The two national political party committees are dinosaurs, and as with the dinosaurs before them, their time has come and gone.
I offer this critique from the vantage point of a rare animal. I am one of the few – if not only – persons to have worked for both the Democratic National Committee (DNC), in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the Republican National Committee (RNC), in the early years of the Bush presidency.
I began thinking about the relevance of the national parties after reading story after story about their current health.
As you are probably aware, there has been a wave of news about the RNC’s disorganization and dysfunction under chairman’s Michael Steele’s leadership.
On the other hand, reports on the DNC have largely been glowing – under chairman Tim Kaine, the DNC is well-organized, on message, and raising money. Based solely on these contrasting storylines, one might expect (and some have asserted) that Republican efforts this fall will be greatly hindered.
So why is it that nearly all independent analysts are forecasting that the Republicans will pick up at least 25 House seats and five Senate seats and make gains in state offices across the country? The short answer is that the fault lines and tides of the political environment matter profoundly more than the activity of the national committees – and, for that matter, the specific tactics of any campaign.
Think back to 1993 and 1994 after President Clinton took office. Under the very able leadership of David Wilhelm, the DNC was better organized, better run, and better funded than it had been in many years. However, in the 1994 elections Democrats lost 54 House seats, eight Senate seats, and control of Congress. Flash forward to 2005 and 2006. In Ken Mehlman, the RNC had one of its best chairmen in recent history. Under his strong leadership, the RNC was well-organized, well-funded, and extremely disciplined. Yet in the 2006 elections, Republicans lost badly and found themselves the minority party once again.
What this suggests is that effective national parties are more a function of recent electoral success rather than a predictor of future electoral success.
These results raise a larger question that has been debated by political scientists and operatives for decades. Do campaigns and political tactics matter? The short answer, in my opinion, is absolutely. But their importance is very small relative to the importance of the overall political conditions and the governing position of each party (incumbent vs. challenger).
In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In politics, it’s conditions, conditions, conditions. And after conditions, the second most important factor is the candidate. And then, in a distant third, the campaign and its tactics. These are what one of my friends calls “the 3 Cs of elections” and they don’t include the national committees.)
What about 2008?
Much has been written about the well-run and smart campaign assembled and accomplished by President Obama and his team. It has been described as revolutionary and groundbreaking in its use of technology and campaign tactics (and rightly so).
In contrast, story after story has detailed the deficiencies of the McCain campaign. And of course as far as the candidates went, you had the tremendous oratory skills of Barack Obama compared with those of John McCain.
However, an analysis of the political conditions and what they foretold suggests that these campaign and candidate advantages did not really translate into extraordinary gains.
For instance, the Democrats enjoyed a 5 to 12 point generic voting advantage going into the elections. Obama won by 7 percentage points. Absent some major disruption, any Democrat would likely have beaten any Republican by approximately the same margin.
This assertion raises an even larger question. Why do the media, pundits, and operatives constantly focus on tactics and committees and players, when those factors pale in comparison to political conditions?
First, it is easier to discuss and report that narrative, and it helps to fill the constant conversation on cable and the Internet. If those little things matter, then you have something to talk about 24 hours a day.
Second, the “political-industrial complex” that exists around Washington likes to feel like everything they do matters and all the little campaign decisions that are made have a big impact. This political industrial complex composed of media, pundits, campaign committees, officials, and operatives of both parties are in constant conversation with one another and reinforce the idea that each of them is powerful and has tremendous effect.
However, the 300 million Americans that reside outside Washington have control over their own ideas and thoughts and actions, and it is in their hands that elections ultimately reside. And it is voters that create the political earthquakes and tidal waves that affect elections year in and year out.
No matter what many around Washington think, the American public is not easily led around by a few folks in Washington and is not hoodwinked by either party. Yes, they sometimes make mistakes in elections (mainly out of a intense desire for change), but voters correct those mistakes quickly when they realize what is actually going on.
Maybe it’s time we all spent more time delving into what’s going on in America, and less time worrying and conversing about two dinosaur national committees who would be better off in the movies “Jurassic Park” or “Land of the Lost” than in the national political conversation.
Matthew Dowd is an analyst for ABC News and a veteran campaign strategist who managed the winning reelection efforts for President Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s also a founding partner of ViaNovo, a management and communications consultancy, and the coauthor of “Applebee’s America: How Successful Political, Business and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community.”