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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Fine, Dems are in Disarray. Here's Why.

Sanders rally in Manchester, NH. (Photo by Seth Masket)

I usually push back at claims that the Democratic Party is in disarray, particularly right in the middle of a nomination contest. It's supposed to be a messy process, after all. Messiness needn't prevent the party from finding a nominee and rallying around that person. But it seems reasonable to conclude that some aspects of this cycle are weird. For one thing, we're now several weeks past Iowa, and there are different polling, endorsement, delegate count, and campaign spending leaders. Very few candidates dropped out after the initial contests, and it's not at all clear who the most likely candidate for the nomination is right now.

But why? What makes this cycle so unusual? This is a lot of what my book is about, so I wanted to explain this a bit here. I claim that the processes for deciding the two things a party needs to figure out before making a nomination -- what it wants and who is most likely to get it for them -- have been messed up. The culprit is negative partisanship generally, and Donald Trump more specifically. Allow me to explain.

As laid out in the "Theory of Parties" article a few years ago, the ideal party nominee is a combination of two main factors. First, that person should be broadly acceptable to major factions in the party and able to deliver on things that people in the party care about. Second, that person should be electable. A party doesn't want to nominate just anyone who can win an election, because they actually want some things out of that person when they're in office. But they don't want to ignore electability completely, since there's no point in picking a person who's good on the issues but can't win.

Of course, party insiders might weigh these two factors differently based on recent events. The authors of The Party Decides noted an important time trend after an election loss – the out party will sometimes nominate a relatively extreme candidate their first election out of power, but, losing that, will moderate with each passing cycle to increase their chances of victory. As a party spends more time out of power, they’ll become increasingly desperate for a win, to the point where they’re willing to give up almost everything that their party stands for. In 1952, for example, the Republicans, after five consecutive presidential losses, were so hungry for a victory that they nominated Eisenhower without even knowing to what party he belonged, no less what his issue stances were.

This pattern – increasing moderation with time out of power – certainly makes sense, but that first term, in which the out party is willing to nominate a relative extremist (think Barry Goldwater in 1964 or George McGovern in 1972) is an interesting one. Compared to how they will later act, party insiders at this point are willing to take a chance. They don’t want to lose the election, but they are willing to raise the odds that that will happen for the sake of nominating someone they truly believe in.

But think how this interacts with negative partisanship, the pattern of Americans not necessarily liking their own party any more than they used to, but increasingly despising the other party, even to the point of viewing it as a threat to the nation. The costs of losing a presidential election seem substantially higher than they did just a decade or two ago.

Negative partisanship can make the out party after just one term act more like a desperate party that has been out of power for two or three terms or more. Notably, Republicans truly did not like Barack Obama for the most part, and in 2012, after just one term out of office, they nominated Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts who had signed health care reform into law at the state level. To be sure, Romney moved rightward to become a more conventional GOP nominee, but he was actually one of the more moderate choices party insiders faced in the 2012 cycle. The Republican Party had become substantially more conservative in the previous few years, but it was willing to nominate a conventional Republican with a history of moderation because they thought it would give them a win. They were acting like a party that had been out of power for a lot longer than one term, in part because the ongoing presence of Obama in the White House was an affront to everything they believed in.

Now apply that to the Democrats facing Trump’s reelection campaign. Trump’s approval rating among Democrats (now in single digits) is about half that of Obama’s approval rating among Republicans. And needless to say, Trump’s governing style is far different from Obama’s. Trump’s whole approach is to be relentlessly in Democrats’ face whenever possible, even to the point of trolling party leaders on Twitter and mocking them with nicknames. To Democrats, Trump’s governing style, his policy aims, and his frequent norm violations (and impeachable offenses) are more than just wrong – they are infuriating and exhausting. For Democrats, the costs of losing in 2020 seem far greater than they did in previous election cycles.

Survey evidence supports this. A series of YouGov polls taken the year prior to recent presidential elections shows that Democrats this cycle far prefer an electable candidate to one who agrees with them on issue positions, and that's a significant departure from the past. Democrats after just one term of Trump are acting like Republicans after five terms of Roosevelt and Truman – willing to jettison a considerable amount of their commitments just for the sake of a win.

I certainly don't mean to suggest all Democratic activists can be described this way – some are more determined than ever to press for longstanding party priorities – but the prioritization of electability seems to be a lot stronger than usual this cycle.

But how do they determine which candidate is the most electable? That's where election narratives come in. It's very common for party leaders to "fight the last battle," determining why they lost the last election and use that to figure out whom to nominate next time. If party leaders figure they lost in 1988 because they nominated a northeastern liberal, that's easy to fix -- go with a southern moderate in 1992.

But as my book research shows, there has been little agreement among party activists about why they lost in 2016. Some say the problem was Hillary Clinton. Others say the problem was the campaign. Others blame messaging. Still others blame Bernie Sanders, or Russia, or James Comey, or sexism in the media. It was a strange enough and close enough election that almost any of these explanations is plausible. Usually, once you figure out the narrative, you can figure out the path forward and the type of nominee to pick for next time. But party activists haven't come close to a consensus on a narrative. If anything, they're more divided now about why they lost that election than they were in 2017.

All this is to say that the normal process by which party insiders pick a presidential nominee has been short-circuited. That doesn't necessarily tell us which way the party will go. But it suggests that the types of nominees Democrats have come up with in the past -- experienced politicians with stances that are broadly acceptable to groups within the party -- are at a disadvantage this time around.

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