With Bernie Sanders still the clear front-runner, one big question has been this: Is the Democratic Party on course to replay what the GOP did in 2016 when it succumbed to Donald Trump’s takeover?
Trump’s nomination led many to rethink the long-hallowed thesis that parties functionally decide nominations. Even though Trump faced serious opposition inside the GOP (which is quaint to recall, now that the party is fully in thrall to his reactionary blend of plutocracy and nationalism), Trump won after his rivals kept competing for too long, dividing the opposition.
So many have asked whether Sanders could win the nomination in part due to a similar dynamic.
But it appears that in 2020, the Democratic Party is escaping from this “prisoner’s dilemma” faster than the GOP did in 2016, as David Byler put it. Supporting this notion, former Senate leader Harry M. Reid also just endorsed Biden.
In short: The party appears to be moving toward at least trying to decide on Biden. That doesn’t mean it will work.
For some insight into what’s happening, I talked to David Karol, the University of Maryland political science professor and co-author of the original “party decides” thesis.
This thesis holds that, even though primaries are decided by voters, party actors — elected officials, former officials who still command respect, activists, organizers, interest groups — hold great sway over voter behavior, and by extension the nominating process, through endorsements and other forms of elite signaling.
Karol noted that it does appear the party is trying to decide on Biden, and that this could matter. “The situation is very fluid,” Karol told me.
But as Karol also pointed out, there are reasons to be uncertain about whether the party can successfully decide on Biden at this point.
The situation does appear analogous to 2016 in key ways. Sanders is leading a real insurgency against the party. He appears to be piloting a serious mass movement, one driven to some degree by disgust with perceptions of the sclerosis of the party establishment.
There are two obvious ways the party can fail to decide, even when it’s trying to, Karol noted.
The first is what happened to Republicans in 2016 — the party fails to act. That was evidenced in the failure of GOP candidates to drop out and coalesce behind an alternative to Trump.
In 2020, it appears Democratic leaders are moving to avoid a repeat of that. But this brings us to the second way the party might fail to decide.
“The other failure might be that the party coalesces but they fail to deliver,” Karol told me.
There are numerous reasons this is a real possibility. First, Sanders has been running for president for five years, having mounted a serious 2016 challenge to Hillary Clinton. He has an extremely committed base. He has defied predictions that his coalition is limited, showing real strength among nonwhites, particularly younger ones.
What’s more, numerous factors could continue to fuel Sanders’s challenge. There’s his extraordinary small-donor fundraising success, which ensures that Sanders will remain formidable, as he demonstrated when he announced a staggering $46 million haul for February.
There’s also the new clout of social media. It’s not an accident that Trump’s storming of his party’s ramparts also came when social media had truly come of age as a political communications tool.
Then there’s Biden himself. He’s long been an obvious establishment choice — he was the vice president under President Barack Obama, who remains hugely popular among rank-and-file Democrats; he’s still widely liked inside the party; and he appeals to many core Democratic constituencies.
But Biden has been shaky and unpredictable. Indeed, that’s precisely why the party mostly held back from trying to decide, to give other credible moderates a shot at getting airborne. And that helped Sanders rack up early wins, potentially enabling him to amass an insurmountable delegate lead after Super Tuesday. Early voting is already underway in many of those states.
And then there’s former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose truly enormous expenditures in the Super Tuesday states could still have an unpredictable impact, possibly pulling votes from Biden.
Yes, if Bloomberg flames out on Super Tuesday, you could see more endorsements stampeding to Biden, and a possible Bloomberg withdrawal. But if Biden falls well short on Super Tuesday, or rolls out another wobbly debate performance, the coalescing could slow down.
“The party is acting relatively late in the process,” Karol said. “We’re seeing the party decide. We’re going to find out whether it’s too late.”
Trump’s 2016 takeover of the GOP led many to suggest that the parties are slowly succumbing to an era of “weak parties and strong partisanship,” as political scientist Julia Azari has called it. It’s been an open question how far along this road the Democratic Party has progressed. We may now find out.