Usually, conventions are a chance for a political party to pivot away from the primary and toward the general election, presenting a new and improved version of their candidate to the electorate at large. By the time of the convention, the hard work of bringing the party together has usually been done: Former opponents and senior party figures (previous presidents, for example) have endorsed the presumptive nominee, and the nominee has had several weeks to campaign with his or her running mate.
This time, that was all much harder for Republicans to stage-manage. Far from being a well-oiled machine, the 2016 GOP convention seemed to expose, rather than heal, the faults generated during the primary. Many of Trump’s former opponents skipped the convention — including John Kasich, the governor of the state in which the convention was held — and either didn’t offer endorsements or gave only tepid support. A wide variety of senior Republican elected officials, past and present, also skipped the event, and the Republican National Committee spent much of the first day squashing a rules revolt against the nominee. Throughout the week, negative headlines — like Cruz’s speech in which he failed to endorse Trump, and the plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech — outweighed the positive news, such as well received speeches by Trump’s children and the addition of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to the ticket.
Democrats, meanwhile, seemed to be putting the ugliness of their own hotly contested primary behind them this month. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who promised a political revolution, nonetheless endorsed presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton at an event in New Hampshire. In negotiations preceding the convention, their respective supporters were able to come to a compromise regarding the future of superdelegates, and Sanders had his input on the party platform. All in all, Democrats had every reason to be optimistic heading into their own convention this week in Philadelphia.
Then along came Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and all that feel-good party unity instantly evaporated.
The leaked Democratic National Committee emails proved true what Sanders supporters had been claiming throughout the primary: that the entire process was rigged against him. The DNC not only worked actively with the Clinton campaign, as we already knew, but they sought to undermine Sanders and his supporters at every possible opportunity in order to hand Clinton the nomination.
Of course, that in and of itself shouldn’t have been a shock to even the most casual observer of the race. It was obvious from the beginning that DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (who’s resigned her post in the wake of the revelations) was working hard to help her longtime friend and ally win the Democratic nomination. What is surprising about the emails revealed so far is that these efforts weren’t just a matter of top Democrats assisting Clinton behind the scenes — for example, Obama helping Clinton in order to preserve his own legacy — but a coordinated campaign involving DNC staff. It’s also telling that so many involved in the plan to undermine Sanders were perfectly willing to write about the effort.
We shall see in the coming days just how much of an impact these revelations have, but the Democrats may well have just thrown away a golden opportunity. If Democrats had been able to unify around Clinton while the GOP remained divided, they would have been in a much stronger position as the fall approached.
Instead, Democrats may not only have hurt their efforts to unify the party, but they could also allow the GOP to reopen Clinton’s misuse of her email server as a line of attack in the general. After all, if the Democratic National Committee couldn’t even guarantee the security of its own emails. How can they possibly defend Clinton on that issue?