The second factor is whether Democratic Party elites still matter at all. In 2016, Donald Trump’s victory in the GOP presidential primary blew a gigantic hole into “The Party Decides” thesis. Trump had little support from key Republican elites, and he nonetheless triumphed over 16 other primary contenders. At the time, I noted the real death knell for the theory would be if Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton. That didn’t happen, but Sanders made it a more competitive fight than anyone expected.
In one way, Sanders’s front-runner status this time around would be consistent with an establishment thesis. After all, it used to be the case in GOP circles that a strong presidential primary run in a previous cycle gave you the upper hand in a future cycle. See, for example, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Among Democrats, both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton secured party backing after previous strong runs.
The third factor is Sanders has finally revealed the division of labor here at The Post. On Monday, he told reporters: “I mean The Washington Post has 16 articles a day on this, that there is a massive effort trying to stop Bernie Sanders. … The corporate establishment is coming together. The political establishment is coming together and they will do everything.” So listen, I’ve got a quota to help fill, and Philip Bump is only one man.
The obvious reason this is all coming up is that after nearly an entire campaign cycle in which the Democratic establishment had failed to coalesce around a candidate, some very “Party Decides” kind of movement began. It started with Rep. James E. Clyburn’s endorsement of Joe Biden in the South Carolina primary. That proved crucial for Biden’s convincing victory. According to exit polls, nearly half of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina said Clyburn’s endorsement affected their choice.
What has happened in the 48 hours since Biden’s victory has also been rather astonishing. Tom Steyer dropped out after a dismal finish in South Carolina, saying he saw no viable path to the nomination. This is consistent with “The Party Decides” mostly by showing spending hundreds of millions of dollars does not necessarily lead to anything other than comparisons to John Connally.
It is worth appreciating the contrast between the Democrats behavior now and how the GOP handled Trump in 2016. Back then, a welter of plausible rivals to Trump — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich — stayed in the race, canceling one another out in the process. Furthermore, the congressional wing of the GOP made it pretty clear they preferred Trump over Cruz, his most formidable rival at the time. As Bump noted, “Two leading moderate Democrats seeking the party’s nomination in 2020 have done what Kasich and Cruz didn’t: dropped out to clear the path for former vice president Joe Biden.”
My Post colleague Greg Sargent is also helping to fill out The Post’s quota by talking to David Karol, one of the progenitors of “The Party Decides” thesis.
“The party is acting relatively late in the process,” Karol told Sargent. “We’re seeing the party decide. We’re going to find out whether it’s too late.” Indeed, early voting in places like California and North Carolina might have given Sanders an edge that late-deciders cannot counteract. Other observers are skeptical the coalescing around Biden can happen while other non-Sanders candidates — Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — are still in the race.
On the other hand, Warren staying in the race probably hurts Sanders as much as Biden. BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer and Henry Gomez note “there has been scant talk among progressives about an effort to consolidate support among voters on the left.”
Compared with past party-deciding moments, this one is happening at what appears to be the last possible moment it might matter. And it might not matter. But after a primary cycle in which this hypothesis seemed completely discredited, it has roared back to life this week.
Whether it stays alive is something we won’t know for a little while.