The Democratic National Committee’s revised rules ensure that, when the wide-open 2020 presidential nominating race formally begins just 17 months from now, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary will retain their influential places as the first two contests.

But little-noticed changes and other unique aspects of the 2020 race could render those two contests far less influential than in the past.

From Vice President Al Gore to Hillary Clinton, the last four Democratic Iowa caucus winners went on to win their party’s nomination. Interestingly, the last two New Hampshire winners, Clinton in 2008 and Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016, did not.

These are the 2020 factors that may limit prospects for an early breakthrough:

A large field. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile last year counted more than 50 people who were either looking at presidential bids or had been mentioned by others as prospective candidates. While presumably fewer will run, early signs are the initial Democratic field could easily surpass the 17 Republican 2015 candidates.

That could handicap the many lesser known aspirants from gaining visibility in a field that could be headed by such well-known Democrats as former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. It will challenge Democratic leaders to devise a fairer format in structuring candidate debates than the GOP’s 2016 reliance on national polls, something they have already started considering.

Iowa rules changes. In adopting its 2020 nominating rules, the DNC accepted without discussion two significant changes proposed by its unity panel for caucuses, notably in Iowa. Absentee voting will be included, and a major change will be made in how the results are tallied.

In the past, the Iowa Democratic Party only announced the number of delegates elected to county conventions after precinct caucus participants whose candidates had less than 15 percent were forced to switch to rival candidates. But in 2020, the raw vote of all caucus attendees will be counted, as the Republicans do.

So far this year, 15 Democratic prospects have visited Iowa, ranging from 2018 runner-up Sanders to celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti. Two little known House members have made the most 2018 visits, Reps. John Delaney of Maryland, the only formally announced candidate, and Eric Swalwell of California, a frequent cable news interviewee.

Given how the votes will be tabulated and the size of the field, it’s inevitable that many candidates will get some votes and the leaders will get fewer. That could produce a muddled outcome in which no candidate reaches 20 percent and half a dozen exceed 10.

In other caucus states, adding absentees will likely increase the turnout, which could reduce the influence of party activists, who boosted Obama in 2008 and Sanders in 2016.

New Hampshire primary. New England candidates have always had a big advantage in the New Hampshire primary. Since 1972, five candidates from neighboring states have won contested Democratic primaries and only Sens. Edward Kennedy in 1980 and Joe Lieberman in 2004 have lost, the latter to fellow New Englander, Sen. John Kerry.

But the 2020 field could include two prominent New Englanders, Warren from Massachusetts and Sanders from Vermont. Early polling places them among the top three, with Biden.

The two reportedly have discussed potential problems if both run, but it’s hard to imagine one withdrawing in favor of the other. If they dominate the primary, it’s questionable how much value a victory by either would have, unless the winner finished near the top in Iowa.

Donald Trump. If, as expected, President Trump seeks re-election and if, as expected, he receives a primary challenge, possibly from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, that race could dominate early campaign coverage. That might reduce attention to the Democratic contest, especially if it’s the muddle with no clear leader.

The ultimate beneficiaries: the best known candidates, be they veteran politicians like Biden or media celebrities like Avenatti.

Something like this occurred in 1988. Domination of early coverage by then Vice President George Bush’s GOP struggle against Sen. Bob Dole, the Iowa winner, and televangelist Pat Robertson, diminished the impact of Rep. Richard Gephardt’s Iowa Democratic victory. Only when Bush clearly won New Hampshire did the Democrats get more attention, led by New Hampshire winner Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson.

A muddled Democratic Iowa result and a New Englander’s home turf victory in New Hampshire would elevate the third and fourth Democratic contests, the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary. The last two nominees, Obama and Hillary Clinton, won both states. Sanders’ campaigning this year for prominent African-American gubernatorial candidates seems aimed at reversing his poor 2016 showing among black voters, a major South Carolina constituency.

Still, the party’s proportional allocation of delegates plus multiple early state winners could enable three or four candidates to survive the March 3 “Super Tuesday” primaries in California, Texas, Massachusetts, Virginia, and several other states.

Like the GOP in 2016, it’s going to be a wild ride with an unforeseeable finish.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

©2018 The Dallas Morning News

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