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.