Democrats might have the stronger party. They also have a harder job.
The results of this year’s Super Tuesday have resurrected the idea that “the party decides” as well as the candidacy of Joe Biden. What we observed over the last week or so does fit the theory: Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed Biden, leading him to victory in South Carolina. A few days later, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg ended their candidacies and endorsed the former vice president. Biden appears to have swept Super Tuesday, in both states where he was expected to do well and those where he wasn’t. The contrast with Republicans in 2016 is pretty clear.
Does this mean the system “worked?” First, I agree with Hans Noel that it’s early and there’s lots we don’t know. But it’s also important to think about the demands of the Democratic Party coalition when we assess the effectiveness of the party. And there are several glaring strategic and institutional problems. Let's start with the process itself. Super Tuesday was a pretty good set of states to have early influence, if we have to do it that way – two huge states, regional variation, demographic diversity. But most of the candidates didn’t get there. None of the mainstream candidates of color did. Winnowing this way allows an unstructured group of pundits, donors, and endorsers to set the agenda and limit the choice at the exact moment it matters.
Next, the left hasn’t fully consolidated. While Elizabeth Warren hasn’t done very well, she has a small but dedicated following, and a lot of tension seems to exist between the Warren and Sanders camps. For the sizable number of Democratic primary voters who might like to see the party move to the left on policy issues and abandon a perspective that’s rooted in the Obama era status quo, consolidating would be good way to compete with the more centrist wing.
The largest and most important problem, from a general election perspective, is that the current system offers very little to reconcile the clashing Biden and Sanders wings. The incentives of the process are for candidates to cultivate personal followings, which creates an impossible situation in a close two-way race. The Democrats had that kind of race in 2016 and it looks like 2020 might shape up that way as well.
A candidate-centered and highly informal system offers few opportunities for reconciliation. There’s the platform, which organized interests care about but few read. There’s the vice presidential nomination. Vice presidents are actually increasingly important as the executive branch grows. But as a party move it can reek of second-best for nomination contenders or politicians from underrepresented demographic groups. Such is life in a system that fetishizes candidates and denigrates parties.
The Democratic Party has a long history as a coalition party, and when the issue was bringing together urban immigrants and Southern segregationists, there were still some institutions that could do this. Now that the challenge is holding center-left and left factions, the institutions for compromise and collective decision-making have been weakened, replaced by a complex formal primary process that party leaders can’t actually stand to see fully unfold.
Instead, the nomination system, combined with the state of partisan affairs more broadly, created a contest fought over two ephemeral concepts: the establishment, and electability. Neither of these debates helps the party move closer to representing its ideologically and demographically diverse base on issues. Neither helps advance policy goals. Both ideas exacerbate conflict and resentment within the party coalition.
Republicans, as Seth Masket pointed out some time ago, have some advantages over Democrats when it comes to partisan consolidation. While serious fissures exist in the Republican coalition, some core messages and appeals can unify those factions to a degree. What’s more, the Electoral College map allows Republicans to win the presidency with a fairly minimal partisan coalition. Democrats, on the other hand, could win the popular vote by a substantial margin and still lose in the Electoral College, according to estimates by election analyst G. Elliott Morris. Democrats cannot afford a disgruntled party faction, even if they are capable of coordinating to defeat it.
A better system could look lots of different ways, with party leaders and voters setting the agenda and making the final decision in a variety of plausible combinations – a more meaningful role for delegates at the convention, a regional primary system, a preference primary, a more robust and participatory convention. But the problems of the system are still multi-faceted: an informal process of endorsements structures the formal primary system to the point of undermining it. This isn’t a conspiracy or anything illicit, but it does lack transparency and hasn’t been useful in incorporating new perspectives into the party institution. Anti-establishment populists have been all too eager to take the opportunity to tear down institutions. Democrats love inspiring candidates, and sometimes those emerge. Diverse and complicated coalitions also need institutions that work and help reconcile differences when there’s no candidate who can paper over them. Lack of serious investment in those seems to be one thing that all sides agree on.