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Photographer: Chip Somodevilla

Don't Bury Political Parties Just Yet

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Is U.S. politics changing in important ways thanks to “new technologies and changing media norms,” with results that shift influence away from party leaders and other political elites?

That’s what Ezra Klein hypothesizes in an interesting essay in Vox. He's right, of course, that the flow of information is different from what it was 20 years ago when voters had only a handful of national newspapers and some cable and radio shows as sources for their political news. The growth of the partisan press, the proliferation of political analysis sites, and the shift from passive TV watching to Twitter and Facebook links --  it does seem impossible to impose order on how anything is generated, transmitted and absorbed.

But I wouldn’t count the parties out yet.

Klein points to four recent surprises: John Boehner’s resignation; the end of Scott Walker’s presidential campaign; the narrowed polling gap between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic nomination campaign; and the polling success of three candidates for a party's presidential nomination who have never run for office before. He speculates that perhaps the reason we're having so many surprises lately is that the basic ingredients of politics have shifted, so our old theories no longer hold up.

But I don't see how this all adds up to a fundamental shift. Let's start with Walker's demise. As Klein put it, the Wisconsin governor “looked to be the conservative establishment's pick for the GOP nomination.” Yet conservative leaders in the party simply didn’t rally to Walker, even when he had press buzz and polling momentum in early 2015. They weren’t going with anyone else, either, but without strong support from the party faction he needed, Walker had no floor under him when he slumped. The party, not voters or the press, played the main role in his downfall.  

Now let's look at the reasons for the Sanders surge. Clinton wrapped up the bulk of party support and high-profile endorsements early. Seeing that, practically every political observer predicted the media would build up someone, while tearing Clinton down, in hopes of generating at least the pretense of a competitive race. That it was Sanders, however, may owe something to what Klein identifies: Media sensitivity to newly available measures of which stories are of interest to readers and viewers. On the other hand, it wasn't as if Martin O’Malley or the other Clinton challengers were obvious alternatives. So while the Sanders rise was unexpected, it wasn't a surprise that polls in the Democratic race tightened.

As for Boehner's resignation, the public-opinion component was that House Republicans reported hearing lots of complaints about the speaker from constituents. But this wasn't because of anything new in how information moves from elites to the electorate. It happened because Republican radicals, in and out of Congress, loudly blamed Boehner for failing to achieve their goals. So it was elite party opposition that hurt Boehner’s image and subsequently turned him into public enemy No. 1 for many Republican voters.

Finally, how can we explain the success of "outsiders" in polling for the Republican presidential nomination? As I’ve been saying, anyone can have a polling surge in the many months before voters start paying attention. Donald Trump has been leading the polls and Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are doing well mostly because they’ve won the early-attention lottery. But we don't have any new reason to believe they will do well once voters are engaged in Iowa, next in other early states and then in the rest of the nation.

All this said, it's true that the ways parties compete and coordinate on nominations, and the ways they influence voters, depend on communication. And if the means of communication within the party and from the party to its voters changes, then how parties go about their business will shift too, and that certainly could significantly transform them. 

Parties changed quite a bit from the 1890s to the New Deal era, from the New Deal to the 1970s, and then from the 1970s to now. National components of parties have become stronger. Politicians became relatively stronger within the party for many years, but their power has declined considerably since what seems to have been a peak in the 1960s or 1970s. We used to talk about a “Shrum primary,” in which elite (and partisan) campaign professionals were thought to be particularly important players. Now we talk about Koch primaries, with a handful of rich (and partisan) donors giving huge amounts to their favored candidates.

Yes, parties will change. And it's good to be on the lookout for how anything from the rules of the game to basic modes of communication could write the next chapter.  

  1. No, previous election cycles had no one like Trump.  If he does well in the primaries, we'll need an explanation. Carson and Fiorina are a bit different. Carson is essentially one in a line of social conservative favorites, some of whom (Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum) had conventional qualifications for the presidency, while others (Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan) did not. In other words, he's a factional candidate within the party. Fiorina was a party-supported nominee for the U.S. Senate in California, so she isn't exactly an insurgent, either. 

  2. Both the so-called Shrum and Koch primaries have been overhyped at times, but it could be true that political operatives had more leverage within the parties a few decades ago, and that donors have more leverage now.  The parties remain strong (and have even strengthened), but changes within them may still be important.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net