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Was the Democratic primary rigged?

Democrats made a big mistake in the 2016 primary.

Hillary Clinton Campaigns In North Carolina Ahead Of Election Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Even for the Democratic Party, the past few weeks have been bizarre. First, Donna Brazile, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, published excerpts of a forthcoming book in which she says that after she took over the Democratic National Committee, she investigated “whether Hillary Clinton’s team had rigged the nomination process” through the DNC, and discovered evidence that they did. “I had found my proof and it broke my heart,” she wrote.

In the aftermath of Brazile’s bombshell, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked if she “agree[d] with the notion that it was rigged?” “Yes,” she replied.

Within a few days, both Brazile and Warren walked their statements all the way back. Brazile now says she found “no evidence” the primary was rigged. Warren now says that though there was “some bias” within the DNC, “the overall 2016 primary process was fair.”

I have spent much of the past week trying to untangle this story, interviewing people on all sides of the primary and in a variety of positions at the DNC. The core facts are straightforward: As Barack Obama’s presidency drew to a close, the DNC was deep in debt. In return for a bailout, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign more potential control over its operations and hiring decisions than was either ethical or wise. But those operations were mostly irrelevant to the primary and couldn’t have been used to rig the process even if anyone had wanted to use them that way; the primary schedule, debate schedule, and rules were set well in advance of these agreements. “I found nothing to say they were gaming the primary system,” Brazile told me. And while that contradicts the more sensational language she used in her book, it fits the facts she laid out both in her original piece and since.

But there’s a larger context that is more important than what happened at the DNC and is getting lost in the back and forth over joint fundraising agreements and staffing power. The Democratic Party — which is a different and more complex entity than the Democratic National Committee, and which includes elected officials and funders and activists and interest groups who are not expected to be neutral in primaries — really did favor Hillary Clinton from early in the campaign, and really did shape the race in consequential ways.

The irony is that Sanders was a prime beneficiary of this bias, not a victim of it. The losers were potential candidates like Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Warren, or Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — and, thus, Democratic primary voters, who ended up with few choices in 2016. To the extent Democratic primary voters feel like they were denied a broad range of candidates in 2016, and that party officials tried to clear the field to coronate Clinton, well, they’re right.

Democratic elites, defined broadly, shaped the primary before voters ever got a chance to weigh in, and the way they tried to shape it was by uniting behind Clinton early in the hopes of avoiding a bruising, raucous race. The question — which is important going forward, not just for relitigating 2016 — is whether that was the right decision. I don’t think it was.

The 2016 primary really was weird

There were five candidates onstage at the first Democratic primary debate of 2015: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, ex-Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, and ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Of these candidates, only two — Clinton and O’Malley — were longtime Democrats. For an open primary in an at least plausibly Democratic year, this was an absurdly small field. The Republican primary, by comparison, had 17 candidates competing.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate In Las Vegas
Where are the rest of them?
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s easy to imagine Democrats who might have run in 2016. There’s Biden and Warren and Hickenlooper, but there was also New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to name just a few. But all of these candidates, and all the other candidates like them, ultimately passed on the race. Why?

Part of it was that Hillary Clinton seemed almost certain to win the nomination. It’s easy to forget now, but Clinton was extremely popular as recently as 2014 — Gallup found she was the most popular potential candidate in either party, with a favorability rating of 55 percent. “Clinton’s iconic status is, increasingly, the only clear advantage the Democratic Party has,” wrote Ross Douthat at the time.

But part of it was the way elected officials, donors, and interest groups coalesced behind Clinton early, making it clear that alternative candidates would struggle to find money and staff and endorsements and media coverage. Clinton had the explicit support of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and the implicit support of the Obama wing. She had spent decades building relationships in the party, and she leveraged them all in 2016. “Hillary had a lot of friends, and so did Bill,” says Elaine Kamarck, author of Primary Politics. This, in reality, is why Biden didn’t run: President Obama and his top staffers made quietly clear that they supported Clinton’s candidacy, and so she entered the field with the imprimatur that usually only accords to vice presidents.

Political junkies talk about the “invisible primary,” which Vox’s Andrew Prokop, in an excellent overview, describes as “the attempts by important elements of each major party — mainly elites and interest groups — to anoint a presidential nominee before the voting even begins. ... These insider deliberations take place in private conversations with each other and with the potential candidates, and eventually in public declarations of who they're choosing to endorse, donate to, or work for.”

Clinton dominated this invisible primary: She locked up the endorsements, the staff, and the funders early. All the way back in 2013, every female Democratic senator — including Warren — signed a letter urging Clinton to run for president. As FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker showed, Clinton even outperformed past vice presidents, like Al Gore, in rolling up party support before the primaries:

FiveThirtyEight endorsement tracker

The show of strength from Clinton and her allies was a way of warning off other candidates. She had the money, the support, the staff. Did they really just want to run and lose to her — and maybe alienate her and her team in the process?

Most possible Democratic candidates looked at this and decided no, they didn’t. They had too much to lose. And so that left a huge opening for a candidate with very little to lose.

How Bernie Sanders benefited from the party’s pro-Clinton bias

Just as it’s hard to remember what a popular, dominant political force Clinton appeared to be in 2014, it’s hard to remember how much more marginal a figure Sanders was. Back then, it was Elizabeth Warren who was thought the champion of the American left, the scourge of the banks, the enemy of the billionaires. Sanders was a gadfly senator with no major legislation to his name who idiosyncratically refused to officially join the Democratic Party. Gallup didn’t even include him in its polls.

But freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Sanders didn’t need anything from the Democratic Party or from Hillary Clinton. He wasn’t afraid of her ire or trying to win consideration for a Cabinet position. He wanted his message heard, and the Democratic primary gave him a vehicle to make the world listen.

Sen. Bernie Sanders Holds Rally On Jobs, Health Care And The Economy Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images

And then he got a gift. Clinton, in reality, didn’t just clear the Democratic field for herself — she cleared it for Sanders also. If he’d been running in a race that included Warren and Biden and Booker, it might have been a lot harder for his voice to break through. But he was really just running against Clinton and O’Malley. He was the only candidate representing the party’s populist-liberal wing and, given O’Malley’s failure to ignite voters, also the only candidate who offered Clinton’s critics a chance to stop her coronation.

Clinton’s obvious and overwhelming support among party elites also gave Sanders a potent issue, particularly among Democratic voters who weren’t fans of the frontrunner. Sanders’s whole message was that the powerful and connected were rigging the systems of wealth and influence against the powerless, and here, in the Democratic Party, was one more example. Look at how few debates there were. Look at the emails in which DNC staffers clearly preferred Clinton. Look at all Clinton’s endorsements, her money, her machine. Did this look fair to you? Did this feel fair to you?

“They handed him a wedge issue,” says Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “It connected to his entire message about the elite versus the people.”

Other candidates I spoke to during and after the primaries recalled how hard it was to get money from Democratic funders, how hard it was to attract top Democratic staff. And then there were the Democratic debates — or lack thereof.

"The Republicans began debating every other week beginning in July,” recalls O’Malley. “And we were silent until October. Then we had our one primetime debate. That was in Las Vegas. And then we weren’t on primetime again until Iowa happened."

It’s not clear, in retrospect, that the sparse debate schedule was helpful for Clinton — debates are arguably her best medium. But what’s undeniable is that they were a way of limiting the voters’ exposure to the candidates.

None of this amounts to a rigging, or even anything particularly unusual. Brazile, for one, notes that she also worked to clear the field when she managed Gore’s 2000 campaign. “That’s politics,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

But it led to a primary in which Democratic voters had few choices, and few opportunities to hear from the choices they did have.

What’s a political party for, anyway?

It’s easy to bash the DNC’s joint fundraising agreement with Clinton, or the leaked emails showing that DNC staffers were supportive of Clinton and frustrated by Sanders. The DNC is meant to be a neutral presence in party primaries, and even minor deviations from that position are affronts.

The harder question in the larger one: What role should party elites play in primaries? It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that they fully decided primaries, meeting in smoky back rooms during the political conventions to hash out the next nominee. Before 2016, the reigning political science theory of primaries was called “the party decides,” and it argued that political elites still largely decided party primaries, albeit through influencing voters rather than controlling convention delegates.

Today we are unsettled on the role party elites should play. Many Democrats, and many Republicans, lament that GOP elites have completely lost control of their primaries, giving us not only Donald Trump but Judge Roy Moore. As the same time, many Democrats, and the Republican president of the United States, criticize Democrats for retaining too much control over their primaries. (Although Sanders’s near defeat of Clinton implies that Democratic elites have less control than is widely thought.)

To political scientists, all of this reads a bit oddly. After all, what are political parties there to do if not influence primaries? “Nominations define parties, so of course party actors are going to fight hard to define it how they want it to be,” writes Jonathan Bernstein. “As they should.”

Still, I think Democrats made a mistake clearing the field in 2016. I even think Clinton’s campaign made a mistake clearing the field in 2016. Coronation isn’t a good look for anyone, and voters don’t like the feeling that someone is trying to make their choice for them. My guess is Clinton would’ve still won in a larger field, but the win would have felt more earned, more legitimate. And if she lost — if, unlike Sanders, Biden had decided the American people had not yet heard enough about the damn emails, and had run hard on them, and had taken Clinton down — Democrats might have been saved a debacle.

The reason it’s unwise for the party to try to decide as firmly and as early as Democrats did in 2016 is the party doesn’t have very good information that far before a general election. Candidates who look strong prove weak. Voters who seem satisfied prove restive. Competitive primaries surface unexpected information. If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s that political elites shouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume they can predict future elections.

The 2016 Democratic primary wasn’t rigged by the DNC, and it certainly wasn’t rigged against Sanders. But Democratic elites did try to make Clinton’s nomination as inevitable, as preordained, as possible. And the party is still managing the resentment that engendered in voters. “Once somebody doesn’t trust you,” sighs Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic chair, “it’s very hard to get that trust back.”