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Are Parties Weak or Strong, Part II

by Julia Azari and Seth Masket

Here’s the second installment of our series of chats that would have made for a decent MPSA conference paper this year. In our first installment, we talked about Kamala Harris' withdrawal and Bernie Sanders' strengths as of late February 2020. In this installment, which took place on April 15, 2020, we examine Biden's fitness as a nominee, the amicable end of the 2020 Democratic nomination contest, and what that contest revealed about the party’s weaknesses, strengths, and future.  

Seth Masket: My first question for us was "What did we learn from the relatively quick and amicable end to the Democratic presidential nomination contest? Did the party make a decision in advance of the voters?"

I have a viewpoint here, and I obviously have a lot invested in this regarding my book, but I believe the Democratic Party functioned in a relatively healthy way this cycle. They considered among a lot of strong options, and the bulk of party insiders indicated a preference for Biden, well in advance of the early state contests. If The Party Decides was right from 1980 to 2000 (and we may disagree on that), I think it was right for 2020, as well. The party made a choice and party voters basically ratified it....

What happened in the early state contests in February was really interesting, though. Voters/caucusgoers in NH, IA, and NV really didn't follow the endorsement signal. But the signal got a lot louder right around South Carolina and pressured a lot of strong contenders out. 

Anyway, we could argue about whether the party made the right choice, but I think they made one, and it's a defensible one.

Julia Azari: I see this very differently.

SM: I'm shocked.

JA: Ha! Well, I too have a viewpoint. And obviously Biden isn't an outsider candidate/party coordination failure like Trump was, or like Sanders might potentially have been. And I know that you interviewed activists and probably know more about their views than I do, but I saw Biden as a soft front-runner in both the endorsement primaries and the polls. I think there are 2 things that are especially important here. 

First, elite endorsements were slow and spread among several establishment candidates.

Second, the different candidates auditioned as Biden alternatives kinda reminded me a bit of Romney's path to the nomination in 2012, but with a twist: they weren't just different candidates. They represented different perspectives. I'm thinking especially of Elizabeth Warren here, but Pete Buttigieg (remember him) as well.

I'm also not completely sold on your argument that elites weren't just bandwagoning with Biden because they didn't bandwagon for say, Buttigieg after IA and NH. It's not surprising that the burden of proof was higher for the mayor of South Bend than they were for the former vice president! But they would've eventually done it, I think.

SM: I think the Romney analogy is a reasonable one. But would 2020 be that different? Romney was dealing with Gingrich, Cain, Santorum, Bachmann... surely those were different perspectives on governing, as well. And unlike Romney, Biden really was the polling frontrunner throughout the invisible primary. I'd say Biden was in a stronger position than Romney was, and Romney was running against a far weaker field.

JA: Biden is also the former vice president.

SM: Yes. Fair. But parties don't have to nominate former VPs, as Dan Quayle could tell you.

JA: Fair but also a somewhat standout example. An ongoing frustration I have with the nomination process is that while it's open, it's so long and drawn out that name recognition gives candidates a huge advantage. To the degree that Iowa and New Hampshire mitigated against that, the length of the process and the nationalization of it (and the rightful move to give more diverse states more attention) have basically eroded that advantage.

A lot of people within the party have been overwhelmingly fearful of repeating 2016, and they're willing to give up quite a bit to avoid that.

SM: I think I disagree there. If it had been a more compressed cycle, that would have helped Biden more, right? The fact that it was so drawn out gave voters and activists a lot of chances to see Biden mess up in debates and to get to know some of his potential challengers. They stuck with Biden anyway, but if they'd decided to dump him, it would have largely been because of his performances in a very long 2019, no?

JA: I think by the time a lot of less engaged people started paying attention, many of the candidates had already dropped out. Name recognition, poll numbers, and fundraising are all sort of a cycle, right? Mutually reinforcing?

I want to get to a couple of the other Q's you posed. Like is Biden a good candidate?

SM: Yes, let's discuss that. Do you think Biden is a good nominee? Or where would you place him compared to other historical examples?

JA: I think there's a lot we don't know. One question I keep coming back to is how good are Biden's political instincts?

SM: Good question.

JA: He does seem to satisfy some important constituencies within the party, but the ones who are unhappy are not likely to be pacified with VP picks or even policy positions. They might fall in line because of the whole Trump situation. I have a thought here that I need to develop more about what exactly makes a president a strong party leader, but I think in Biden you get the definite sense that the left/more-change-oriented wing "lost" and also that concerns about his possible sexual misconduct have been swept under the rug.

SM: I mainly agree. From the interviews I've been doing and the conversations I've been following, a lot of people within the party have been overwhelmingly fearful of repeating 2016 -- like, before this virus, that's what kept them up at night -- and they're willing to give up quite a bit to avoid that. A number of them were convinced that a white moderate male nominee would avoid some of the problems of 2016. They generally can't prove that, but it's a belief that's been pretty hard to shake. Obviously, there are many within the party uncomfortable with that conclusion who didn't want to go that route, but it proved a strong narrative in an era when everything came down to wanting a win.

And you can already see the trajectory for possible sexual misconduct. It will fall to Biden's running mate to provide cover for this and to basically say "Look, do you want a maybe-one-time sexual misconduct guy who also was a major proponent of VAWA and has legit feminist policy credentials in the White House? Or Trump?" And "Believe Women" Democrats will look like hypocrites but we've also seen this script play out many times before.

JA: Yes. I think the ways this came down to gender, and perhaps also race, is a deeply depressing bad sign for party strength and for parties as sources of better representation, which in turn I think sets back the possibilities for party legitimacy.

But it's also true that African American leaders and voters came out for Biden and that's an important signal. It's the gender stuff that's fundamentally depressing.

We could do a whole other running mate chat.

I want to turn to your third question, which is why Sanders and Biden seem to be coordinating so much better than Sanders and Clinton in 2016. Which has only been happening for like 20 minutes so we have lots of opportunities to make ourselves look stupid.

SM: Oh I jump all over those opportunities. There are a lot of solid explanations for the Biden-Sanders collegiality. One of the ones I find interesting is their pre-existing friendship. Sanders has said something to the effect that Biden was nice to him in the Senate before he had to be. One of the things we as political scientists possibly under-analyze is the choices and attitudes of individual politicians. Bernie had a big divisive effect on 2016 by staying in much longer than most other candidates would have given the same math. And he's having more of a unifying effect this cycle, quite possibly because he likes Biden more than he liked Clinton. Is that because of misogyny? Because Biden is better at managing long political friendships and converting them into coalitional allies? Maybe all of the above?

Oh and also, virus and Trump.

JA: My best guess is it's a lot of the latter. I also don't think we have to say that Biden is better at managing these kinds of relationships than Clinton, categorically, to say that these two (Biden and Sanders) have a better relationship. I do think that's a factor that's hard to quantify and thus our discipline overlooks it.

And I don't want to discount misogyny, which is baked into everything. But context seems important here.

SM: Yeah. But a massive overriding factor of 2016 was that Hillary Clinton was broadly expected to win in November. I think party members, possibly including Sanders, approach 2020 less sure about a victory and wanting to minimize party divisions that could harm them in 

The real irony is that the Democrats might as well have tried a socialist, or a woman of color, or a gay person or anyone in a group that people thought couldn’t be elected. Because in fall 2020, the electorate was ready for change.

JA: In 2016, I'm guessing lots of Sanders supporters, and possibly Sanders himself, saw Clinton as a candidate who would govern a lot like Obama, and by 2016 there was quite a bit of disappointment in various left constituencies with Obama. They were positioning themselves to pull her left, possibly anoint a successor if she only ran for one term (which was sorta my theory about her). Trump winning seemed implausible. And we could, like, go to coffee shops and bars and weren't staring down 20% unemployment.

It’s striking to me that we agree about this despite our disagreement about how the party arrived at its nominee. A lot of interesting stuff lies in that space IMO.

SM: Yes, that's a good way of putting it. A third Obama term looked very different to the left in 2016 than it does in 2020.

JA: I suspect that in 10-20 years I will teach this election year this way: the real irony is that the Democrats might as well have tried a socialist, or a woman of color, or a gay person or anyone in a group that people thought couldn’t be elected. Because in fall 2020, the electorate was ready for change.

SM: I think that's right. The timing of all this is fascinating. I'm hesitant to make a real forecast, but there's a decent chance that 2020 will be at least a 2008-level change election, maybe more like a 1932 one, given what the economy's looking like. And the three-year-long fraught Democratic conversation over which candidate was more electable will look so silly a few months from now.


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