Forget the Political Parties. They’re Irrelevant
Over the course of the presidential campaign, there have been two ongoing narratives about the role the establishment should be playing in selecting the party’s respective nominees. On the Republican side, for months and months, observers have argued that the party, its donor base, and its leadership in Washington and beyond should combat Donald Trump’s growing influence among primary voters and coalesce around a more viable, mainstream candidate.
On the Democratic side, the dynamic is virtually the reverse. Many activists and commentators have been arguing that party leaders are interfering too much in the nominating process in a concerted effort to bolster Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president and diminish Senator Bernie Sanders’ prospects of winning the nomination.
In both cases, the influence of the two political parties and the political establishment that supposedly guides their actions is being dramatically, almost comically, overstated. On the one hand, the party and the establishment are regularly criticized for incompetence whether that means poor candidate recruitment, poor communications and messaging, poor data resources, poor strategy, poor fundraising, or just plain poor leadership. Yet, on the other hand, there is a belief being expressed somewhat regularly that the party and the establishment only need to snap their fingers and wink and their preferred candidate will be delivered the presidential nomination. Both can’t be true at the same time.
Back in 2005 and 2006, I worked on Chet Culver’s gubernatorial campaign. During the primary, it was unmistakably clear that the party establishment was opposed to our candidate. After all, Attorney General Tom Miller, Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald, virtually every legislator including the leadership of both the Iowa House and Iowa Senate and most of organized labor in the state save for a few unions endorsed Mike Blouin, Culver’s chief opponent.
However, in retrospect, it is hard to pinpoint what that broad establishment support actually delivered to Blouin’s operation. The endorsements of legislators and other elected officials did not, at least in my estimation, influence the decisions of rank and file primary voters or provide any meaningful organizational advantage. Ultimately, the two campaigns were responsible for putting together a winning operation on their own and engage voters using volunteers they recruited, dollars they raised, and messages they developed.
The average legislator or party committee does not have the time to get involved in a primary battle, the capabilities to influence that election, and perhaps most importantly the incentive to be involved and risk alienating some percentage of its activist base.
The same dynamics are true in this year’s presidential campaigns. Even if the Democratic Party as an institution prefers Hillary Clinton, I’m left to ask what specifically they could do to help her win the nomination above and beyond what the Clinton Campaign is already doing itself. Some have argued that too few debates were scheduled and often at odd hours, providing Clinton with additional cover from her opponents. Yet, the debates represented some of Clinton’s strongest moments in the campaign. These types of venues certainly play to her strengths far more than the typical retail politics that dominate the timeframe leading into the initial nominating contests. The structure of the debate process arguably harmed Clinton as much as the other candidates in the field.
Some have contended that the role of superdelegates subverts the influence of actual primary voters and caucus attendees. True enough, but it’s not as if superdelegates were instituted for the first time this cycle with the design of benefitting one candidate over another. In reality, this part of the nominating process was first established more than 30 years ago and it seems a stretch to argue that party leaders today were duplicitous simply because they maintained these rules for the 2016 cycle. Granted the DNC chairwoman’s explanation of superdelegates was dreadful but with the prominence of the issue eight year ago no one should be surprised it is a factor in the 2016 campaign.
On the Republican side, Trump has been the frontrunner or among the leading candidates for months now. If the party or the establishment had the inclination or the ability to prevent his march to the nomination, it seems that would have happened before now. With the Koch brothers now officially staying out of the primary and FOX News reportedly finished with promoting Marco Rubio, there doesn’t seem to be a lot that elected officials, the party apparatus or anyone else can do to slow Trump’s momentum.
All the usual caveats apply. Trump and Clinton could still lose the nominations. Any presidential campaign is incredibly dynamic and this one in particular has been possibly the most unpredictable in at least 40 years when an unknown Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination and Ronald Reagan nearly unseated his party’s own incumbent president. Regardless of what takes place in the next several weeks, the party and the broader establishment within each party will have a minor if not irrelevant role.