The first Democratic presidential debate is scheduled to take place over two nights and three TV networks this June. But even with this unprecedented capacity, the stage isn’t big enough to handle the dozen-plus candidates seeking the party’s nomination, so they must surmount a variety of hurdles involving polls and fundraising to make the cut. This isn’t a primary; it’s Lollapalooza. And 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.” 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.
It might seem like a good thing to have a cereal aisle’s worth of candidates to choose from, but behavioral science predicts that too many options will, counterintuitively, result in lower satisfaction among Democratic voters—and possibly lead to lower enthusiasm and lower turnout. 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.
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. 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. Picture a dinner party with too many people sitting around the table: The fact that each guest is a valued friend doesn’t make the experience any less uncomfortable.
The scholarship on choice overload allows us to make some educated guesses on how primary voters are likely to react to a group nearly large enough to field both sides of a softball game. Those most engaged in the process – hardcore Democratic primary voters – will kick the tires for so long that they’ll start complaining that their toes hurt. Those who do decide are even likelier than normal to default to the best-known candidates, making it harder for the candidates now polling in the single digits to break out of the pack despite their credentials and media coverage. Voters are already creating mental shortcuts to sort out all the options, grouping them by race, sex, ideology, and perceived chances of winning, using heuristics to mentally shrink the field.
Feeling dissatisfied by having too many choices is natural and sometimes inevitable, but the effects are correctable. Here are some strategies, grounded in behavioral science, that Democratic presidential candidates could adopt to try to mitigate the effects of choice overload:
In a crowded environment, smart candidates embrace simplicity and limit the number of attributes they highlight. You have a 10-point national security plan? Great. Put it on your website but just tell voters, in a couple short sentences, what America’s role in the world is. Your tax plan will save the middle class a bajillion dollars? Awesome. Tell me how much I’ll save, or even better, tell me how much I stand to lose montly if I vote for someone else. The pain of losing money is greater than the joy of saving it, especially when you ask me to think about the impact to my finances this month, rather than my annual bottom line.
Removing options is another proven way of relieving choice overload, which is why talk of Joe Biden running as a ticket with Stacey Abrams is smart, at least from a behavioral science perspective. Already one of the default options, the former vice president could remove uncertainty about what his general-election campaign would look like.
Another idea to send a louder signal? Follow the advice of Steve Jobs and wear the same outfit every day, literally to make it easier to pick you out of a crowd. Mayor Pete Buttigieg is most often seen in a tie and white dress shirt, in effect creating a branded look that makes him more recognizable, especially during this early stage when voters are just getting to know the candidates.
The Democratic Party would also be smart to investigate less-complicated alternatives to sprawling multi-candidate debates. The eligibility requirements to qualify for either debate stage in Miami have become more complicated than three-level Spock chess. Texas Tribune’s series of one-on-one conversations at SXSW in March was a new and welcome way to get to know candidates in a meaningful way, and CNN’s town halls are proving effective at fostering in-depth discussions for broader audiences. These are good ideas, and the media use the excuse of an exceptionally large primary field to keep trying new methods to improve upon the Democratic Party’s so-far-uninspired attempt to accomplish one of the oldest and most basic functions of a democracy: introducing candidates to voters.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine