Voters vs. the party leaders

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders enjoy momentum going into South Carolina and Nevada contests this weekend. What are the lessons for Republican and Democratic party leaders as they see the voters' response to these two antiestablishment candidates?

By T.J. Rooney and Alan Novak

Novak: Things are changing. Mike Tyson once said game plans are fine until you "get punched in the mouth." You have to adapt and make adjustments. This election shows me that the impact of political party leadership is weaker than ever. There are legal, systematic, and organic reasons for it, but eight months ago we thought candidates would emerge because of status or because they had the right donors behind them. Now voters are speaking and saying something very different than the leadership was thinking.

Rooney: In this moment, if you look at the two leading candidates in the respective parties, they both, quite effectively, use the party as a foil. Bernie Sanders caused the party to change its rules regarding debates. Donald Trump uses his status as a Republican as something he will change if the party doesn't do his bidding. This has created a disconnect. The parties' challenge is to be relevant. Right now there are some people with titles scratching their heads trying to figure out what it means to be relevant and whether it is even possible in this environment.

Novak: People watching GOP Chairman Reince Priebus and Democratic leader Debbie Wasserman Schultz on TV say to me, "They can't make anything happen." They are always on the defensive. They are always explaining something about the process or how the party works - frankly things nobody cares about - because they are deflecting the conversations about why they can't change what is happening right now.
Rooney: Party leaders in a lot of respects have caused their own problems. The leadership of the Democratic National Committee didn't need to be as heavy-handed as they were dealing with Sanders and Martin O'Malley and their desire for more engagement. They got it. If you are going to have a fight that you're preordained to lose, why have the fight in the first place? You are only going to add fuel to the fire. Lord knows both parties have allowed these insurgent front-runners all the fuel that their fire could want.

Novak: When T.J. and I were fortunate enough to be our respective party chairs, the leadership committee consisted of people that had great innate political sense, were in touch with people, and you didn't mess with them. But they all knew that acting together, you could make something happen. There is no such thing anymore. Everybody is on their own. Everybody raises money themselves. The issue-based 527 groups have more money than the parties. You can even argue that social media is making voters more powerful than the donors and the folks that used to make things happen. At this point, the leadership might be more effective getting people out of the race than propelling people to the front.

Rooney: Look, President Obama recently said there are many, many, many chapters yet to be written in this campaign. While it's already wearing folks out, it's in its infancy. The question is: Do these insurgents have the staying power? Trump is clearly making a strong case, but Sanders, I am not so sure. This thing will continue to be competitive until it's not. The onus is on the party leaders once it's figured out in early spring. Then it's game on. Party leaders are judged by whether they win or lose. Their time, effort, and energy needs to be spent making sure they win in November and less poking a finger in the eye of people who haven't been on the team before.

Novak: At the end of the day, it's the candidates that win the contest, not the party leaders determining who will win. We need to have a game plan for bringing the party together to do what is necessary to win after the primaries. Today, that is where party leaders really matter. It's still that infrastructure, get-out-the-vote efforts, and coordinating campaigns. There is still influence over conventions and the general election. At this point, the candidates have the process and the party leaders don't. All party leaders can do is encourage certain candidates to get out and encourage other candidates to hang in long enough to catch momentum.

Rooney: Cooler heads typically prevail, and we select candidates to lead the national parties who are more in line with traditional American values of being cordial, being welcoming, and opposed to people who want to shout and yell. Regardless, this is going to play out the way it is intended to play out. None of the party leaders wants to be seen as being too far out there. The ultimate prize is to not shoot yourself in the foot. Don't neglect the fact that there are a lot of new people - and a lot of new energy - in our case that Sanders brings into it. You've got to welcome it and don't do anything that is going to alienate folks to the point that you can't get them back after the primary has gone down. You don't want to make winning any harder than it already is - that's the ultimate challenge.

Alan Novak (, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, and T.J. Rooney (, a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, are principals of RooneyNovak Group Bipartisan Solutions.

This piece first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer


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