It seems the number of candidates for the 2020 US Democratic Party presidential nomination has now reached 21 "major" candidates, plus 200 (!!) additional filing candidates (though two of the "major" ones have not filed yet; the source is Wikipedia as of 2019-04-26).

Obviously, there is no incumbent, nor a single prominent leader recognized by party supporters and apparatus - so it stands to reason there would be several candidates. It is also the case that a presidential nomination bid conceivably helps a politician even if s/he is not elected, through increased exposure to the public.

But - 220 people? And even if we only count the high-profile/"major" candidates - 20 of them? This seems a bit peculiar to an outsider.

What are the reasons for this glut of candidates?


7 Answers 7


The number of Declared Republican Candidates in 2016 was 17 according to Ballotpedia. Donald Trump and

Jeb Bush
Ben Carson
Chris Christie
Ted Cruz
Carly Fiorina
Jim Gilmore
Lindsey Graham
Mike Huckabee
Bobby Jindal
John Kasich
George Pataki
Rand Paul
Rick Perry
Marco Rubio
Rick Santorum
Scott Walker

Also listed are another 9 Candidates who were at one point expected or touted as possible candidates, but who declined to run.

Those would be major candidates. Along side that you can search the FEC filings themselves.

Republican Presidential 2016 : 285 Candidates

Democratic Presidential 2016 : 225 Candidates

In 2012 there there 118 Republican Candidates and 51 Democratic filings with a sitting president running for re-election. In 2020 the FEC currently show 229 Democrats and 87 Republicans.

So the 229 people running for the democratic nomination is not at all unusual (though there's still time for this to go higher), the number of high profile candidates is a little high, but not outrageously so.

As a fun fact there are already 6 filed candidates for the 2024 Presidential Elections.

  • 4
    Who filed for 2024?
    – einpoklum
    Apr 26, 2019 at 9:30
  • 4
    2024 No one I recognise. Actually the total filings for 2024 stands at 17. The 6 is from filtering to Dems and Reps only.
    – Jontia
    Apr 26, 2019 at 9:32
  • 1
    It seems like the number has been climbing significantly compared to 2012. How does it compare to the previous decade? Or the one before that?
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 26, 2019 at 13:25
  • 4
    @Zibbobz it'd fairly easy to get at those numbers yourself on the FEC page, just follow any of the links and then change the filters. It is a bit difficult to scroll back in the years filter, but you can make the change directly in the URL (Just change 2024 to 1988 in the previous comment for example. In 1988 for example there were 56 Reps and 97 Dems (Including Donald Trump), but obviously the population has gone up by 1/3 in that time too and there have been huge technological and social media changes (even since 2012) that might explain the general increases.
    – Jontia
    Apr 26, 2019 at 13:38
  • 8
    There are also quite a few joke candidates in those lists, such as this one, this one, and this one. I'm only halfway surprised Boaty McBoatface didn't decide to run, though he may not have met the minimum requirements.
    – user5155
    Apr 26, 2019 at 15:01

Because there is no dominant candidate. That encourages a lot of people to try to get in on the race, and get some national exposure.

For example, in 2016, Hillary Clinton had the full support of the DNC, who actively (and surreptitiously) discouraged other candidates. There was that one pesky upstart who just wouldn't quit, but the other mainstream choices like Schumer or VP Biden stayed out. Meanwhile, on the republican side, there were many people contesting the nomination, especially after the party's choice, Jeb Bush, turned out to be less than inspiring. As a result, the Republican nomination was very crowded.

In 2012, Obama was the incumbent president - no point in running against him for the nomination. On the Republican side, it was a hotly contested nomination between the middle of the road Romney, and several Tea Party candidates.


President Trump is, by comparison with other presidents, unpopular. He has approval ratings of around 40%, and not much variation. This means that he is seen as "beatable" and so this is a real chance for whoever wins the nomination to become president.

And since many Presidents will hold office for 8 years, followed by either a change of government, or being succeeded by their vice President, many Democrat contenders will feel that if they don't try now, they won't get another chance until 2032, or perhaps longer. The candidates have looked at the options and realised that for many, it is now or never.

Added to this is the lack of a dominant candidate, and many candidates feel that if they can put together a coalition of a couple of the party's wings, do well in a debate, and put on a good show in Iowa or South Carolina, they can hope to emerge from the field. Many candidates have a plausible route to the presidency. And this has swelled the number of candidates,

  • Can you elaborate on the maths regarding 2032? Even if Trump loses and the next one gets 8 years then it would only be 2028, right?
    – JJJ
    Apr 26, 2019 at 22:16
  • 1
    In 2028 one could expect a dominant candidate: the incoming vice president. Consider the election in 1992. (Bill) Clinton won, and won again in 1996. Then in 2002 there was little doubt that Al Gore was the dominant candidate. A democrat who didn't win in 1992 didn't have another realistic chance to run for president until 2006.
    – James K
    Apr 26, 2019 at 22:19
  • 1
    Much as I appreciate the analysis, I'm not sure if you can compare the situation one to one. I think there are a lot more factors at play. So unless you're able to show that this has been going on in every presidential election (which is hard given that they are only held every 4 years and older data may be less relevant) it's hard to make it into a convincing argument. You could of course argue that this is the candidates' rationale, which may be more easy to prove from statements they (or their advisers) made.
    – JJJ
    Apr 26, 2019 at 22:26
  • The answer does a good job of offering possible reasons (the other answers don't seem to), but needs to support those possibilities with candidate's words to offer any basis for an accurate answer.
    – CramerTV
    Apr 26, 2019 at 23:47
  • 1
    But VPs win nominations: Nixon was nominated (twice) (and won on the second time) Gore was nominated(and came within 1000 votes of winning) Bush won, Biden chose not to run to back Clinton, and is running now (and leading almost every poll). But most that run, get nominated. (Quayle is obvious exception)
    – James K
    Apr 27, 2019 at 16:22

Not to Trump bash, but I think the candidates feel "if Trump can win, anyone can win." Trumps modus operandi in past election campaigns was to show up early on, rattle his saber, but drop out once the campaigns got serious. He used them more as a PR campaign for himself to make a name for himself and get headlines. It wasn't until the last election that he seemed almost flabergasted that folks were starting to rally around him, and the republicans decided to just roll with it. And, the Hillary supporters were so confident Hillary would get elected they forgot to go out and actually vote after they spent so much time on social media saying she was a sure-win.

Since Trump has treated the presidential campaigns / elections as a joke in the past, and suddenly finding himself elected president (irony)... other folks just go "gee, if THAT guy can get into office, then I'm a sure-win!"

But, Trump won because he was voted in as a radical "solution" to help balance out the inbalance people see in this country. We keep seeing the US spend more and more on foreign aid while peoepl in our own country are starving or going without jobs. We see more jobs out-sourcing while people in our own country are jobless and wages stagnate. We see immigrants (documented and undocumented) coming in and working jobs while people are jobless. Trump stood up and said he was going to change all that. There were lots of people upset at how things were going with their lives, he made statements they could believe in, so they voted him in. The irony is that most of these people only ever vote in presidential elections. They don't want to spend time following all politics; they just want to vote on "the big one" and think that will change everything. Meanwhile, they neglect senatorial, house, mayor, governor, etc elections that actually do have major impacts closer to home on their ways of life.

Trump used to make a mockery of our presidential campaigns, now suddenly he's president. It's like seeing a guy making fun of something and not trying hard suddenly being put to the front of the class as the leader of the very thing he used to mock. So, that sends a message to other people that "if this guy doesn't take it seriously, but got to be head of class, imagine how easy it will be for ME to win?"

But, I think the thing these candidates aren't picking up on is that the United States political view has shifted from ultra-conservative, straight-laced, apple-pie politicians to more aggressive, vocal politicians that get up on stage, grand-stand and make big statements about how they're not going to put up with such-n-such anymore or they're going to radically change such-n-such... When everything is going great in peoples lives, they want very toned-down, apple-pie politicians. When people are upset with how things are going, they want more vocal, podium-pounding leaders that seem more emotional and fighting for them. The latest candiates throwing their hats into the ring are all these straight-laced folks thinking they're going to have a chance. They won't. There's still a lot of upset people in the country who still want someone like Trump in charge.. someone that acts like nothing can phase him, unflappable self-confidence, arrogance, pride, etc.. they don't want mellow politicians talking about politicalese that's good for C-SPAN. They want a person like Trump that stands up on stage, makes a scene, talks in clear language people can understand, and puts on a show of leadership for them.

So, unless someone more outlandish then Trump shows up, these mellow real politicians won't stand a chance. There's still tons of Trump supporters, and they'll show up in force to the polls again for re-election. Especially since Trump could now brag that he's had 4 years on-the-job training... where-as all the other candidates are basically applying for a job none of them have ever had in their lives. (It's like interviewing people for a CEO position, and you have one person that has had 4 years experience as a CEO while all other candidates have only been directors or managers.. they have no clue what it's like to be a CEO. Chances are good the person with CEO experience gets hired again over the others.)

  • Very good analysis, except for this part: "the Hillary supporters [...] forgot to go out and actually vote". That not only isn't why she lost (which the rest of your answer explains), it isn't even true. The votes she missed were not among the people motivated to talk about how great they felt she was, they were from the people who don't support either candidate and every election go vote for the one they're less mad at, and discovered that this time they were more unhappy with Hillary.
    – Ben Voigt
    Apr 28, 2019 at 1:49

There's no reason not to.

FiveThirtyEight wrote a rather interesting article on the the topic, but the gist of it is that the vast majority of the Democratic candidates running for President won't have to give up their current position if they fail.

The majority of the candidates are either senators, governors, or mayors who are not going to be up for reelection in 2020. That means that unless they voluntarily vacate their position (if, for example, they win the presidency), they will still be senators, governors, or mayors after 2020.

Several other candidates don't have political positions at all, so they are equally free to run without interfering with other reelection campaigns.

And some states allow simultaneous campaigns, so even politicians who are up for reelection are not necessarily risking their currently held positions.

Even if you don't expect to win, the publicity can be useful

Bernie Sanders was not particularly well known outside his home constituency before his 2016 before he ran for president (this poll in 2015 found 39% "hadn't heard enough" to rate him favorably or unfavorably, and that was after he began his run). Now he's a household name.

Democratic politicians stand to gain a great deal of name recognition even if they don't win, with the risk of very little political power. With that in mind, why shouldn't they run? Sure, it's a lot of work, but the money mostly comes from other people. It's a favorable cost-benefit analysis for most politicians.

And heck, maybe they'll even get to be president. There's no clear favorite this year - anything might happen.

  • Reason not to: Maybe the fact that it's a waste of your time and that even you yourself don't believe you have any chance of winning?...
    – einpoklum
    Apr 28, 2019 at 8:49
  • Also a lot of them are realistically gunning for VP, not POTUS. Tulsi Gabbard, Buttigeug come to mind.
    – user23920
    Apr 28, 2019 at 19:32
  • @einpoklum But it's not a waste of time, because even if they don't win they gain prestige and a national audience for their agenda. That's the point. Apr 29, 2019 at 4:38
  • @ArcanistLupus: Maybe 10 people gain prestige. The others probably lose some...
    – einpoklum
    Apr 29, 2019 at 6:24

Anchor Judy Woodruff asked this very question to Mark Shields on May 3 during their regular weekly political segment of the PBS NewsHour. Shields' answer explains the reason quite succinctly:


Judy, there's so many candidates for a very simple reason.

In the last Gallup poll before the election of 2016, the first time in American history, both candidates were rated personally unfavorably by the voters. Donald Trump was 36 percent favorable, 61 percent unfavorable. He had never served a day in public office, either in civilian or military life. He had no experience, and he won, an unpopular man.

I'm a congressman, three terms, I'm a county commissioner, why shouldn't I run? If I could be one of the two people on the field against him in November, I can beat him.

That encourages all kinds of people who never thought, quite frankly, of running in the past to run.


1) Because Bernie Sanders is running and is very popular

The stakes are higher for property owners, this time – certainly much higher than any election since Reagan. There is a much more meaningful difference in economic policy between Sanders and most Democrats than there was between the Dem and Repub candidates in the general over at least two decades. Sanders' social-democratic policies are a major threat to the rich and the ruling class, so the dominant and more conservative wing of the Democrats and American liberalism more broadly are scrambling to either a) muddle and congest the primaries and/or b) keep testing fresh new faces to find a candidate that can defeat Bernie. There's only so much column space in papers and airtime on TV - the Dem debates were a good example of this effect.

The popularity of social-democratic policies (usually self-described as "socialist" which is not historically correct) advocated by people like Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Warren has pushed the Dem playing field to the left – at least in terms of terminology. There has been a distinct change of language even among the more conservative candidates, making gestures towards policies like socialised healthcare payment, socialised education payment, and stronger progressive taxation. If the right wing of US liberalism can co-opt immensely popular terminology like "Medicare4All", "socialism", "UBI" etc. while implementing drastically watered-down versions of these things, that's an efficient way to stymy this radicalisation by "letting off steam".

2) Because they consider Trump a soft opponent in the general

Many liberals are still prone to trusting in polls and conventional political wisdom / norms, despite the upset of 2016, and by those metrics they think that previously-unappealing centrist candidates could win against him.

  • 2
    Well, Sanders' policies are certainly not a "major threat" to the ruling class; he's a mild reformist. But - even social-democratic reform does indeed seem to be feared like the plague in US ruling elites. Good point about the congestion and the muddying of waters. But - can't agree with you about Trump being a "soft opponent". That guy has over 40% approval rating, and that's with infinite gaffes and blunders... and I can't see how that would cause all those prospective candidates to believe they'll get through the primaries.
    – einpoklum
    Jul 9, 2019 at 22:01
  • @einpoklum I completely agree re: (1) – "major threat" is from the relative perspective of a historically unchallenged capitalist class. In absolute terms, even including FDR, the US has never come anywhere near any actual existential threat to the property-owning class. To expand on (2), I think a lot of candidates (even Republican candidates) are still viewing Trump's excesses and improprieties as his weakness, rather than a side-effect of his "outsider" aesthetic and openness on issues of eg. racism which are what actually drive his popularity.
    – iono
    Jul 9, 2019 at 22:14
  • 1
    @einpoklum As others said, most of these candidates don't have to worry about having only slim chances, as almost all of them are either themselves very wealthy, or they have the winds of capital at their backs. Some incredibly uncharismatic, uninspiring, and obscure candidates have received a degree of funding and media attention unthinkable a few election cycles ago, as a result of an increasingly concerned liberal establishment.
    – iono
    Jul 9, 2019 at 22:17

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