Does Science Predict Low Democrat Turnout in 2020?

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There’s an interesting article in Politico this week about the enormous field of candidates running for the 2020 Democratic nomination and what it might do to voter enthusiasm. Rather than rely on the relative merits of each candidate, the likely turnout among millennial voters, or what President Trump’s popularity – or lack thereof – with Democrats might do to the election, Politico called on a behavioral scientist to study what sheer “choice overload” could do to the election. And if there are any merits to this theory, this embarrassment of riches that voters currently have to choose from on the Democrat side could become…well, just an embarrassment.

“Like a music festival where you can have a hard time choosing among all the bands with competing time slots, a surplus of candidates will give Democratic voters what behavioral scientists like me call ‘choice overload,’” wrote Lily Kofler, the U.S. Director of Behavioral Science at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “Simply put, having too many choices can make it harder to make a decision, and this is likely to have a profound—profoundly negative—effect on the 2020 campaign.”

Kofler said that just such a scenario had recently played out.

“We saw a demonstration of this so-called ‘cereal aisle effect’ in the Chicago mayoral race, where a crowded, diverse, and qualified field of 14 candidates without prohibitive frontrunners coincided with almost the lowest turnout in city history at 33.4 percent,” she wrote.

“This presents an unfortunate reality for the 1 percenters in the field—in this case not the super-rich but the senators, governors and other accomplished candidates who are polling below the margin of error,” Kofler continued. “Some pundits say there’s no downside to a presidential campaign, but the gains to a candidate’s national reputation could come at a cost to the entire field. An abundance of marginal candidates will make it harder for Democratic primary voters to comfortably evaluate the candidates with realistic chances of winning—and paradoxically that will reduce enthusiasm for the party’s eventual nominee.”

Without question, Donald Trump benefited from a similar scenario in 2016, when his brash approach to campaigning made it easy for him to stand out in a field of 16 candidates. We’ve lost track of how many Democrats are officially in the race already for 2020, but there are more threatening to run every day. Just this past week, Michael Bloomberg again signaled his willingness to run, and the world is waiting to see what Joe Biden will decide. And that’s not even getting into independent bids, such as the one Howard Schultz is mulling.

Trump has already proven his ability to stand out in a crowd. Fresh and unscarred, he will go into the general election against an opponent who is already weary from months of primaries against dozens of contenders. For voters who have spent too long on the cereal aisle, a nice hot plate of MAGA bacon and eggs might seem like just the ticket.