Something’s happening in American politics right now – a big change, but easy to miss. The establishment machines of the two political parties, the Republican and Democratic National Committees, seem to be losing their once ironclad grip on the presidential primaries. Though still far from impotent, party power just isn’t what it used to be. And it makes one wonder if, perhaps, it was an illusion all along.
DNC Rules the Roost
One need look no further than the previous two presidential primaries to see the power exerted by the DNC. Despite achieving an early lead in the primaries and public opinion polls in 2020, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) joined fellow contenders Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democrat who served as a representative for Hawaii in the US House, in endorsing Joe Biden to be the nominee. As Liberty Nation’s Joe Schaeffer wrote at the time, “true progressives never stood a chance against the Swamp establishment.” Biden was the party’s golden boy, and, as Joe put it, “the DNC rules the roost.”
Sanders – and his now twice betrayed supporters – faced a similar treatment in 2016. Leaked emails from the DNC, widely reported on at the time, revealed that top Democrats dismissed Sanders as a viable candidate and attempted – apparently successfully – to undermine him with voters and to derail his campaign in favor of Hillary Clinton. Even then, Sanders was oddly loyal to the party he, to this day, refuses to officially join (even during his attempts at becoming the Democratic Party’s nominee, he sported the independent “I” after his name). Sanders asked his supporters to endorse Clinton and not to harbor any ill feelings. He warned voters not to get distracted by what was, essentially, a fixed primary, urging them to stay focused on the bigger goal: defeating Donald Trump.
The Iron Grip Relaxes – Or Does It?
Flash forward to the 2024 presidential primaries. Biden broke his promise to be a one-term, “transitional” president by running for re-election, and the DNC seemed to throw its full weight behind him. There have been no Democratic Party debates, and it has been largely taken for granted that Biden will once again be the nominee. For a time, no serious challenge to the president’s re-election seemed likely to come from within the party.
Author and 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson decided to take another shot at it, declaring her candidacy for the Democratic Party in February, but she hardly represents a serious challenger. Then came Cornel West, the philosopher and activist who previously served as an honorary chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America. West is running as an independent, but he represents the far left, and any voters he pulls will be from the Democrats or leftist third parties. Then there’s Jill Stein, who is running under the Green Party yet again.
And now Biden faces two – perhaps soon to be three – serious challenges. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), unlike Marianne Williamson, is an actual member of Congress with significant political clout who, as a self-declared “common sense enthusiast and bipartisan believer,” would appeal to many of the voters who chose Biden in 2020 but now suffer buyer’s remorse. Then there’s Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who originally declared as another Democratic contender only to leave the party and stay in the race as an independent. His leaving the party but not dropping out of the race was felt as a knife in the back to the party elite – the fact that he’s a member of the closest thing to a royal family the US or the Democratic Party has only makes it hurt that much worse.
Now factor in Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). He announced that he isn’t running for re-election to the Senate – a blow by itself to the hopes of a Democrat majority – and also that he’s out “traveling the country to see if there is an interest in creating a movement to mobilize the middle and bring Americans together.” For those not so fluent in politispeak, he’s testing the waters for a candidacy – either as an independent or, perhaps, with the No Labels Party – to take the White House. Will the establishment be able to protect its golden boy this time?
The RNC Rollback
The Democrats aren’t the only national party seemingly losing its grip on the presidential primaries. Party front-runner Donald Trump has been ignoring – and outperforming, for that matter – the GOP debates since the first one. Perhaps the bigger story here, however, was the RNC’s warning to candidates that they had better not attend the Thanksgiving Family Forum in Iowa last Friday (November 17). Former President Trump, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) were all invited to the event, sponsored by the Family Leader, a Christian organization.
“It has come to the attention of the RNC Counsel’s Office that several Republican presidential candidates have been invited to participate in an open-press event in Iowa in November at which they would ‘gather around the table to have a moderated, friendly, and open discussion about the issues.’ In other words, a debate,” a letter from the RNC read. “Accordingly, please be advised that any Republican presidential candidate who participates in this or other similar events will be deemed to have violated this pledge and will be disqualified from taking part in any future RNC-sanctioned presidential primary debates.”
This was reported on November 10. Later that day, DeSantis announced he still planned to attend the event – RNC warning be damned. “I’m gonna be there at the Family Leader. I think it’s an important part of the process,” he declared. The next day’s headline read: “RNC backs off on warning candidates about participating in Iowa Christian group’s forum.” Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats and the RNC claim to have worked it out, but the timing is suspicious.
While Trump holds the majority of the base according to the polls – 58.9% according to the RCP Average and 59.2% by 538’s reckoning – DeSantis is the clear leader among the rest. 538 shows him at 14.1% compared to Nikki Haley’s 9.5% and Vivek Ramaswamy’s 5%, and RCP has him at 14.4% to Haley’s 10.7% and Ramaswamy’s 4.7%. One could be forgiven for wondering if, just maybe, the highest-rated candidate aside from Trump calling the RNC’s bluff might be the real reason behind the rollback.
Is Change Coming to the Presidential Primaries?
Is the power of the parties fading – or simply being revealed as an illusion? “If ever there was a presidential election where the vice grip of parties would likely loosen, it is 2024, with four reasonably viable independent candidates at a time when party loyalty is near rock-bottom and both likely major party candidates have high negatives,” LN Senior Political Analyst Tim Donner explained. “Fact is, Democrats and Republicans are outnumbered by the voters who will ultimately swing the election one way or another, namely, independents.”
Much like the Hollywood trope of Voodoo magic only working on those who believe in it, the power of the two major parties only exists so long as voters are convinced no real alternative exists. A vote for anyone other than the top Democrat might as well be a vote for the Republican option and vice versa. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; so long as the majority believes it, it’s true. But candidates’ outright defiance of the national committees goes a long way to dispelling the illusion.