Long Nomination Process Doesn’t Necessarily Signal Party Weakness

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

With the Nevada caucuses coming up on Saturday, this is probably going to be the week that will finally bring some clarity to the Democratic presidential contest. Probably. We’ve already had chaos-maximizing results in Iowa, and then a New Hampshire primary which may have on balance added more chaos.

For the most part, this seems to be some combination of luck and circumstance (although the botched count in Iowa didn’t help, and that was just plain incompetence from the party). Just one example: Amy Klobuchar surged up to third place in New Hampshire, keeping her struggling campaign alive, thanks to a well-regarded performance in a debate that week. Had she instead done that well in the pre-Iowa debate, it’s likely that she would have done better there and perhaps ended Pete Buttigieg’s campaign (and perhaps even Elizabeth Warren’s). Or she might have had her usual debate results in New Hampshire (she’s typically done well, but not well enough to attract much notice) and she likely would have finished fifth in that state and dropped out of the race. Instead, five candidates with a plausible shot at the nomination contested Iowa, and the same five are all contesting Nevada. 

Lots of people are saying that this is a sign of party weakness: Many party actors don’t want Bernie Sanders to win, but they’re failed to coordinate on a stop-Sanders candidate and therefore he may be the most likely candidate to win the nomination at this point.

Well … sort of.

The key is to think about this from the point of view of the party, and not the candidates. For the media and the campaigns, and for most voters, the nomination process is all about which candidate wins. But for the party, what’s more important is making sure that whichever nominee is chosen would govern as a partisan president — that he or she would be bound to the party’s policy positions and priorities and otherwise support the party from the White House. From that point of view, it just doesn’t matter that much which candidate wins, as long as that candidate wouldn’t undermine the party’s overall goals.

To be sure: Sanders remains a factional candidate, and yes, his nomination would be at least something of a sign of party weakness. That said, while some party actors clearly do oppose Sanders, others seem more ambivalent. Perhaps that’s because he’s been a fairly pragmatic senator. Or maybe they just don’t see him as all that far from the party on many key policy questions.

But what we’ve seen during Donald Trump’s presidency suggests that the parties have unrecognized strengths. Trump’s nomination was by far the clearest example of an outsider winning a presidential nomination over the objections of the bulk of party actors that has ever happened in U.S. history. And yet for the most part, Trump has wound up following the Republican party line in office. On tax cuts and judges, Trump’s record has been indistinguishable from what any of the Republican contenders in 2016 would have done. The same is basically true on health care and many other issues.

Only on trade and some foreign policy questions has Trump really strayed from party orthodoxy in important ways, and for the latter it’s not entirely clear what the party is thinking after Iraq anyway.

Now, perhaps some of this is just that Trump isn’t particularly interested in governing, something that would not be the case in a Bernie Sanders presidency. On the other hand, given that most of the more aggressive aspects of the Sanders legislative agenda are likely to fail in Congress, it’s not really clear how different an actual Sanders administration would be from a Biden or Warren or Klobuchar presidency. 

And perhaps that — and not party weakness or incompetence — is why many Democratic party actors seem content to let things play out as they will in the primaries and caucuses.

None of this means that the nomination isn’t important. Some candidates will be better or worse at presidenting, which can have enormous consequences. They might be better or worse general election candidates. And the party itself shifts as a consequence of what happens in the nomination fight. But, at least to the extent that the parties are reasonably functional, it’s less of the life-or-death struggle that the candidates and their campaigns feel that it is and more incremental change — a bit more if one candidate wins, a bit less if another does.

(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

2. Dave Hopkins still doesn’t see “lanes” in the Democratic presidential nomination contest.

3. Ruy Teixeira on turnout and a Bernie Sanders general election campaign.

4. Sarah Binder at the Monkey Cage on Congress, Trump and war powers.

5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson on Trump’s false stories about voter fraud.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of 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.

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