The media villagers debate the death of political parties

Last month, POLITICO Tiger Beat on The Potomac published a provocative report entitled Last call for state parties? – By Byron Tau:

Screenshot-20For many state parties, the party may soon be over.

State party officials across the country say the explosion of money into super PACs, nonprofit groups and presidential campaigns has made fundraising more difficult. And some of those outside groups are starting to take over the traditional local roles state parties play, spending big on voter contact and outreach operations.

The effect is that candidates can be more beholden to national organizations or single-issue groups rather than state party leaders. That’s leading to a change in candidates and their beliefs and the issues that come up in elections and statehouses.

* * *

State parties on both sides of the aisle are seeing a major cash crunch.

State parties have long been responsible for the lion’s share of local voter contact, as well as providing a robust organization to train, develop and support candidates, budding operatives and local volunteers.

* * *

State parties can spend money on state elections and on federal elections, but the finances for both types of spending must be kept in separate accounts. POLITICO examined the federal data for all 100 state parties, with help from the law firm Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb. A separate analysis was conducted of state finances, using numbers collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

On both sides of the ledger, state parties have shown signs of financial strain. For in-state elections, state parties raised an average of $5.4 million in 2000. By 2008, that number had dropped to $4.1 million. By 2012, it was $2.8 million.

On the federal side, just four state parties out of 100 — all Republican — had more than $1 million of federal funds in the bank at the end of 2013.

And several state parties had almost no cash in the bank on the federal side. Fifteen of the 100 state parties — eight Democratic and seven Republican — have more debt than money in the bank.

* * *

Based on the increasingly competitive fundraising environment and facing dwindling resources, state officials on both sides are urging Congress to make life easier for state parties.

State parties are hamstrung by federal rules that affect the use of volunteers, direct mail and phone banking in federal elections. Also, donation limits to candidates and national political parties are currently indexed to inflation and increase year-to-year. But donation limits to state parties are not — and have been stuck at $10,000 per cycle since 2002.

* * *

In the Citizens United ruling and several subsequent court and administration decisions, unlimited cash was again permitted to flow into the system — but this time it had to be spent by independent groups, not local parties. Super PACs and nonprofits like American Crossroads, Restore Our Future and Priorities USA Action became an integral part of the campaign finance landscape.

That has changed the nature of politics in some states.

Now Chris Cillizza who writes “The Fix” column for the Washington Post – its version of POLITICO – explores the question Are national parties dying?:

Are we looking at the end of the national parties as we know them? There’s some reason to think the answer to that question is “yes.”

Here’s WaPo’s Matea Gold on the rise of Democratic super PACs and what it means for the Democratic National Committee:

With each move — building donor lists, organizing volunteers and hiring staff — these groups are in effect supplanting the role of the traditional party organization, only without a built-in framework for picking leaders, setting goals and accounting for spending.

Their expansion further pulls the center of political gravity away from the Democratic National Committee, which is struggling to pay off nearly $16 million in debt from 2012.

And here’s the New York Times’ Nick Confessore on Republican super PACs:

Parties have “lost the ability to control the process,” said Jim Nicholson, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, partly because of legislation that cut the flow of money to party committees. “The party can’t coordinate with these super PACs and neither can the campaigns, so there’s a lot more chaos and disequilibrium in the campaigns. And the party structure clearly has a diminished role because they don’t have the resources they used to have.”

The simple fact is the both the DNC and Republican National Committee — once the titans (financially and organizationally) of the two parties — have seen their influence shrink with the rise of wealthy individuals and the consultants who work with them in the post Citizens-United era.

“The declining significance of political parties in the wake of McCain-Feingold [campaign finance reform] was widely predicted and is now taking place,” said one senior level Republican operative granted anonymity to speak candidly.

* * *

Does all that mean that national parties are disappearing any time soon? No, and even the most ardent advocates of the burgeoning universe of outside groups agree that there are some things the party committees can do that no other entity can. The national party committees are, for example, the only entities that can directly coordinate with candidates and state parties — ensuring a continuity of messaging, ground game organizing and data sharing that can make a big difference.

* * *

Everyone  then agrees with a few ideas: 1) Some (many?) of the tasks once handled by the national party committees have now been farmed out to outside groups 2) The party committees still do some things that no one else can.  The central question — and the one on which there is considerable disagreement — is whether the party committees now have a smaller piece of the pie then they once did or whether the pie has simply expanded and they have roughly the same amount.  Conventional wisdom suggests the former although the centrality of the party committees in terms of coordinating with candidates and state parties as well as maintaining/changing the primary schedule suggests the death of national parties is somewhat exaggerated.

In a follow-up post, Cillizza cites an e-mail from an unidentified senior Democrat in response to his post, No, national parties aren’t dead. Key passage:

[M]ost importantly, the national party is focused on the Democratic brand.  That’s not the primary role of the White House.  That’s definitely not the primary role of Ready for Hillary, Priorities, or any of these other SuperPACs.  But that’s OK.  They have an important role to play.   So does the DNC — to help defend, promote, and service all Democrats.  And that won’t ever change.

In this era of Twitter, and super PACs, and everything else new, it’s easy to fall into a trap of personality-driven politics.  National parties help ensure that doesn’t totally happen.

People love to hate political parties, but the parties do provide an essential association function built around a party brand of shared principles, policies, and history. (This is why “independent” candidates never fare well, they are a personality-driven party of one).

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the fact is that strengthening the political parties at the expense of billionaire-funded independent expenditure committees and super PACs would actually moderate our politics. It would reduce the number of “rogue” candidates who answer only to their billionaire contributors rather than to their political party leadership and to their constituents.

Money is the root of all evil, as they say.

Comments are closed.