By Ezra Klein

Democrats made a big mistake in the 2016 primary.

Even for the Democratic Party, the past few weeks have been bizarre. First, Donna Brazile, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, published excerpts of a forthcoming book in which she says that after she took over the Democratic National Committee, she investigated “whether Hillary Clinton’s team had rigged the nomination process” through the DNC, and discovered evidence that they did. “I had found my proof and it broke my heart,” she wrote.

In the aftermath of Brazile’s bombshell, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked if she “agree[d] with the notion that it was rigged?” “Yes,” she replied.

Within a few days, both Brazile and Warren walked their statements all the way back. Brazile now says she found “no evidence” the primary was rigged. Warren now says that though there was “some bias” within the DNC, “the overall 2016 primary process was fair.”

I have spent much of the past week trying to untangle this story, interviewing people on all sides of the primary and in a variety of positions at the DNC. The core facts are straightforward: As Barack Obama’s presidency drew to a close, the DNC was deep in debt. In return for a bailout, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign more potential control over its operations and hiring decisions than was either ethical or wise. But those operations were mostly irrelevant to the primary and couldn’t have been used to rig the process even if anyone had wanted to use them that way; the primary schedule, debate schedule, and rules were set well in advance of these agreements. “I found nothing to say they were gaming the primary system,” Brazile told me. And while that contradicts the more sensational language she used in her book, it fits the facts she laid out both in her original piece and since.

But there’s a larger context that is more important than what happened at the DNC and is getting lost in the back-and-forth over joint fundraising agreements and staffing power. The Democratic Party — which is a different and more complex entity than the Democratic National Committee, and which includes elected officials and funders and activists and interest groups who are not expected to be neutral in primaries — really did favor Hillary Clinton from early in the campaign, and really did shape the race in consequential ways.

The irony is that Sanders was a prime beneficiary of this bias, not a victim of it. The losers were potential candidates like Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Warren, or Gov. John Hickenlooper — and, thus, Democratic primary voters, who ended up with few choices in 2016. To the extent Democratic primary voters feel like they were denied a broad range of candidates in 2016, and that party officials tried to clear the field to coronate Clinton, well, they’re right.

Democratic elites, defined broadly, shaped the primary before voters ever got a chance to weigh in, and the way they tried to shape it was by uniting behind Clinton early in the hopes of avoiding a bruising, raucous race. The question — which is important going forward, not just for relitigating 2016 — is whether that was the right decision. I don’t think it was.

The 2016 primary really was weird

There were five candidates onstage at the first Democratic primary debate of 2015: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, ex-Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, and ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Of these candidates, only two — Clinton and O’Malley — were longtime Democrats. For an open primary in an at least plausibly Democratic year, this was an absurdly small field. The Republican primary, by comparison, had 17 candidates competing.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate In Las VegasJoe Raedle/Getty Images
Where’s the rest of them?

It’s easy to imagine Democrats who might have run in 2016. There’s Biden and Warren and Hickenlooper, but there was also New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to name just a few. But all of these candidates, and all the other candidates like them, ultimately passed on the race. Why?

Part of it was that Hillary Clinton seemed almost certain to win the nomination. It’s easy to forget now, but Clinton was extremely popular as recently as 2014 — Gallup found she was the most popular potential candidate in either party, with a favorability rating of 55 percent. “Clinton’s iconic status is, increasingly, the only clear advantage the Democratic Party has,” wrote Ross Douthat at the time.

But part of it was the way elected officials, donors, and interest groups coalesced behind Clinton early, making it clear that alternative candidates would struggle to find money and staff and endorsements and media coverage. Clinton had the explicit support of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and the implicit support of the Obama wing. She had spent decades building relationships in the party, and she leveraged them all in 2016. “Hillary had a lot of friends, and so did Bill,” says Elaine Kamarck, author of Primary Politics. This, in reality, is why Biden didn’t run: President Obama and his top staffers made quietly clear that they supported Clinton’s candidacy, and so she entered the field with the imprimatur that usually only accords to vice presidents.

Political junkies talk about the “invisible primary,” which Vox’s Andrew Prokop, in an excellent overview, describes as “the attempts by important elements of each major party — mainly elites and interest groups — to anoint a presidential nominee before the voting even begins … These insider deliberations take place in private conversations with each other and with the potential candidates, and eventually in public declarations of who they’re choosing to endorse, donate to, or work for.”

Clinton dominated this invisible primary: She locked up the endorsements, the staff, and …read more

Read more here: Was the Democratic primary rigged?

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