Are national parties dying?

Are we looking at the end of the national parties as we know them? There's some reason to think the answer to that question is "yes."


The symbols of the Democratic (donkey) and Republican (elephant) parties are seen on display in Washington, DC on August 25, 2008. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

 

Here's WaPo's Matea Gold on the rise of Democratic super PACs and what it means for the Democratic National Committee:

With each move — building donor lists, organizing volunteers and hiring staff — these groups are in effect supplanting the role of the traditional party organization, only without a built-in framework for picking leaders, setting goals and accounting for spending.

Their expansion further pulls the center of political gravity away from the Democratic National Committee, which is struggling to pay off nearly $16 million in debt from 2012.

And here's the New York Times' Nick Confessore on Republican super PACs:

Parties have “lost the ability to control the process,” said Jim Nicholson, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, partly because of legislation that cut the flow of money to party committees. “The party can’t coordinate with these super PACs and neither can the campaigns, so there’s a lot more chaos and disequilibrium in the campaigns. And the party structure clearly has a diminished role because they don’t have the resources they used to have.”

The simple fact is the both the DNC and Republican National Committee -- once the titans (financially and organizationally) of the two parties -- have seen their influence shrink with the rise of wealthy individuals and the consultants who work with them in the post Citizens-United era.

"The declining significance of political parties in the wake of McCain-Feingold [campaign finance reform] was widely predicted and is now taking place," said one senior level Republican operative granted anonymity to speak candidly.

The fundraising numbers for the committees tell part of the story -- especially on the Democratic side. So far in the 2014 election cycle, the DNC has raised almost $74 million but had just $6 million on hand and a stunning $16 million in debt. Do the math and you see that the DNC is currently running in the red -- big time. The RNC is doing better with $88.5 million raised to date and $10.5 million on hand (with no debt).

But, those number pale in comparison to what those same two committees collected in past election cycles.  According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the DNC raised $316 million in the 2012 election while the RNC brought in $409 million. Don't think comparing presidential cycles to midterm cycles is fair? Ok. In 2010, the DNC raised $230 million while the RNC brought in $199 million. That means that the DNC has currently raised roughly one-third of what it took in during the last midterm election cycle.

Now, money tends to flow to party committees at a far greater rate in the six months or so leading up to an election than it does in the 18 months following one. People start to pay more attention to the stakes and the asks by politicians (and the committees) get greater traction. But, even if the DNC can get to its fundraising total from 2010 (and that seems far-fetched even with an major increase in donor interest between now and November) political money tends only to grow,  never to stay static or shrink. The very fact that we are in March of an election year and the main Democratic campaign committee is running $10 million in the red is a telling sign of the times.

And, while donor limits are higher to national party committees than to candidates  -- $32,400 per year per individual -- they are nowhere near the unlimited contributions that can be made by wealthy donors to super PACs. And, donations to national party committees need to be disclosed in a way that those made to 501(c)(4)'s don't.

It's not just money where national parties are being transformed -- and not in a good way. Maintaining voter lists is now farmed out by the Democratic National Committee to a company called Catalist. Opposition research for  Republicans is now handled by America Rising, a company  founded by two former RNC research directors. "Institutional functions such as opposition research and data development are already being pursued successfully outside of party mechanisms, and that trend will only continue," predicted a veteran GOP political operative.

Does all that mean that national parties are disappearing any time soon? No, and even the most ardent advocates of the burgeoning universe of outside groups agree that there are some things the party committees can do that no other entity can. The national party committees are, for example, the only entities that can directly coordinate with candidates and state parties -- ensuring a continuity of messaging, ground game organizing and data sharing that can make a big difference. ("Ask Romney how crucial that was," said one Republican close to the RNC.)  The DNC continues to maintain the party's voter file, perhaps the single most valuable document in the party. The party committees are also the only entity able to influence the presidential primary process and the debate schedule; what RNC Chairman Reince Priebus did in terms of the 2016 primary calendar matters -- and couldn't have been done by anyone else.

Everyone  then agrees with a few ideas: 1) Some (many?) of the tasks once handled by the national party committees have now been farmed out to outside groups 2) The party committees still do some things that no one else can.  The central question -- and the one on which there is considerable disagreement -- is whether the party committees now have a smaller piece of the pie then they once did or whether the pie has simply expanded and they have roughly the same amount.  Conventional wisdom suggests the former although the centrality of the party committees in terms of coordinating with candidates and state parties as well as maintaining/changing the primary schedule suggests the death of national parties is somewhat exaggerated.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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