The Carolina Comeback in Light of 2016
If you notice the party scholars in your life walking with a bit of a spring in their step lately -- including the authors of The Party Decides, who had kind of a rough 2016 -- there's good reason for this. (And please read this new piece by Hans Noel, one of that book's authors, if you haven't already.) The Democratic Party just pulled off something in the space of us a few days that many of us weren't sure a modern party could still do. It coordinated. And we weren't sure whether the party could do it because we watched the Republican Party repeatedly fail to do this just four years ago.
In 2015-16, Republican leaders saw a rising threat in the form of Donald Trump. As we at Mischiefs collectively wrote at the time, many Republican leaders were clearly and deeply uncomfortable with his candidacy. They worried he wasn't loyal to the party's agenda, and they feared he would cost them a winnable election. They had many opportunities to thwart his rise and repeatedly failed to do so. A number of prominent party and conservative movement leaders issued warnings, of course, but they never picked an alternative or convinced fellow partisans to rally around that candidate.
Up until a few days ago, that's what the Democratic Party looked like for the 2019-20 cycle. Well, okay, not exactly. Bernie Sanders is hardly as hostile to the Democrats' agenda as Trump seemed to his party's four years ago. The main threat that Democrats perceived in him was that he would lose to Trump in November.
This was not bandwagoning. It wasn't a matter of voters suddenly saying they liked Biden and all the party insiders just following along.
Also, Democrats had an easier time agreeing on a candidate than Republicans did four years ago. As I wrote at the end of January, by many measures, party insiders were leaning toward Joe Biden at that point. But the endorsements were rolling out slowly, many insiders were keeping their powder dry, and Biden looked to be on a Walter Mondale-like trajectory to the nomination rather than an Al Gore- or Hillary Clinton-like one. And then it got worse for Biden -- he underperformed in Iowa and New Hampshire, his overall popularity took a sharp dip, and other candidates simply weren't dropping out, leaving the non-Sanders vote divided.
For a while, it looked like Sanders, who only seemed to have around a third of party voters on his side, could cruise to a plurality or even a majority of the convention delegates by running against a divided field.
So what was it that happened in South Carolina that changed everything? I want to be clear on this: it was not bandwagoning. That is, it wasn't a matter of voters suddenly saying they liked Biden and all the party insiders just following along.
Notably, that did not happen after the earlier contests. Pete Buttigieg did unexpectedly well in Iowa. He won some plaudits for it, raised some money, but the party didn't move toward him. In the three days that followed the caucuses, he got just two new endorsements, according to FiveThirtyEight's endorsement tracker.
Bernie Sanders then cleaned up in the New Hampshire primary and then in the Nevada caucuses. But in the three days following those contests, he picked up only the endorsements of Bill de Blasio and Marianne Williamson. He showed that he could win those contests, but it didn't seem to move the party.
Then, a few days before the South Carolina primary, Rep. Jim Clyburn, the godfather of Palmetto State Democratic politics, endorsed Joe Biden, who in turn won the contest definitively. Biden had vowed all month that he could deliver the votes of African Americans, and events bore out the prediction. In the three days following that contest, Biden picked up 30 endorsements, including those of former Sen. Harry Reid (NV) and former DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe. Many who were holding back their support rushed to publicly back Biden. The strong South Carolina victory was the demonstration they needed. This pressured two of Biden's remaining competitors, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, to abandon their bids and endorse him.
With this strong signal of support -- a very loud message from the party that Biden was the person who could deliver the party's platform and defeat Trump -- and a smaller field, suddenly Biden had real strengths on Super Tuesday. The candidacy that looked to be on life support a few days earlier won the most state contests on Tuesday.
It's fascinating how quickly, and how late, this coordination occurred. I've generally thought of the period prior to the Iowa Caucuses as the time period when the party figures out a favorite and gives him or her the major advantages. But since 2004, coordination seems to have been moving somewhat later, with insiders treating the first four states as straw polls that are informative about the vote-getting ability of candidates, but not determinative of very many delegates. But Super Tuesday, with roughly a third of the total delegate take, had to be taken seriously, and so party insiders coordinated before it. Very shortly before it. And Democratic insiders were no doubt motivated to avoid what they saw as Republican insiders' failure four years ago.
Now, it's still pretty early in the process. There are still a lot of contests to come, and there are still more than two candidates running. And Sanders has a lot of strengths as a candidate and a very enthusiastic base. And this thing could still go to a contested convention, the outcome of which would be far from certain. And there's no certainty that Biden is the best choice the party could have made.
But at least for now, the Democratic Party looks like a party that knows how to actually pick a nominee and guide voters toward that choice. Had the GOP done this for Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Scott Walker, we'd be living in a very different country today.