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How Functional Is the Democratic Party?

Some believe Democrats are now hampered by the same lack of coordination that gave Republicans a Trump nomination in 2016. But it's simply too soon to make that claim.
Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Brookings Institution on May 8th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Brookings Institution on May 8th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

In 2016, the Republican Party very publicly failed to accomplish one of the main tasks we expect parties to perform: coordinate around a presidential candidate. Was this failure unique to only one party, in only one year? Or are Democrats now hampered by the same problem?

We'll know soon. There's been a good deal of discussion recently over just what the Democratic presidential candidate field looks like for 2020. Quite a few people have made it clear they're thinking about running for president. That in itself is not a problem. There are always dozens (if not more) of prominent people thinking about running for president. The real question is what happens between now and the fall of 2019, when presumably some of these candidates will start emerging to campaign and engage in public debates.

In 2015 and 2016, Republicans famously failed to settle on a candidate. Compared to previous cycles, very few Republican governors, members of Congress, or operatives endorsed a presidential candidate prior to the caucuses and primaries. Those who did mostly split their support between Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and John Kasich (R-Ohio); never was support organized on a single person. This lack of a clear signal from the party, combined with an unusually large pool of candidates—many with access to substantial campaign funds—helped to create an environment in which a wealthy celebrity could draw attention and support.

Democrats face some of this challenge going into the 2020 cycle. There's a large field of candidates with no obvious coordination point. And the campaign finance system is decentralized enough that quite a few of these candidates could garner enough money to mount serious campaigns even without much support among party insiders. This potentially creates a situation not so unlike 2016: where not only are there dozens of candidates battling it out in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the nominee could turn out to be a wealthy celebrity with little history in, or commitment to, the party.

Judging from recent discussion, the crew at FiveThirtyEight believes this scenario is a real possibility. They gave significant consideration to a number of non-traditional candidates, including mayors and House of Representatives members, as well as several wealthy businesspeople and celebrities, including Mark Cuban and Oprah Winfrey. Jonathan Bernstein pushed back on this, arguing that the sort of dysfunction we saw among Republicans in 2016 is just not evident among Democrats right now. Bernstein posits they'll probably end up with a senator or governor as the nominee, just like they usually do.

So just how permeable is the Democratic Party right now to non-traditional outsiders? It's actually very hard to know. Contributing to this obfuscation is the fact that the Democratic National Committee is considering some rule changes, particularly with regard to superdelegates, which would give traditional party insiders less of a voice in picking presidential nominees. There's reason to be skeptical of superdelegates' willingness to buck the wishes of primary voters, but if that rule change moves the needle at all, it's toward greater permeability. So would encouraging more states to open up their Democratic primaries to independent voters.

During the course of my research, I've heard a range of outlooks on the Democrats' future. No, party activists and donors haven't coordinated on a candidate just yet. Quite a few have expressed interest in Joe Biden as a candidate; they see him as a potentially uniting figure for the party across many divides. Interest in him is particularly high in South Carolina, where he has made an endorsement in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Now, Biden is certainly a traditional kind of nominee, although his age (78 in January of 2021) and the fact that he already ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination are potentially problematic.

But activists threw out quite a few different names, mostly mentioning people who've visited their state recently. They haven't named very many non-traditional candidates, but at least some volunteered the opinion that, after Donald Trump, who knows what electability means?

Early evidence from this year's primary elections suggest the Democratic Party is not cracking up; it's having pretty typical intra-party contests and producing reasonably solid candidates in the process. But the presidential level will be a big test of the party. There's no reason for Democrats to have settled on a presidential candidate or a national message for 2020 by this point. It would be suspicious if they had. But the test is coming in the next year.