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Are Parties Weak or Strong, Part I

by Julia Azari and Seth Masket

We had planned to collaborate on a paper for the Midwest Political Science Association conference, which would be going on right now if not for [wave hands in every direction]. The paper was to be entitled "No, Seriously, Are Parties Weak or Strong?" We may still write it! However, we conducted several on-line chats debating this topic, and we're posting them here for your enjoyment. This first one was held on February 21, 2020, and covers Kamala Harris' withdrawal and the possibility of a Bernie Sanders nomination, which looked somewhat plausible at that time.

Seth Masket: We're working on the overall question of whether American political parties are weak or strong, and what that would mean. And in that context, we're going to discuss several recent or ongoing events in the Democratic 2020 presidential nomination cycle.

Julia Azari: I think one of our driving questions at the moment is whether this cycle has the potential to falsify the theory in The Party Decides, particularly since Kamala Harris dropped out and Joe Biden is faring poorly. Since we developed our list of questions, the authors of TPD (a slate of distinguished scholars that includes neither of us) have sort of conceded that it's been falsified.

They attribute this to structural factors: "media coverage, public debates and fundraising around the presidential primaries take place much earlier in the election cycle, competing with elite influence.” I want to dispute their causal mechanism here a bit. The Party Decides often gets misread, i think, into an "elites vs. party electorate" story.

But it's not that. Elected officials within parties want to win the election. So they're actually quite attuned to public preferences in The Party Decides' story, at least insofar as those preferences 1. play out in the general, 2. are reflected by policy-demanders. I think it's item 1 that's really broken down for party leaders. They have no idea what kind of candidate appeals to the electorate. They were always guessing, but now that guesswork has become more difficult.

Strong, ideologically driven partisanship really demands strong, institutionally robust and smart parties and instead we have... the DNC and the RNC and their loose networks of affiliates.

SM: Okay. So I've been working my own angle for my book on the problem elites have in understanding what will play out in the general, which stems from an inability to agree on why they lost the last election. (Arguably, the 2016 GOP had that problem fighting over 2012.) But would you say there's a more general problem in understanding how to appeal to the general electorate? With their sophisticated polling, marketing, and advertising techniques, are parties actually getting worse at understanding the electorate?

JA: It seems unlikely, doesn't it? But I think it might be possible, because the organization within the specific electorates is shifting - think the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement - and attitudes are shifting rapidly, including generationally.

SM: Yes, it seems more plausible that, rather than parties getting worse, the electorate is just in a state of flux, and it's getting harder to understand. Which in itself is fascinating. If you were to just look at the overall partisan balance and other indicators, you might not detect a shift. But there are some attitudes in flux.

JA: This is probably a weird populist thing to say, which is out of character for me, but part of me wonders if the Democratic Party of the 1990s with its messaging and triangulating and consultants and polls hasn't contributed to a shallow understanding of the electorate. Like, I have several theories about why Kamala Harris' candidacy tanked so quickly and badly, but one is that elites flocked to her because she kinda looked the part of a diverse candidate, but she really drew the ire of the criminal/racial justice crowd for her record.

So I've been working on this theory, which is hard to substantiate, which is that strong, ideologically driven partisanship really demands strong, institutionally robust and smart parties and instead we have... the DNC and the RNC and their loose networks of affiliates.

SM: So, a related question here: We political scientists have been telling students and journalists for a long time that the rising number of "independent" voters doesn't matter that much. For the most part, they vote like partisans, they just don't want to identify that way, so no big deal. But is it possible we've gotten to a critical point where resistance to the idea of parties (or other institutions) is so strong that the kind of organization they do just doesn't function anymore? (Or maybe I'm just sort of re-phrasing what you just said?)

JA: Ironically, I think the answer to this question mirrors years of theory about collective action. Ray LaRaja and Zachary Albert have a recent paper suggesting that people actually tend to favor a mix of public and party actor input into presidential nominations. But the people who oppose this idea are very vocal. Furthermore, the inability of parties to set up really binding rules around things like loyalty predates the era of nomination reform, and it's tough to get people excited about devoting more resources to institutions.

SM: Let's talk a bit more about Kamala Harris, if we might. It seems to me that one of the things we've seen in this cycle are some pretty consequential events brought about by individual candidate preferences. There wasn't necessarily a mass demand for Biden to enter the race, but he wanted to do it, and his entry has had a huge impact. Harris didn't have to withdraw when she did, but she did anyway, and that's had a big impact. Same with Bloomberg. Same with Sanders' decision in 2016 to stay in after it was clear he couldn't get the nomination. My thinking is that individual candidate decisions wouldn't be nearly so consequential in a strong party system. Does this track?

JA: What kinds of consequences are you talking about? I'm not sure I'm following.

SM: If Biden never entered this race, my impression is that it would have unfolded very differently. Probably still the same obsession on electability, but that would have fallen to a different candidate, possibly one with better campaigning skills. Whoever that is might well be the frontrunner today. Similarly, if Harris had stayed in, she might well be benefitting from Biden's weaknesses, given her strong support from party insiders and some good debate performances, and Bloomberg would never have entered. Or maybe I read too much alt-reality sci-fi.

JA: No, this all seems accurate. I just think the counterfactual is several steps back, or it's complex, like, what does a stronger party look like in a highly mediated, candidate-centric system? And we don't really know the answer.

SM: True.

Would a stronger party have convinced Kamala Harris to stay in the race?

JA: I think a stronger party would have clearer factions, with mid-level elected officials representing these perspectives in some more coherent way, which would eliminate some of the debates about "lanes." Also maybe I’m over-stretching the definition of "strong party" but one might have gotten out in front of Harris' record on criminal justice.

SM: For better or worse, almost all those mid-level elected officials were running for president.

JA: True! A stronger party almost certainly would provide incentives for them to wait. The presidential nomination process is so central, it sucks all the air out of the room.

SM: Yes. And it seems like part of the party weakness problem is a massive over-obsession on the presidency. And we see this in both parties.

JA: We do, though I think it plays out differently for each one. For Democrats it means a huge amount of pressure to be everything to multiple constituencies. For Republicans, it means the president gets to articulate the partisan message, which seems to work well enough in unifying the party. Dems I think have an objectively different and possibly harder task

SM: I had written last year about the John Hickenlooper case -- his transition from the presidential race to a competitive Senate race -- as a feature of a strong party. In some ways, that's right. But a stronger party would never have had to guide him out of the presidential race in the first place, right?

JA: I guess not. Although I'll also dodge this by saying that party strength is more relevant for higher-level candidates than lots of minor candidates. The unique part of the 2020 race has generally been the thick middle tier and crowded top tier. The minor also-rans are less relevant, and they're mostly gone. The first two issues, I think, sort of remain.

SM: That's fair. I'm still struggling with the lesson of Harris' withdrawal. I can certainly understand her looking at the evidence and figuring she didn't have a real path to the nomination. She'd peaked in mid-2019 and that probably wasn't coming back. And I have no doubt that her race and gender played a role here, especially since we know women candidates sometimes withdraw (or don't run) when they don't see a lot of support but there's nothing you can tell a male candidate that would dissuade him from running. But from the endorsement data, it looks like she had a lot of party support and could have profited from Biden's decline. And she had a seat in the next debate. Would a stronger party have convinced her to stay in the race?

(I don't mean like Mayor Daley would have sat her down and told her to stay in the race. More like, she would know that a big chunk of the party would have her back even if she was flagging in the polls.)

JA: I haven't really considered that angle. I think it depends on how risk averse that party was, I guess. So I think the answer also sort of partly depends on how we view Bernie Sanders. This also relies on comparing Harris to Scott Walker - a candidate who seemed to have potential appeal to the major constituencies within the party, and the right general political profile.

I think Walker probably regretted dropping out of the 2016 R race, and he probably did so because he felt pressure, either from others or himself, to try to help the party consolidate to stop Trump. (But virtually no one else followed that script that year.)

It's possible Harris faced similar pressure within the party to contribute to a consolidation to stop Bernie (or possibly Bloomberg). I don't actually think a strong party would stop Bernie, though, at least not in the same way a strong party would stop Trump, who objectively lacks conventional credentials. A strong party would co-opt Bernie.

SM: That's an interesting angle. And this is a pattern we see across both parties in the last two cycles. They seem to lack either the understanding of collective action or the ability to see it through.

JA: Right.

SM: That is, everyone is attempting collective action by themselves. I don't know if there's a term for that.

JA: Yeah, I think this is what I've been calling "guesswork."

SM: Like, Scott Walker struck me as a potentially good GOP nominee for 2016. It would have been one thing for the party to coordinate around him. It would have been another to coordinate around, say, Bush or Rubio and convince the others to drop out. But instead you just get a bunch of people individually saying "Trump should be stopped" and coming up with their own separate strategies for stopping him.

JA: Also, I think what I'm trying to get at with the comparison with 2016 is that there are too many unknowns about why Harris dropped out (or I'm over thinking it and it was just lack of money.) And I think there might be some Democrats who want to stop Sanders, but not all of them, and others who just want to elect whoever, and others who have certain tests that candidates have to pass or care most about policy.

SM: Sure. There are plenty of unknowns. But in a stronger party system, a temporary lack of money shouldn't be what kills the campaign!

JA: Right, the people endorsing her could also be working, in various ways, on her behalf.

One thing this discussion has brought out is some of the possible asymmetries between the two parties.

SM: Yes. For one, as you note, Sanders is not Trump. Sanders has far more of a history with the Dems than Trump did with the GOP. But more generally, there's a different set of challenges in play.

But... I'm not wrong about the parallels here, right? There was a substantial chunk of the GOP who thought Trump would be bad for the party's program and hurt them in the general election in 2016, and they wanted to stop him but couldn't coordinate on an alternative, and then they just eventually gave in. Is that not a pretty good analogy for the Dems in 2020?

JA: Well, we have no idea 1. if Sanders will win the next round of primaries or 2. if the party will rally in a similar fashion to Trump.

SM: Right, that's a guess.

JA: I feel less confident in making predictions around 1 than 2 - I think it's likely that we would see a similar thing from Dems, some will go reluctantly, some will resist, some will embrace.

SM: But when I've expressed skepticism about Sanders getting the nomination, I sound a lot like Seth in early 2016 expressing skepticism that Trump will win the nomination.

JA: And those distinctions will erode. There's too many variables here.

Scenario 1: Sanders wins a majority of delegates. A strong party will co-opt him, pushing for an establishment nominee and mainstream positions. A weak party will let him do what he wants. (One big asymmetry test there is in partisanship: is it enough to keep the Democrats' coalition together in the fall, or not?)

Scenario 2: Sanders wins a plurality. This is where the weakness of the party really comes in - the lack of legitimacy for the rules as they are written, the inability to coalesce on an alternative.

SM: These are interesting. Okay, on Scenario 1, I'm wondering what incentives Sanders would have to accede to party demands at that point. In theory he wants to build a broader coalition now but hasn't really done much to do that. Perhaps he'll feel some pressure to have a more "establishment" VP candidate just for the sake of party unity, but I'm not sure the party would have much leverage over him at that point. He'd probably guess that the rest of the party would fall in line behind him, as the GOP did with Trump, and I don't think that's a bad gamble.

JA: Right. Trump did choose a more conventional nominee, but the line between conventional and not might be more fine for Republicans, and Pence was not one of the 2016 competitors, say.

SM: Scenario 2 has the potential for some real danger, and we saw the beginnings of that in the final debate question the other night. Sanders and his supporters are already pushing the claim that the plurality winner has to become the nominee, that any alternative to that is anti-democratic. And then we're back to claims about intra-party democracy in 2016 and 1924 and it's a mess.

But we saw this in 2016 -- the party followed the rules as written, but it's not like there was a lot of reverence for those rules as rules. And to be fair, Clinton and her team were using similar language in 2008. When they were losing under the rules, they contested the legitimacy of the rules. So far, we haven't seen the rules explicitly violated or ignored, but this year could stretch that.

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