Recently at Vox, Ezra Klein published a very smart discussion of whether the Democratic primary was rigged. His answer to that question is spot-on — it wasn’t rigged, but Democratic leaders did a lot to help Hillary Clinton. Just as they have in many other primaries, prominent Democrats helped coordinate resources for their candidate, and that candidate won.
But I want to take issue with the second part of Klein’s piece, which he correctly notes sounds odd to a political scientist. Klein says that informally favoring Clinton was a mistake. By clearing the field for her, they also cleared it for Bernie Sanders. In the future, the party should let the primaries play out as they will.
There are three problems with this.
First, yes, clearing the field probably helped Sanders. Without that, he would have been buried by traditional Democrats. But he still lost. And if we’re honest, he was never close. Barack Obama versus Clinton in 2008 was a close race. Clinton versus Sanders in 2016 simply was not. Even as Sanders was winning some delegates, at almost no time during the contest was he winning enough to be on track to win the nomination.
Still, his strong showing did hurt Clinton and the Democratic Party. Sanders had a platform to bash the Democratic nominee. Given the razor-thin margin by which Donald Trump won in a few states, even small things like that could matter. A more marginalized Sanders might have done less damage to Clinton’s campaign. Then again, a bloody primary with a more well-known, mainstream candidate might have left the eventual winner just as damaged.
Second, there’s no reason to believe that not clearing the field would have given a better outcome. Indeed, some argue that part of the Republicans’ problem in 2016 was precisely that the party failed to coordinate on a mainstream, acceptable candidate, and so the anti-Trump vote was spread too thin to block him. If Republicans had cleared the field for, let’s say John Kasich, maybe we’d be reading about how that helped Trump come in second.
Finally, there are issues with the conclusion that party leaders should just leave things to the primaries. Klein writes that “voters don’t like the feeling that someone is trying to make their choice for them” and that “the party doesn’t have very good information that far before a general election.” True. But the primaries are no better.
The sequential state-by-state primaries we have in the United States are not very democratic. They overvalue the voters in a handful of early states, and they disadvantage candidates who cannot raise money and an organization to continue to compete week after week. This is not an environment for voters to have an unbiased voice heard.
Something helps narrow voters’ choices for them. In a general election, voters can follow the cue that the party itself gives them. In the primary, they need something. It could be the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who narrow the field. It could be wealthy independent donors. Or it could be party leaders, who are at least thinking broadly about the entire party.
It’s important to remember that throughout all of this, the influence that party leaders have is very informal and very minimal. They could make more careful leadership choices at a convention, the way party leaders do in most democracies. In the United States, they can’t do that. All they can do is nudge things; that is, they can lead. The biggest mistake, I think, would be for party leaders to not try to lead at all.