. Uncertainty Over Campaign Finance: Colorado hasn't radically shifted its campaign finance laws in recent years, but there has been a dramatic, if less discussed, shift in the way existing campaign finance laws are being interpreted. (Here I am relying on the expertise of a campaign consultant who wished to remain anonymous for the purposes of this piece.) "Soft" or "dark" money is playing an ever-greater role in financing campaigns. Charitable or "social welfare" organizations known as 501(c)4s don't have to disclose their donors and have minimal reporting requirements on their expenditures, but they can still engage in quite a bit of partisan political work. These organizations, like 527s and super PACs, can advocate for candidates and issues without minimal disclosure, depending on local law. In Colorado, the law allows for broad advocacy before a primary or general election. Furthermore, the organizations and candidates use common vendors to mirror each other's activities, presenting a seamless campaign look and feel to voters.

    Additionally, candidates can fundraise for their own independent expenditure committees. Walker Stapleton, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, has already helped raise some $700,000 for a committee called Better Colorado Now, which will help the Republican nominee out in the general election. While there are tight rules on who can donate directly to his campaign and how those donations must be disclosed, there are much more relaxed rules pertaining to independent expenditure committees.

    Increasingly, large donors are taking advantage of the vagueness of the system and forming 527s and other campaign finance entities that allow them to give enormous quantities of money while keeping their names largely out of it.

    What this means is that lots of different candidates have access to funding sources. Yes, to a great extent, all this money is still party money, but lax interpretations of campaign finance rules are allowing a small number of wealthy eccentrics to largely bankroll individual campaigns. Arguably, this contributed to the large number of candidates in the Republican presidential nomination cycle in 2012—Sheldon Adelson pretty much single-handedly financed Newt Gingrich's surprisingly strong challenge to Mitt Romney—and in 2016, when the financial resources of many different candidates may have prevented party leaders from coordinating around a challenge to Trump.
  3. Uncertainty Over Party Legitimacy: Party leaders in Colorado have traditionally played a relatively strong, if informal, role in brokering compromises and avoiding divisive primary fights. But, as with the nation as a whole, party leaders are just playing less of a role lately in winnowing fields of primary candidates. It's hard to know just what is causing what—whether leaders are trying but being rebuffed, whether leaders just don't care to do this for fear they'll be ignored, etc. But in the same way that national Republican leaders proved unable or unwilling to prevent the nomination of a presidential candidate most seemed not to want, and that national Democratic leaders find themselves under fire for the mere appearance of bias toward one presidential candidate over another, Colorado's party leadership just appears to have less legitimacy among the public than it used to. This is the kind of thing that leads candidates to think that they have a chance when they might not have in previous years.

None of this is necessarily detrimental to a party system or a state. A party nomination can be hotly contested and still produce a strong nominee, one who has considerable experience in debates and tough campaigning for the fall. But one of the risks is that the nominee may end up with a legitimacy crisis of his or her own. If you end up with six or seven candidates in a primary, it's possible the nominee could win with 25 percent of the vote or less, and would then face the daunting task of uniting party voters while trying to win over moderates at the same time.

The political system is looking quite a bit more candidate-centered than it did just a few years ago. Whether this will be a system preferred by candidates, no less voters, remains to be seen.

*Update—November 21st, 2017: This post has been updated to correct an issue with the description concerning Colorado's new party nominations process.