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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Who gets the nomination will tell us a lot about how strong the party is

Photo by Seth Masket

Is the Democratic Party weak or strong? That is, does it have the power to determine who gets its nomination? Or is that just subject to voters' whims?

This is a subject of considerable importance as we get into the crucial and competitive phase of the 2020 presidential nomination cycle. One of the major questions on the minds of parties scholars is whether the Democratic Party of 2019 is in roughly the same shape as the Republican Party of 2015 -- lots of candidates, few coherent elite preferences, and no real way for the party to pick favorites or winnow out undesired candidates. We're going to get a test of this soon.

What I'd like to do here is suggest what a victory by some of the major candidates on the Democratic side should tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of the party. I'm not saying whose nomination is more likely, and I'm definitely not saying whose would be good for the party or the country. I also recognize that there are a lot of aspects of party strength and weakness that I'm simplifying here (screening some candidates out and actively picking the nominee are not exactly the same thing). Nonetheless, for each candidate I list, the question is, what would their nomination inform us about how strong or weak the Democratic Party is? I list them in declining order of apparent party strength.

Cory Booker and Kamala Harris - Strong

I'm classifying both these candidates the same way, since they face similar circumstances. Both have strong and longstanding support within the activist community, and both have substantial numbers of endorsements. At least at the moment, though, this support from the party is not translating into support from primary voters and caucusgoers. Either of them winning the nomination, despite tepid early support from rank and file voters, would be consistent with a strong Democratic Party that can pick the sorts of nominees it wants and pull party voters along.

Joe Biden - Moderately strong

Biden, as the two-term Vice President in a popular Democratic administration, whose ideological stances seem roughly at the party's median, is the sort of candidate who would normally have a pretty easy time winning the nomination. He's filling the slot of previous party nominees like Al Gore (2000), George H.W. Bush (1988), and Richard Nixon (1960). He's popular among key constituencies within the party, particularly African Americans and union members, and many voters within the party are convinced he is the most electable potential candidate. However, the party has rejected his nomination bid several times before, and it's not clear what he's done to overcome the shortfalls that existed at those times. He also has seemed to underperform in public appearances this cycle, occasionally fumbling with words and saying borderline offensive statements. Nonetheless, given that he's the sort of candidate parties often seek to nominate, his nomination here would suggest a moderately strong party.

Amy Klobuchar and Julián Castro - Somewhat strong

These two have demonstrated some real strengths as candidates in recent debates, and it's not crazy to imagine them doing well in later polls. They have some support among party insiders and are clearly speaking to important constituencies within the party. Neither is particularly poised to be the nominee right now, but one could imagine party elites rallying behind one of them and giving them the boost they need to be competitive in the early primary states.

Elizabeth Warren - Mixed

Warren is possibly shaping up to be a candidate not unlike Howard Dean in 2004 or Gary Hart in 1984 -- someone beloved by college-educated liberals and some marginalized groups, but not necessarily universally embraced by the party. She has been gaining in support among activists and primary voters, and these gains seem very much earned, but that's a mixed lesson; party elites didn't necessarily embrace her earlier, but have come to like her as she's impressed them with her debate performances and other campaign appearances. That's to her credit, but it's also something of a candidate-centered style of politics that isn't indicative of a strong party. That said, while her policy stances are to the left of the party's median, they are still within its mainstream. Nominating her would be consistent with past party stances.

Pete Buttigieg - Somewhat weak

The mayor of Indiana's fourth-largest city, who was not yet alive when the first two "Star Wars" films were released, would not be a conventional party nominee. He has not been at the top of activists' favorites, nor has he shown great strength in endorsements. Yet he's a proven fundraiser and a skilled campaigner, apparently connecting with a number of primary voters and doing impressive ground-game organization in the early contest states. He's also tapped into at least some of the coalition that gave Obama the nomination a decade ago (recent misquotes notwithstanding). Overall, Buttigieg's nomination would seem to be largely a function of his own skills rather than a product of the plans of party leaders.

Bernie Sanders - Weak

Sanders' cool relationship with the Democratic Party has continued throughout this season. He continues to distance himself from the party and thumb his nose at the DNC whenever he can. And substantial numbers of Democratic insiders are really not comfortable with him. That said, his views seem far less distinct from the party's in this cycle than they did four years ago -- more due to the party's movement than his own. It would be surprising if he won the nomination, but he's hardly the least likely candidate.

Michael Bloomberg - Extremely weak

If a wealthy candidate can skip half a year of debates, dismiss most of the key activities candidates do during the invisible primary, ignore the first four state contests, and then just jump in and win the nomination by virtue of his own resources, that's a really weak party.

Tulsi Gabbard - Dead

Gabbard does not seem particularly well-liked among Democrats, and her main support has been among Republicans. What's more, she's mostly campaigning on Breitbart, Fox, and other conservative outlets. Say what you want about Gabbard as the Democratic nominee, but it would signal a party with just about no agency whatsoever.

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