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Democratic presidents have traditionally hurt their parties. Joe Biden may be different.

Will he invest in building up a strong Democratic Party?

- January 20, 2021

Today, Jaime Harrison will be elected chair of the Democratic National Committee. Harrison is an institution builder. By choosing him, President Biden suggests he may be willing to become modern history’s first Democratic presidential party-builder — that is, the first Democratic president who prioritizes building up his party as well as enacting policy.

In this moment, politics, social changes and the last decade’s technological developments have converged to make it easier for Biden to build the party. And Biden has good reason to do it. Building up the party and growing its majorities might help his thin margins in Congress and could help win pivotal states in the electoral college.

If Biden does this, he will be breaking from a pattern going back to President John F. Kennedy. Since then, Democratic presidents have either neglected or exploited their party for short-term gain, without thinking about the party’s long-term collective future. Such a change would be a historic one in the relationship between Democratic presidents and their party.

Here’s what Biden would have to break from and why it’s hard.

Democratic presidents have historically hurt the party

Democratic presidents from Kennedy to Barack Obama repeatedly refused to invest in building their party for a simple but surprising reason: They didn’t see it as a high priority. They came into office with big majorities and prioritized legislation over broadening their party or trying to make it more competitive in the future.

But even if they had cared more about party building, doing so would have been an uphill battle. The national party had shaky infrastructure, unreliable data on voters and donors and a boom-or-bust mentality built around the presidential cycle. It scrambled every four years to build new voter lists, solicit big donations and borrow money that it never properly paid back. Sen. Bill Bradley likened the party to an “inverted pyramid” with no “coherent, larger structure.” Every new Democratic presidential candidate had to build a new party operation from scratch.

Furthermore, the national and state parties had a toxic relationship, in part thanks to the autonomy many state parties had enjoyed under Jim Crow authoritarianism. Democratic presidents had little incentive to invest in parties that did little grass-roots organizing and refused to share intelligence or collaborate. They became accustomed to circumventing state parties and siphoning their resources.

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Finally, it was hard for presidents to work with liberal outside groups, like labor unions and social movements. Those groups could mobilize voters but had competing demands that were often more ambitious than what presidents wanted. As a result, some presidents preferred to build party-like vehicles outside the party structure. Obama even launched his own independent group, Organizing for Action (OFA), which competed with progressive groups and with the Democratic Party for resources.

This combination of weak electoral incentives and high barriers discouraged Democratic presidents from party building. Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama did make a smattering of investments in the party after Democrats lost control of Congress in their second terms, but not enough to build forward momentum. In contrast, Republicans assiduously built a stable party structure over the course of many years that could accommodate different candidates at the top; the RNC, for example, was “plug-and-play” ready for Trump. Republican presidents also strategically channeled the energy of outside groups, such as the Christian Right and the NRA, for partisan ends.

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Biden is well placed to change this

Biden’s thin majority gives him stronger incentives than past Democratic presidents to try to build up his party. Furthermore, Biden faces fewer start-up costs than his predecessors. Outgoing DNC Chair Tom Perez and Chief Technology Officer Nellwyn Thomas’s DNC Tech team have built a better infrastructure to host and enrich a centralized data warehouse of voter information with easier access for campaigns to use for predictive modeling, improved targeting and messaging.

Relations with state parties, too, are better. Former DNC chair Howard Dean’s muchadmired 50-state strategy showed in 2008 that national investments in state parties could both expand the map and build party unity.

Harrison, a former South Carolina state party chair and self-proclaimed “Howard Dean acolyte,” has vowed to “organize everywhere, invest in state parties, expand the map.” Many state parties have revitalized in recent years, and Biden has developed cooperative relations with them instead of pushing them to the sidelines.

Finally, outside groups are better coordinated and closer to the party. Nonprofit progressive groups have spent years using relationship-based organizing to build locally rooted, people-powered organizations and to forge statewide, regional, and national networks. Such groups helped Democrats pull off their victories in Georgia and Arizona. In the Georgia runoffs, Democrats finally embraced these groups and movements. The DNC’s new Democratic Data Exchange (DDX), a legally independent entity chaired by Howard Dean, also enables formal party entities, campaigns and independent outside groups to anonymously share near real-time data on voters and voter contacts. That’s something the Republicans have had since 2015.

But Biden has other concerns

Maybe Harrison was right when he told Robert Kuttner that Biden “could be the greatest party builder in a generation.” But it is also possible that Democrats will return to infighting without Donald Trump to unite against. Furthermore, Biden and many of his advisers are establishment Democrats who may take the traditional top-down approach to party leadership. That would make it harder to build on the knowledge of grass-roots organizers and others about building a party for the long haul.

Finally, Biden also faces extraordinary policy challenges — a deadly pandemic, a recession, domestic terrorism and more, which may make it hard for him to orchestrate a comprehensive party-building program. Much will depend on Biden’s ability to delegate and provide support. The best presidential party builders — Republicans Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan — empowered their party chairs to carry out big party-building projects.

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Daniel J. Galvin is associate professor of political science and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, and author of “Presidential Party Building: Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush” (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Josh Vincent is Partner, Data & Analytics, at Transparent Partners, a consumer data strategy and marketing technology consultancy in Chicago.