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The DNC: damned if it does, damned if it doesn't

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The recent flap between Bernie Sanders and the Democratic National Committee highlights something important and, for many people, novel: The DNC exists, and it actually plays a role in politics.

The conflict seems to have been resolved, and judging from Saturday night's debate, the Clinton and Sanders campaigns seem happy to put this issue behind them. But the whole situation revealed an important way in which formal party organizations are highly relevant to the parties and to the campaigns through their control of information.

The voter lists managed by the DNC are vital to campaigns, allowing them to optimize their voter turnout and contact efforts and focus on their hardcore supporters and those most receptive to their messages. Gathering and maintaining those lists is expensive and difficult, and the formal party doing that means campaigns don't have to reinvent the wheel every four years. They can simply buy into what the DNC already has.

Many party scholars (including, on occasion, us) tend to dismiss the role of formal party organizations like the DNC. It's not that they are irrelevant; it's just that their power is limited, and most of the important decisions and actions by parties occur elsewhere in the party networks. The fact that an organization like the DNC can't officially take sides in a nomination battle and doesn't want to be seen obviously helping one candidate over the other tends to limit its role in important party decisions.

Nonetheless, we're seeing some interesting indications this year that the formal party committees still have roles to play. This includes the Republican National Committee. The national organization pushed back against CNBC after it was unhappy with the news outlet's handling of an October debate, and Reince Priebus opened up last Tuesday's debate with a brief monologue about the race.

Although both national organizations have stepped into the foreground more than usual, they've been met with very different types of criticism. The underlying criticisms coming out of the Sanders situation are that the DNC, in David Axelrod's words, has its finger on the scale for the Clinton campaign. This would, of course, be an unambiguous violation of the role the party organization is supposed to play. It also makes strategic sense. Party insiders have a long history of picking favorites and limiting competition in primaries. Indeed, the formal party organizations are really the only parts of the larger party networks that take any heat for taking sides in a competitive nomination process. For everyone else, it's expected.

If the Democrats have done too much coordination, shutting out competitors and tilting the intraparty competition unfairly toward Clinton, the RNC appears to have the opposite problem. As Jon Ladd pointed out last week, party elites of various stripes appear to have been unable or unwilling to coordinate on a favorite, creating space for Donald Trump. It's possible that the RNC didn't really want to tip the scales in favor of, say, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. And if it did, it hasn't done a great job.

This has been the pattern in recent presidential elections. More and more candidates actually file to run on the Republican side in what appear to be increasingly chaotic nominations contests, while fewer viable Democrats seem to be filing. We're seeing a similar pattern at the congressional level: Since 2010, vastly more Republicans than Democrats are filing to run for office, and GOP nomination contests are becoming more heated. The Republicans seem to be experiencing a combination of over-recruitment and undercoordination, while Democrats may be experiencing the opposite.

It's difficult to say why this is happening, but the implications for the 2016 cycle are starting to become apparent. The Republican nomination is a lively contest, and unless something drastic changes very quickly, we'll go into the primary season without a sense of whom the nominee will be. Each candidate has a different interpretation of what it means to be conservative and to carry on the legacies of recent Republican leaders. And many of the candidates in the field — Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie — have claims to both establishment and outsider credibility.

In the Democratic field, there's a clear favorite and a clear underdog whose actual political affiliation comes from outside the party. (And there's Martin O'Malley, in case you forgot.) Clinton may have substantial skills as a politician, but few perceive her nomination contest with Sanders as a fair fight. The deck is stacked in her favor in many ways, from endorsements to infrastructure, violating one of the tenets of procedural intraparty democracy.

This phenomenon reflects some existing observations in the literature about the asymmetry of parties. Recent research suggests that Democratic presidents have neglected party building, which means party networks and organizations tend to be dominated by the presidential candidates they serve. Republicans, on the other hand, have built a more robust and less candidate-centric party organization. Furthermore, the party has a stronger preoccupation with ideology, perhaps at the expense of other considerations. The roles played by the RNC and the DNC so far this cycle illustrate these differences.

Both parties have strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, it appears the formal party organizations are actually attempting to address some of those weaknesses. Unfortunately, fixing party problems often means taking sides, and that’s just the sort of thing we’re least comfortable having the formal party organizations do.

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