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Miller '19: Dem. primary candidates: Focus on the general election

At least nine “prominent” Democratic candidates have announced the formation of a committee to explore a run in the primaries for the 2020 Presidential election. These candidates provide a level of gender and racial diversity not previously seen in United States electoral history, replete with a glass-shattering number of women, distributed along a broad ideological spectrum. Several more potential candidates — including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) — have stirred speculation that they are waiting in the wings to join the race.

Though I embrace their attempts to ascend to the Oval, I urge Democratic candidates to recognize and prioritize what should be foremost in their pursuit of the Democratic nomination to ascend to the highest position in the nation — the defeat of likely incumbent Republican candidate President Donald Trump. To do so, Democratic candidates must place party above self, rather than descending into a polarizing battle that could fracture their base and contribute to another four years of misdirection and convolution, if not anti-American behavior, under a Trump presidency. The seeds of disunity sown in the primary must not carry over into the general election; all Democratic candidates need to focus on the larger picture over ideological pedantry. Obviously, the primary process should not always require candidates to look beyond their individual interests — primaries provides avenues to enrich prevailing discourse, and lesser-known stellar candidates have become mainstream through the primary process. Yet, when the prospect is four more years of unprecedented deterioration of the executive branch’s legitimacy, Democrats must avoid partisan cannibalization. 

There have been negative consequences for Democratic candidates who have had to battle not only a Republican, but also a combative primary opponent. In 2016, Bernie Sanders’ challenge to former Sec. Hillary Clinton was what some, including Clinton herself, believe to be a decisive factor in her eventual loss against Trump. Clinton wrote in her memoir “What Happened” that Sanders inflicted “lasting damage” to her campaign through ad-hominem attacks, prolonging the primary race and “drawing blood wherever he could along the way.” Even though Sanders endorsed Clinton and campaigned for her once she won the nomination, some believed it was too late to incorporate a faction of deeply-loyal Sanders zealots. Clinton lost by such slim margins in Florida and Rust Belt states, it is more than conceivable that abstention by a large enough number of rooted Sanders voters made the difference. Whether or not Sanders actually inflicted enough damage to turn the tide against Clinton in 2016, Democratic primary candidates must be wary of producing a similar outcome in 2020.

The Democratic primary race must foster a completely different climate than the acerbic and embattled 2016 primaries. The Democratic National Committee announced that it would host a dozen debates spanning 11 months from 2019 to 2020, up from nine debates spanning seven months in 2015 and 2016. It is crucial that these debates be structured to limit the likelihood of irreparably divisive affairs. While a dozen or more participants could provide the electorate with more information about each candidate, the presence of so many candidates will in and of itself have a dilutive effect. Because of this risk, candidates should not remain in the race if they have a negligible chance of winning. Though we may all have our favorites, and may disagree on some specifics, the mist will soon clear, and with the help of the media, the wheat will separate from the chaff. So, most importantly, by the July Convention at the latest, each candidate who did not receive the nomination must with celerity become Democratic nominee stalwarts.

Democratic presidential candidates can no longer afford to be desultory about the general election during the primary and wait until after the Convention to torpidly support a candidate they vehemently denounced months prior. The prospect of another four years of Trump’s presidency — with indelible consequences for our democracy, environment and foreign relations — should be enough to cause even the most egocentric candidates to line up with the Party. During the primary debates, candidates from ultra-progressive to centrist should ensure the debates do not devolve into personal attacks. Democrats cannot afford to Balkanize their base in a time in which cooperation and cohesion is vital.

And a quick note to Democratic voters: Please, VOTE in the general election. Certainly, with so many contenders, many voters will find their ideological niche embodied in one particular candidate over others and will be wary to relinquish this match. However imperfect every other Democratic candidate may seem to you, he or she will be more liberal, more qualified and less destructive than Trump. So, by the time of the general election, become an acolyte to the Democratic nominee. Now is a time in which Democrats must band together with a united front and a luculent path to defeating Trump in 2020. History will remember whether Democrats unified against a common threat or split because of entrenchment in a particular ideology.

Emily Miller ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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