Here we have it: an outsider candidate for president, fueled by grassroots anger at the perceived sins of his party’s establishment, doggedly pursuing the White House despite his opponent’s apparently insurmountable lead. He doesn’t have many endorsements from sitting party officials, but he’s done surprisingly well with fundraising through smaller donations and a strong internet presence. He’s been declared the outsider candidate despite the fact that he’s older than his opponent and has more experience in Congress, and it’s a valid description. He’s running his campaign as a battle of ideas, rather than the usual strategy of trying to form a broad coalition first within his own party, then in the general election.
This is a fair description of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential race, but it also applies to former Congressman Ron Paul’s campaign against Mitt Romney four years ago. Indeed, the similarities don’t stop with the candidates and their campaign style: they do actually agree on some issues as well, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, privacy, and trade.
Both candidates were successful not just because of their campaigns, but because they represented a larger movement. The tea party movement — which fed into, but did not entirely overlap with, Paul’s supporters — grew out of a frustration among many conservatives with the actions taken by the Bush administration during the 2008 financial crisis. Likewise, Sanders’ rise has been fueled by many of the same people involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement, who see their voices being ignored by a Democratic establishment that they see as being in the pocket of Wall Street.
As it did in the GOP, this split is playing out not only on the presidential campaign trail, but at the state and local levels. Here in Maine, we have seen a split within the Democratic Party start to develop as well: While many party leaders support Clinton, Sanders easily won the state’s caucuses and has earned support from a coalition of liberal lawmakers in Augusta. This has led to tension within the Democratic Party, as Sanders’ supporters have begun to press their case that Maine’s superdelegates should support him, regardless of their personal views. There will even be a floor fight on this very issue at the state convention — which leads one to wonder whether there will be other battles on the floor, such as over the party platform.
This split has also reared its head at the State House in Augusta, where Democrats held a quixotic debate over impeaching Gov. Paul LePage, despite many in their party recognizing the futility of that move. The question for the future is just how deep this divide among Democrats will grow. Will we see incumbents ousted in primaries and leadership forces ignored, as we have in the GOP nationally? Or will Democrats be able to contain this split more successfully than Republicans have?
Much of the answer to that question will hinge on the outcome of the presidential race, of course. When Republicans lost the White House in 2008, the remaining party leaders could not impose discipline and organization on a movement outside their control. If Clinton prevails, it is likely that she will be able to put an end to much of this infighting — at least at the national level. If she loses, the Democrats are likely to be rudderless, at least in the short term, much like Republicans were after 2008.
Regardless, this split may have continued reverberations at the state and local levels for years to come, long after this campaign is over.