The current contests for the Republican and Democratic nomination raise interesting tactical issues as do previous contests. I start with the 2020 Democratic contest which had multiple candidates no one of whom started with a commanding lead, in contrast to the 2024 contests of both parties.
Case I: Democrats 2020, Republicans 2016
Each candidate has a pool of voters he is likely to draw support from. For Biden in 2020 it was blacks, for Warren progressives, for Sanders progressives and socialists. If two or more candidates are drawing from the same pool it would make sense for them to agree that all but one will drop out. If they are starting with equal chances of winning the nomination they could use some random method, perhaps flipping a coin or rolling dice, to decide who stays in;1 that improves the ex ante odds for each of them, since if they are not splitting the votes the chance that the nomination will go to one of them goes up. If their initial chances are not equal but they can agree on what they are, they can do the same thing with weighted odds. If they cannot agree on what the chances are, perhaps they could agree that whoever does best on the next three polls will stay in, the others withdraw.
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Arguably Trump’s triumph in 2016 was due in part to the failure of the other candidates to follow such an approach. Trump ended up with 45% of the primary votes but a majority of the delegates, so it is possible that a single opponent could have defeated him, although that would depend on most of the people who didn’t vote for Trump preferring that candidate to Trump.
Doing it this way would depend on the candidates being able to make commitments that other candidates would trust, a promise to withdraw if they lose the die roll or are not ahead in the polls. Another way to get the same result would be for donors to agree on which of two or more candidates they support is most likely to get the nomination and shift all of their donations accordingly. One can easily imagine a group of large donors whose top issue is opposition to (or support of) abortion getting together to decide which one of the candidates who supports their position they should fund.
The same approach might be used in the other direction, getting some of your donors to give money to the weaker of two rivals who draw from the same pool in order to keep him in the race, pulling primary votes from the stronger rival. The nearest cases I know of were elections not primaries, supporters of a Democratic candidate donating to the Libertarian candidate in order to pull votes away from the Republican candidate or Republicans helping the Green party to get on the ballot in order to pull votes away from the Democrats. There is no reason the same tactic could not be used in a primary and I expect that it sometimes has been.
Next consider the current Republican race. Candidates who want to win face a choice between two approaches. One is to assume that if Trump remains in the race he will win it and aim to be the candidate if Trump has a heart attack, is assassinated, or for some other reason drops out of the race. A candidate with that approach should be careful not to attack Trump in order to have a better chance of inheriting his supporters. That might be Vivek Ramaswamy.
The other approach is to try to beat Trump for the nomination. That might mean being the anti-Trump candidate in the hope that primary voters become disenchanted with Trump's approach, the tactic that Chris Christie is attempting. It might mean trying to run to Trump’s right, as Ron DeSantis is doing. It might mean ignoring Trump, fighting it out with the other candidates, and hoping that by the time you have established yourself as the only alternative to Trump he will have come down far enough to give you a chance of beating him. None of those seems likely to work this time around but both might against a leading candidate with a smaller lead.
The competition for next year’s Democratic nomination has not visibly started yet.2 Biden, as the incumbent, is assumed to have the nomination if he wants it, but his position in his party is arguably weaker than Trump’s in his due to his age and what many interpret as age-related infirmity, physical and mental. That makes it tempting to view the tactical situation as the same the Republicans face but with a somewhat weaker leading candidate.
Democratic would-be candidates, like Republican, can either campaign on the assumption that the leading candidate will drop out — more plausible for Biden, given his age and condition, than for Trump — or try to beat him. Biden does not, like Trump, have a large body of voters personally loyal to him who an ambitious candidate must avoid offending, so it might be possible to do both.
There is not a lot of room on Biden’s left and no sign that Bernie Sanders is considering another run, but someone else might be, taking advantage of compromises with progressive policies that Biden has been making.3
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) slammed the Biden administration’s new border wall order as “impotent political posturing,” (The Hill, 10/05/23)
There is quite a lot of room on Biden’s right; Joe Manchin, probably the Democrat with the best chance of getting the votes of anti-Trump Republicans, is the obvious candidate.
Sliding Towards the Center
So far I have been taking the political positions of the candidates, hence the pools of voters they draw from, as fixed. Shifting your position in order to appeal to a different pool of voters is another possible tactic. Gavin Newsom, widely believed to be angling for the Democratic nomination, recently came out against a bill to subsidize electric vehicles with money raised by a tax on the rich and vetoed several other bills popular with the left.4 Why?
Being seen as a left wing governor of a left-leaning state might be an asset or a liability in getting the Democratic nomination, depending on who else runs, but it would be a liability in the general election. That is a reason for Newsom to adopt policies that shift his public image closer to the center, putting him a little to the right of Kamala Harris, the other obvious candidate if Biden drops out of the election. In the primary context the equivalent would be a candidate adjusting his views to appeal to more primary voters, preferably ones none of the other candidates are targetting.
Losers Can Win Too
So far I have assumed that the only objective of candidates is to get nominated and then elected but running can provide benefits even to the losers; it is unlikely that Pete Buttigieg would have gone from being mayor of the 293d largest city in the country to Secretary of Transportation if he had not run in the Democratic primaries three years ago. Primaries provide publicity, name recognition, an opportunity to demonstrate talents. If it looks as though you can attract voters the winning candidate can’t or deliver delegate votes he needs — or both — he might make you his VP.
That is the other plausible interpretation of Ramaswamy’s campaign. If Trump wins in 2024 he will be ineligible in 2028 but his Vice President won’t be. If Trump loses in 2024 he will be in a weaker position to get the nomination in 2028, especially if he spends some of the intervening time in prison.
Ramaswamy is young. He can afford to wait.
The End Game
For serious candidates of both parties, getting nominated is only an intermediate goal; the real objective is get elected. The two objectives are sometimes in conflict. Voters willing to go to the trouble of voting in the primary are not a random selection from their party; the farther you are from the political center the greater your incentive to participate in politics in the hope of moving the country from where it is to where you think it should be. Hence Democratic primary voters are likely to be farther left, Republican farther right, than their parties. A Democrat who targets the average Democratic primary voter in order to get nominated risks finding himself too far from the center of the electorate to be elected and similarly, mutatis mutandis, for a Republican. That gives both an incentive, once nominated, to slide as unobtrusively as possible towards the center.
If primary voters were mainly concerned with nominating the candidate with the best chance in the general election both parties should nominate centrists, but they don’t. One reason is that primary voters may be more interested in using their vote to express their own political position, want to nominate the candidate they most want in the White House rather than the candidate most likely to get there.
Another is that they may have a view of the center’s location distorted by their own beliefs. I still remember the people who, in 1964, expected Barry Goldwater to be elected by the silent majority, conservatives who didn’t bother to vote in past elections because there were no candidates they wanted to vote for. I suspect some of Bernie Sanders’ past supporters may have had a similar view. Mutatis mutandis.
A Vox article arguing that the reason no serious challenger has yet appeared is fear that a divisive primary would weaken the party in the election, putting Trump in the White House, “whose potential return to power terrifies Democrats.”