Too many presidential candidates, too little time 

“Olly Olly Oxen Free!” With that call, kids come out of their hiding places while playing a game during summer vacation. As the 2020 Presidential election approaches, it seems like it has also called out all the Democrats who wish to replace Donald Trump.

On June 26 and 27, there will be a two-night spectacular. Twenty candidates. Ten each night. A great debate to winnow the field to a winner.

And it will be a minorly-informative mess. That is not for any political reason. Rather, each night has 2 hours — 120 minutes — for the conversation. Spread across 10 candidates each evening, without factoring in moderator comments or questions, an even split would let each individual share their thoughts for 12 minutes.

Does anyone think that will give you a good sense of the comparative merits of Jay Inslee versus John Hickenlooper? Or elucidate the policy differences between Marianne Williamson and Julian Castro?

With the action in Augusta this week, Democrats better hope the debate can provide some clarity, or at least start to. One of the major changes enacted by the Legislature this year is a return to presidential primaries. However, the Democratic majorities may still yet add another twist: they stopped just short of enacting a bill to have presidential primaries occur by a ranked-choice vote. But the bill remains alive, and could still be sent to Gov. Mills when they convene again.

That potential juxtaposition of a massive field with a ranked choice vote could create some interesting challenges for Maine Democrats, and those choosing to vote in their primary. In some ways, it would be similar to Portland’s mayoral race back in 2011. They had 15 candidates vying for a pseudo-ceremonial job as the full time elected leader of the City Council.

Trying to understand the nuances between the various flavors of left-leaning candidates was challenging even for those overly-attuned to politics. And that was a local race, where many of the personalities seeking office had been part of the community for years, with personal relationships among networks of voters.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to local residents at Clinton Community College, Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Clinton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Presidential elections are obviously different. Many Mainers have limited knowledge of the candidates running beyond former Vice President Joe Biden. The highly-engaged members of the party can probably contrast Sen. Bernie Sanders’ trips to support Sandinistas with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s visit with Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad. For everyone else, with work, little league games, and life taking up their time, it may be more difficult.

And 12 minutes of debate seems short shrift to inform such a big decision.

This reflects one of the bigger problems of politics today. Whether you want to “Make America Great Again” or replace President Trump with one of twenty-plus Democratic choices, great expectations are put upon the occupant of the White House. Yet he or she probably is only tangentially known to the majority of the country. New Jersey and New York know Sen. Corey Booker and Mayor Bill De Blasio well, for example. Voters in other states might have heard their names, but don’t have any direct experience with them.

In an attempt to try and make government more reflective of the nation, some electoral reformers have pinned their hopes on ranked-choice voting. Pair it with the national popular vote effort, and somehow that will make government responsible and responsive. Or so the theory goes.

But maybe a better approach is asking Washington to play less of a role in our lives. Our local representatives are members of our communities, and can more readily address our concerns. Gov. Mills has spent a lot of time meeting with constituents; former Gov. LePage can be found behind the bar in Boothbay. Maine doesn’t have six degrees of separation: it is more like one-and-a-half. You don’t need 12 minutes during a televised debate to know who they are.

So, as the Legislature adjourns its long session, shout “Olly Olly Oxen Free!” Your local senator or representative can leave their hidey-hole in Augusta and come home to hear your concerns first hand. It may be their summer vacation, but they can keep working.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.