It’s OK That Our Political Parties Aren’t United … for Now

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Party divisions at this point in a nominating contest aren’t necessarily damaging to that party’s fall prospects, but the candidates better figure out how to get their supporters to play nice come summer.

By Seth Masket


Donald Trump speaks to guests at a campaign rally at Burlington Memorial Auditorium on October 21, 2015, in Burlington, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The country’s major political parties don’t appear to be very united right now. Hillary Clinton looks to have pretty much sewn up the Democratic nomination, but many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters are threatening not to back her. And the Republicans are in major disarray despite Donald Trump’s near lock on the nomination. Just how much will this hurt the parties in the fall? Will divided constituencies or contested conventions derail the best laid November plans?

In a recent New York Times piece, Adam Nagourney pursues this line of thinking. He suggests that the Democrats lost the 1968 presidential election in part because of their highly controversial nominating convention that summer in Chicago. And Gerald Ford lost in 1976, he suggests, in part because of Ronald Reagan’s substantial challenge for the Republican nomination, which resulted in a tumultuous convention. Is this the sort of thing hurting the parties this year?

Actually, party divisions at this point aren’t necessarily damaging to that party’s fall prospects, and are quite common as a contested nomination comes to a close. The main thing that the summer and fall campaign activities do is bring party loyalists home. They remind Democrats of all the things that they dislike about Republicans and how even the worst Democrat is 10 times better than the best Republican. They remind Republicans of just the opposite. Partisans tend to fall in line.

Remember that, should Trump face a devastating defeat in the fall, it won’t be because he won a contentious nomination race or endured a raucous convention.

Just as an example, Nagourney notes that roughly a quarter of Sanders’ supporters said they won’t back Clinton in the fall. That would be devastating to the Democratic ticket if it panned out. Roughly half of Clinton’s backers in 2008, however, said they could never support Barack Obama. In the end, nearly all did.

Indeed, looking to contested nominations contests to see what kind of effect they have on general elections tends to get it backwards. You’re more likely to see an ugly nomination contest or divisive convention because the presumed nominee looks weak. Reagan challenged Ford in 1976 in large part because Ford, who had never run outside of Michigan and had recently pardoned Richard Nixon, looked like a vulnerable incumbent. Teddy Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nod in 1980 because Democrats looked likely to lose with Carter at the top of the ticket. President Obama didn’t win in 2012 because he didn’t face a primary challenger; he didn’t face a primary challenger because he looked like a good bet for re-election.

Similarly, Republicans are having a hard time rallying behind Trump right now partially because he doesn’t appear to be a very good Republican, but also, as polls suggest, because his candidacy looks like a sure-fire loser for the fall. Party leaders and activists are willing to forgive quite a few ideological apostasies if they will guarantee a victory (see Dwight Eisenhower and Arnold Schwarzenegger), but compromising everything you believe in and losing huge anyway is not a great outcome.

Now, this isn’t to say that all intra-party strife will vanish once the nominations occur. One reason parties tend to be united by the general election is because the factions do a lot of fence-mending. Obama’s and Clinton’s teams did quite a bit of outreach to each other in 2008, helping the party heal some pretty deep rifts. Clinton is already making overtures to Sanders’ supporters this year, and Sanders will likely follow suit shortly after the last primaries in early June, if not sooner.

But the Republican situation is a lot more complicated this year. Even if Trump clinches the nomination prior to the Republican convention, that event won’t necessarily be a party love-fest. Indeed, quite a few prominent party leaders may end up boycotting it, or just calling in sick. Some may try to back other campaigns, or simply refuse to help Trump. It’s possible that Trump could make some conciliatory overtures to his detractors within the party, but this doesn’t appear to be his strong suit.

Still, it’s important to remember that, should Trump face a devastating defeat in the fall, it won’t be because he won a contentious nomination race or endured a raucous convention. It’ll be because he looked like a terrible general election candidate from the outset.