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Trump, Sanders win in N.H. Democratic, Republican Parties lose.

Shifts in political thought

The 2016 election thus far has shown that party elites aren’t all-powerful – and they ignore restiveness in voter ranks at their peril.

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a primary night rally Feb. 9, in Manchester, N.H. At his side are his wife Melania Trump, left, and daughter Ivanka Trump, right.
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If nothing else, the results of the New Hampshire primary were an epic defeat for the diverse coalitions that constitute the institutional Democratic and Republican parties.

Are the two big political organizations that have long governed America actually falling apart? That’s highly unlikely. But the Granite State vote surely shows that, in today’s wired world, party leaders may need to take more heed of restiveness in the ranks.

Consider what happened from the point of view of national committee office suites. On the Democratic side, the party’s long-preferred presidential contender – an experienced politician endorsed by many (if not most) top officials – lost to an independent senator who only recently signed up as a party member.

On the Republican side, a businessman and political neophyte loathed by a significant percentage of party members stomped the rest of the field. Oh, and he’s a former Democrat with suspiciously moderate positions on some key issues.

Some conservatives fear that if this candidate wins the nomination he could redefine the GOP’s ideology in his own image, possibly splitting the party in two, while leading it to a crushing defeat in the fall.

“If the results of the vote in New Hampshire’s Republican primary are not yet sending shudders down the spines of establishmentarian GOP voters and leaders, they are deluded,” writes right-leaning Noah Rothman today in Commentary.

What’s going on? Aren’t the parties, defined as a loose grouping of organizations and individuals with deep political interest, really in charge of picking presidential candidates?

That’s the thesis of the influential political science book, “The Party Decides,” which holds that unelected insiders – lawmakers, lobbyists, consultants, partisan media, and so forth – effectively select candidates before voters reach the ballot box. They endorse candidates, raise money, and generally send lots of intramural messages that ensure they all coordinate around a favored choice.

The election of 2016 hasn’t disproved this idea, yet. But it has pointed out that party elites aren’t all-powerful in this regard. They’re not always able to work things out among themselves.

On the Democratic side, the party may yet triumph. Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming establishment choice. She scores 466 on the FiveThirtyEight data site’s endorsement tracker, which assigns points according to the status of who’s doing the endorsing. Bernie Sanders? His score is two.

Senator Sanders, a longtime independent, is more likely to call himself a “democratic socialist” than a “Democrat.” His liberal ideology produced a smashing triumph in New Hampshire, a state with a high percentage of liberals.

Clinton is still favored to grind out a nomination victory, piling up delegates when the race turns to states with a higher percentage of moderate and minority voters, such as South Carolina. But her New Hampshire loss and tissue-thin victory in the Iowa caucuses show that’s no sure thing.

Her struggles make University of Miami political scientist Gregory Koger wonder why Democratic Party insiders coordinated on Clinton so strongly and so early.

“One can never know, but it seems likely that some of the strong candidates who did not run, such as Elizabeth Warren or Joseph Biden, would do a better job of co-opting Sanders’s economic agenda while highlighting his weaknesses as a candidate,” says Professor Koger in an e-mail.

But if Democratic Party insiders converged too soon on a candidate who’s turned out to be weak, their Republican counterparts have the opposite problem – they haven’t yet converged at all.

Much of the GOP elite knows whom they don’t like, of course. The National Review, an influential conservative journal, devoted virtually an entire issue to an anti-Donald Trump message. Others, such as former Sen. Bob Dole, say they dislike Ted Cruz so much that the unpredictable Mr. Trump might be preferable.

But the Republican Party as a whole has not rallied around an establishment champion to counter the insurgent threat. Jeb Bush? Too Bushian. Chris Christie? Bridgegate – and he dropped out anyway. John Kasich? A moderate squish, in some eyes.

Following his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio seemed the man for the moment. But the moment may have passed in the flash of a bad debate answer. Now the three remaining contenders for the so-called “establishment” lane of the nomination process will stumble on toward South Carolina, and perhaps beyond, fighting each other while Trump and Cruz speed ahead.

Party coordination can go too far. That’s what used to happen. Much of today’s open nomination system, with its caucuses and primaries, stems from reforms made in the wake of the 1968 elections, when Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without appearing on a single state primary ballot.

But the rise of Trump, an unprecedented candidate who at times promises change that is not within the power of a president to deliver, shows what can happen in coordination’s absence.

“Kasich would be a fine nominee if Republicans would just coordinate on him,” Jonathan Ladd, a political scientist at Georgetown University, said during a live blog of election results on Vox Tuesday night. “You hear me Republicans, coordinate! For the love of God, coordinate!!!!”

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