Bernie Sanders, the self described Democratic Socialist and Independent Senator from Vermont, is leading the current pack of Democratic hopefuls for the White House. Gone are party favorites like NJ Senator Corey Booker or California Senator Kamala Harris. Former Vice-President Joe Biden is lagging behind and as strong as he is running, Pete Buttigieg is struggling to build a national apparatus in time for Super Tuesday. Meanwhile two billionaires, Tom Steyer and former Republican turned Independent turned Democratic Michael Bloomberg are blanketing the airwaves with millions of dollars and rising in the polls.
If anything, Donald Trump’s evisceration of his opponents in 2016 was proof of how little power the “party” had in modern American elections. Remember Jeb Bush throwing $130 million down the drain, Marco Rubio was the darling of the establishment and the market loving wing of the party swooned for Ted Cruz. They got but-kiss, These politicians attacked Trump on everything and nothing worked enough to derail his candidacy.
Historically, a political party’s role has been to 1) win elections, 2) supply money to candidates and 3) influence voters by signaling who the party supports. There was a forth category at one time when the party would actually choose nominees but the creation of direction elections with the 16th Amendment and the advent of the modern primary and state conventions changed this. Much as the GOP party apparatus appears broken and unable to steer voters towards preferred nominees, on the Democratic side, Bernie is merely continuing the trend.
In both his 2016 bid and this go-round, Bernie was soundly rejected by party insiders. Remember the two black Senators from NJ and CA mentioned above? Well, ten months ago they were the preferred choices of party insiders by a huge margin. They both dropped out before Iowa. Of those party insiders, more than half said they would not support Bernie. To be fair, most still don’t. Bernie’s campaign, as a result, is made up of outsiders and insurgents the establishment and traditional party apparatus reject.
But like an unstoppable train, Bernie’s campaign mirrors Trump’s in winning the early states by close margins and building on those wins to march forward while capitalizing on an excited and motivated base. Herein lies the rub. When most average voters are undecided this early in the game it becomes harder and harder to stop insurgent campaigns with a motivated core of say 25 percent support. It is clear Democrats have no idea how to stop Bernie.
There was once a time when the parties would be able to defeat these outsiders even after the advent of the primary. For over 50 years the parties were able to select “safe” candidates. On the GOP side it saw Richard Nixon defeating Barry Goldwater, Ford defeating Reagan, HW Bush over Patrick Buchanan, GW Bush and Mitt Romney defeating Rick Santorum. On the Democratic side we have seen Jimmy Carter, Dukakis, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. Indeed, the parties were so successful at this it led to the publication of a book in 2008 called The Party Decides.
But modern campaigns have become harder to “steer.” For the better part of the last decade, the parties have had a lousy track record in statewide and district level races where they lose clout. But, until now, Presidential races were something they could still influence.
What has changed the dynamic you might ask? Well, for one, the media has become increasingly diversified thanks to the advent of technology and alternative sources of information. Not only does this lead to more outlets for the opinions of the elites to be challenged but it allows candidates challenging the elite narrative to go directly to the voters. If you know them, think of BrietBart on the right and Daily Kos on the left.
Consider historically the media has been known as the gatekeepers of information. But with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, blogs, and the dark-web there are now far, far too many gates to keep. People can find their preferred candidate simply by sitting at a computer and looking up a few websites vs. taking the advice of a talking head.
Along with diversified sources of information come new and diffuse ways to raise cash. More sources of cash means more money. More money means more Presidential candidates. Spending on Presidential campaigns has soared since 1990, as has the number of candidates in each contest. In 2012, the GOP Presidential primary had six potentially viable contenders (excluding Mitt Romney). By 2016, the number had doubled. Every imaginable wing of the party had a candidate from evangelicals to businessmen to libertarians to fiscal and national security hawks.
The Democratic field of this cycle makes that look like a joke. At one time there were 29 candidates running. Arguably, the top two candidates most likely to win the nomination were not even Democrats 10 years ago (Bloomberg and Bernie).
But, while there may be more money in presidential cycles there is less of it go go-round. Donors often sit on the sidelines for months on end waiting for the field to be clearer. They also do not want to antagonize or depress partisan turnout. In much the same way do political endorsers behave. They wait, later and later, until the field becomes clearer. But, by the time they endorse, the race may already be decided and if they had endorsed sooner it might have helped their preferred candidate.
Taken together, these factors have helped tip the source of power in elections from the party to the voters. One could argue on the surface this would be good. It is, to an extent. But cautionary tales abound where one party nominates an extreme candidate in a contest and blows the race (ie. Roy Moore in Alabama).
But the bigger caution might be this year’s Democratic primary. The party’s inability to coalesce support around one candidate has opened the door for a billionaire, like Michael Bloomberg (and that other dude too), to blanket the airwaves and basically buy voter support. In this case, the voter does not really have the power. They are just basically being heavily influenced, harassed, bribed, whatever you would like to call it, to vote for a certain candidate.
This means the future of party politics is uncertain. The decentralization of the campaign process through the years combined with the advent of technology and its impacts on modern campaigns means the traditional party apparatus as we know it is probably gone for good.
But, perhaps we will see a different kind of party apparatus in the future. One, ironically for Democrats at least, which takes its cues from religion.
While religious affiliation in the United States has been dropping – particularly among the young – the faiths often with the strictest rules and interpretations are growing (ie. Mormons and Orthodox Jews). The initial logic on why is two-fold. First, it costs a significant amount to enter the group (membership dues, personal sacrifice). Secondly, failure to adhere to these rules leads to a significant social cost in the group. Hence, in the marketplace of religion and church, niche beats general and fervent following beats moderation.
In much the same way, the dynamic for parties in modern elections might be the same. Strong parties have the luxury of selecting moderate candidates. They can influence voters and money. But, in US elections, weak parties face more challenges. The factional dynamic of modern campaigns means weak parties might do better to support factional candidates with a low ceiling and a high floor.
In this analogy, Bernie Sanders movement is a strict church. He certainly is a factional candidate (never eclipsing 30 percent support in any national poll), but then again almost no other candidate has either. His uncompromising politics means his base has few alternatives and it leads to a high floor. It is little coincidence Bernie made it to the Convention with Clinton in 2016 and never dropped to single digits nationally or in Iowa when his campaign was sagging.
Politics, like culture, tends to move in cycles rather than a straight line. Political parties tend to begin weak, become strong, and become weak and strong all over again. Or, they do extinct. Perhaps if Sanders wins the nomination and loses to Trump or Bloomberg buys the nomination and loses the party will be able to use two terms of Trump to convince their voters why the elites tacking to the center is the best way forward. Just like they did with Jimmy Carter after Mondale’s annihilation in 1972.
I wouldn’t bet on it though. The forces benefiting factional candidates; the diversification of media, democratization of fundraising sources, and abundance of candidates with a marginal shot of winning and advantage of nice sources of support (high floor, low ceiling) are not going away anytime soon. Until parties find a way to navigate this new political reality, the strictest candidates will find continual success. Because, it seems, politics is becoming more like church everyday.