Yang’s Failure Is a Good Thing for Politics

Andrew Yang was a test case. His effort to use a presidential bid to jumpstart his political career seemed likely, if it was perceived as successful, to inspire others to follow in his footsteps. The bloated candidate fields we’ve had recently — especially in the Republican presidential-nomination contest in 2016 and the Democratic campaign in 2020 — were not ideal, for a variety of reasons. And if Yang had been successful in his bid for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City, the problem would’ve likely gotten worse. Instead? He finished a distant fourth. And at least so far, there’s not much evidence that hopeless presidential campaigns do much good at all.

Contemporary presidential nominations are a weird mixture. On the one hand, formal party organizations were exiled from the process, especially on the Democratic side, after reforms that were put in place after 1968. In some ways, the process is all about the candidates. No one can keep them from entering if they want; no one can tell them it’s time to exit as their chances dwindle. They put together their own campaign organizations, which appear to be loyal only to them.

And yet, for the most part, parties in the form of informal networks wield important influence. After all, candidates may technically be able to stay in as long as they want, but in practice they drop out — many of them before a single vote is cast — just as they would if the party was pulling the plug on their operation. That’s most likely because many of the important resources candidates need are still controlled by party networks. And not just money. Those independent campaign organizations? Candidates usually recruit them from the party network, because that’s where the people with relevant skills and interests are found. And that makes those organizations loyal to the party, and not just to the candidate. Indeed, perhaps the most important consequence of these trends is that the winning candidate, the eventual commander-in-chief, generally enters office with close ties to the party and serves as a partisan president. 

But Yang’s candidacy posed a different question. It was about using the campaign to advance his career, regardless of the effect on the nomination process — not by winning the presidential nomination, or even coming close, but by distracting from the serious candidates and perhaps by disrupting the normal winnowing process.

Fortunately, there’s little evidence that running a hopeless presidential campaign does much for marginal (or worse) candidates. There really aren’t a lot of success stories. But Yang, when he was leading the polls early in the mayoral campaign, appeared to be one.

Now? What matters is how future candidates interpret the story. It’s possible that some may emulate Yang after all. But yesterday’s result is certainly not the kind of evidence that a victory, or even a strong second-place finish, would’ve produced. Indeed: It’s quite possible that Yang might’ve done better had he started out succeeding from the bottom instead of failing at the top of politics. And that might make future presidential-nomination contests a bit more manageable.

1. Sean Trende on the 2020 elections.

2. Paul Kane on the pressure on the congressional calendar as the planned summer recesses approach.

3. Randall Kennedy on Justice Stephen Breyer.

4. Ezra Klein talks with Betsey Stevenson about the economy.

5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Michelle Leder on weirdness in the stock market.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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