Why Party Leaders Can't Check Trump or Sanders

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at a general session at the Republican National Committee Spring Meeting at the Diplomat Resort in Hollywood, Florida, on April 22. The author writes that there is no restraining influence of national Republican and Democratic parties on presidential candidates. Candidates simply do not need the parties. Which is why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have prospered. Joe Skipper/reuters

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

Neither Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been driving the process for selecting the Democratic presidential nominee, nor businessman Donald Trump, who is similarly driving the Republican selection process, is in good standing with the political parties whose nominations they seek.

Sanders is a longtime democratic socialist, and Trump might be called an ecumenical Republican, one who has never before been active in GOP politics. So how is it that both are so deeply influencing the Democratic and Republican presidential races?

Arguments can be made that both Trump and Sanders—particularly Trump—have received a lot of free media coverage, which has clearly boosted their campaigns. Trump from the outset and Sanders from the time he started drawing large crowds at his campaign events.

Trump has done it by being outrageous, more the nasty clown than presidential contender. Sanders has drawn attention by promising young people endless rainbows and free puppies, while attacking Hillary Clinton as unqualified to be president.

Sanders, who has raised more than $100 million in small contributions, is not sharing his money with the Democratic Party. The self-funding Trump, who is loaning money to his campaign, is doing nothing financially for the Republican Party. And neither candidate is spending great amounts on their campaigns in comparison with other candidates.

See, for example, Jeb Bush, who burned through some $100 million that got him nowhere. So it has not been money that thrust Sanders or Trump to the forefront of their races against the wishes of most longtime Democrats and Republicans, nor has it been their unique charisma or the power of their messages. Both are horrible speakers, and both reside at the ideological extremes of the parties they want to represent.

I suspect that when the history of this election cycle is written, both Sanders and Trump will be viewed as the products of a deeply troubled news media in transition, running at a time when traditional journalism was dying and being substituted with spectacle as an attention-grabbing substitute to sell advertising. Both Trump and Sanders attract eyeballs, while their opponents do not.

This is not to blame the news media for either candidate's rise, rather merely to state the obvious. But something even more telling has occurred, largely unnoticed by the public. These fundamental changes in journalism have occurred at a time when both national parties have almost no voice or control in the selection of their presidential candidates.

To understand what is occurring, and how two candidates who subscribe to views well outside the mainstream of their party have taken charge, it is necessary to look at the process and how it has changed, for Sanders and Trump have made it clear that in this age of the internet, they really do not need a national party.

For Sanders, the internet has provided a funding tool. For Trump, the internet has provided a way to communicate directly with his followers at almost no cost. For Sanders, the internet means he does not need the fundraising lists of the Democratic National Committee. Trump does not need the Republican National Committee mailing lists.

To understand the ability of Sanders and Trump to succeed, a bit of historical context may help.

Selecting a president of the United States has never been a truly democratic process, nor did our founders intend otherwise. The Electoral College eliminated direct election of the president from the outset. And the Constitution is otherwise silent on the presidential election process, other than to require a few qualifications: citizenship and 35 years of age.

In the beginning, of course, there were no political parties. Members of Congress selected candidates to run for the highest office. But as parties developed and the Republicans and Democrats emerged as dominant parties, they became integral to the machinery of selecting who would run for president.

Accordingly, Republican and Democratic bosses made those selections, and for many decades they did a surprisingly good job. As anyone familiar with this history appreciates, neither a Sanders nor a Trump could have emerged from a smoke-filled room.

(Note: Do not tell me, "Well, Harding did!" I have written a biography of Warren Harding, and by any standard—past or present—he was a good president. When writing that biography, I discovered the only reason history has not treated Harding well is historians do not really know what he did and did not do. So ignorance explains falsely labeling Harding a bad president.)

(For example, Harding reversed the racist policies of his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson; traveled to the South to enlist blacks into the GOP; created the Bureau of the Budget; obtained the first arms agreement; transitioned the nation from the war footing of World War I to the Roaring '20s—to mention a few of his accomplishments before he died of a heart attack three years into his first term, which was scandal free. He died the most beloved president since Lincoln.)

Presidential preference primaries began in the early 1900s, and they have evolved slowly, but not all states have adopted them. Many states still hold party caucuses to select delegates. Today, the party leaders have little role in the process, although the "superdelegates" of the Democratic Party remain a limited check on an extremist candidate getting the Democratic nomination.

Today, both Republicans and Democrats have similar but slightly different processes for selecting their presidential candidate that are set forth in their rules and require candidates to proceed state by state to acquire delegates. Each state decides the time and nature of this delegate selection process.

This year, the selected delegates will meet at their respective conventions this summer—the Republican National Convention in Cleveland from July 18 to 21 and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia from July 25 to 28—where a majority will select their party's standard-bearers.

For most of the 20th century, the party had great control over the presidential selection process. Many candidates, in both parties, disliked this influence in the selection process.

No one disliked the party's involvement more than Richard Nixon, who openly ignored the Republican Party to get elected in 1968 and re-elected in 1972. He built his own election organization in 1968 and then a re-election organization in 1972, funded them and made the Republican National Committee a minor player in his elections.

In varying degrees, presidential candidates of both parties have followed the Nixon model, which has all but removed any true relevance of the national parties in presidential politics. This has coincided with the rise and growth of both Republican and Democratic committees formed by party members of the U.S. Congress, where both parties now have active House and Senate committees recruiting and funding House and Senate candidates, as well as assisting those seeking re-election.

Today, the party national committees have become little more than token operations, repositories of election and voter data, which takes time and considerable money to accumulate and is indispensable for winning elections at the local, state and national levels. So that is important.

Also, of course, they help organize and manage the quadrennial national conventions—although the presidential candidate will take control of this operation as well, once he or she is the presumptive nominee.

Bottom line, today there is no restraining influence of national Republican and Democratic parties on presidential candidates. Candidates simply do not need the parties. Similarly, today the fractured media has little influence. Candidates can go around the establishment media via the internet.

Thus, presidential candidates push agendas that have little relationship to reality or the mainstream of their party—which both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have done with relish—and the candidates can do so largely unchallenged and unchecked in the primary process.

For this reason, we must hope that voters can sort it all out in the general election when the nominees of each party challenge each other. Kind of a frightening thought.

John Dean, a Justia columnist, is a former counsel to President Richard Nixon.