democratic invisible primary

Democratic Invisible Primary Watch

Following the Democratic Invisible Primary

Nominations can be lost well before voters cast a single ballot.  Front-runners can emerge even with scarce polling; potential primary contenders may give up on their dreams before introducing themselves to voters.  The invisible primary often shapes and defines presidential nominations by virtue of elite coordination in which high profile party actors (ranging from elected officials, to staff members, and mega-donors) decide which aspirant would suitably carry the party’s mantle.  With no immediate party favorite and a clear power vacuum inviting potentially dozens of candidates, the Democratic invisible primary in 2020 will surely mold the race to unseat of the most unpopular presidents of all time.

What is the invisible primary?

An opportunity for potential candidates to gain the trust of elite party figures and donors, both of whose support conveys acceptability, which can mobilize support from various factions and the partisans who will ultimately decide the nomination.

In the words of Georgetown Professor Hans Noel, the invisible primary exists to “to find a nominee who can win, but who is also someone [elite actors] can trust. Whether they can trust them because they’re in the right place ideologically is part of it, but it’s richer than that. It’s someone who they think will advance party goals over their own personal goals.”

How will the Democratic invisible primary shape the nomination?

Democrats may have their most crowded primary field in history.  Through that noise, party regulars will need to signal to the voters their favored candidate.  And that must be done early for a failure to coordinate on a single candidate could enable an undesirable candidate’s victory (see the Republican failure to focus on a single alternative to Donald Trump).  The Democratic Party does have some institutional protections, including, namely, superdelegates that could tip a close contest to the most acceptable candidate.  However, a grassroot movement against superdelegates could hamper their independence or make them otherwise unwilling to support a candidate trailing the popular vote.

As such, it’s imperative for potential candidates to demonstrate their acceptability, woo donors, and attain the support (endorsements) of officeholders.  Especially in crowded “lanes” where many candidates compete for the similar demographics, entering the official primary season with cash and elite support will provide some candidates the upper hand while other competitors languish.

So, who’s making moves in the Democratic invisible primary?  This tracker followers candidate action in these invisible primary areas: Visiting early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina); creating a national PAC; meeting with influential donors (or holding a fundraiser with them if not up for reelection in 2018); writing and engaging in a book tour; campaigning for Democratic colleagues and challengers; and hiring staff members, whether fundraisers or aides for a PAC or other related organizations.  Candidates who dabble in each element of the Democratic invisible primary may well be plotting a presidential run.

Democratic Invisible Primary Tracker

Early States


  • Amy Klobuchar: May ’17 (speaker, Linn County Phoenix Club), Aug ’17 (lecture, Iowa State University)
  • Mark Zuckerberg: June ’17 (tour of small Iowa towns)
  • Tim Ryan: June ’17 (commencement speaker, Maharishi University of Management), Sept ’17 (speaker, Polk County Steak Fry)
  • Bernie Sanders: July ’17 (keynote, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement), Aug ’17 (speaker, Prairie Lights)
  • John Delaney: Aug ’17 (Iowa State Fair)
  • Jason Kander: Aug ’17 (speaker, Iowa Democratic Wing Ding); Sept ’17 (headliner, Cass County Democratic Party fundraising dinner)
  • Eric Swalwell: Aug ’17 (speaker, Iowa Democratic Wing Ding)
  • Jeff Merkley: Sept ’17 (headliner, Progress Iowa Corn Feed)
  • Pete Buttigieg: Sept ’17 (headliner, Progress Iowa Corn Feed)
  • Seth Moulton: Sept ’17 (speaker, Polk County Steak Fry)
  • Martin O’Malley: Sept ’17 (fundraising for Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, Sens. Lykam, Rita Hart, Sen. Tod Bowman, Sen. Kevin Kinney, gubernatorial candidate Nate Boulton; speaking, Dubuque Democratic Party Hall of Fame dinner)

New Hampshire

  • Joe Biden: April ’17 (New Hampshire Democratic Party dinner)
  • Martin O’Malley: April ’17 (various campaign stops with county Democratic parties)
  • Eric Garcetti: August ’17 (campaigning/fundraising, Manchester mayoral race)
  • John Delaney: Aug ’17 (fundraiser, New Hampshire Democratic Senate Caucus)
  • Bernie Sanders: Labor Day ’17 (AFL-CIO event and a Rights and Democracy Rally)
  • Jason Kander: Labor Day ’17 (Amherst County Democratic Party BBQ)

South Carolina

  • Martin O’Malley: April ’17 (townhall in conjunction with the College of Charleston Democrats)
  • Joe Biden: Sept ’17 (speaker, NAACP 100th anniversary fundraiser)



Book (Tour)

Campaigning for Others

  • Pete Buttigieg: May ’17 (campaigning for Phil Murphy, NJ gubernatorial candidate)
  • Tim Ryan: June ’17 (campaigning for Archie Parnell, who unsuccessfully ran in SC-05’s special election)
  • Kamala Harris: June ’17 (fundraising for Claire McCaskill), Sept ’17 (fundraising with Sherrod Brown)
  • Martin O’MalleySept ’17 (fundraising for Iowa Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, Sens. Lykam, Rita Hart, Sen. Tod Bowman, Sen. Kevin Kinney; campaigning for IA gov candidate Nate Boulton; speaking, Dubuque Democratic Party Hall of Fame dinner)
  • Eric Garcetti: August ’17 (campaigning/fundraising, Manchester mayoral race)

Hiring staff

  • Steve Bullock: Hired a new chief of staff, Tom Lopach, the 2016 executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
  • Andrew Cuomo: Hired two Florida fundraisers
  • Jason Kander: Hired Brendan Summers, who was Bernie Sanders’ Iowa caucus director, for Let America Vote.

Comment or email if anything’s missing!