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What Is Party Unity, and Does It Really Matter?

party unity

In 2008, Hillary Clinton called on the whole Democratic party to pull together and support Barack Obama as the party nominee. Will we see party unity in 2016 too? (News Hour/Flickr)

There's a ton of talk--and panic--right now about party unity among both Republicans and Democrats.

panic party unity

PANIC! (via Giphy)

Here's why and what it means.

First, what IS "party unity"?

Party unity is a sticky term that doesn't have a single, clear definition, but basically, it's when a major political party is in agreement about their politics, their policies, and/or their leadership.

When a party like the Republicans or the Democrats are split into factions--smaller groups within the party that don't agree with the direction the party is going in. Sometimes factions get organized and have their own agenda. A good example is the Tea Party, a conservative movement that has pushed for shifts in the Republican party and even managed to help push House Speaker John Boehner out.

In the US we have a two-party system, so our two main political parties are huge and of course not everyone in it agrees all the time. So realistically, a party always has sub-groups trying to push it in one political direction or another.

But when those groups are truly at odds and are butting heads over important issues--and especially when some of the people in those groups are openly voicing their opposition and even threatening to defect (or actually defecting!), that's when party unity is seriously being threatened.

Why is everyone in politics talking about it?

The presidential nomination race this year has been unusually contentious. The front-runners in each party have different types of supporters within their party.

Many Republicans who voted for a candidate other than Donald Trump say they won't support him, and many Democrats who support Bernie Sanders say they won't vote for Hillary Clinton, who is expected to win the party's nomination.

Why does it matter?

Leaders in both parties are kind of panicking and calling for party unity. They're worried that disgruntled party members will either vote for the other party's candidate or just sit the election out.

Why aren't the Republicans unified?

Donald Trump is, unofficially, the party's presidential nominee. But many Republicans--including some prominent party leaders--don't support him.

Why don't some Republicans support Donald Trump?

Many don't think he's a "real" Republican, partly because he has changed his stances on some key issues like abortion and universal health care. Others don't like his tough rhetoric on issues like immigration or his stance on banning Muslims from entering the United States.

Or they think he's a rogue who goes his own way as opposed to upholding long-held Republican party stances and values and supporting "downticket" Republican candidates (Republicans running for offices lower than president, like candidates for House, Senate, governorships, and state office).

Some Republicans have openly declared their support for Hillary Clinton, while others say they won't vote for either Trump or Clinton. (Presumably some of these Republicans will write in the candidate of their choice, back the libertarian candidate, or just not vote.) And some have left the Republican party.

Trump, BTW, isn't too concerned about unity. He says he can win without it:

"Look, I'm going to get millions and millions of votes more than the Republicans would have gotten."

Still, even many right-leaning independents say they can't support Trump and would rather vote for the other candidate in the race who is all about changing our politics: Bernie Sanders.

Why aren't the Democrats unified?

Democrats--and unaffiliated lefties--are split between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (Given how far ahead Clinton is in the popular vote in the primaries so far, they're clearly not split evenly, but it's undeniable that there's a very large, vocal, passionate group supporting Bernie Sanders.)

Some of the split is along demographic lines. In general, most young left-leaning voters support Sanders, and most Democrats of color and older voters support Clinton, especially older college-educated women.

Sanders has sent mixed messages about party unity. Sometimes he (and those who speak publicly for his campaign, including his wife, Jane Sanders) talk about supporting whoever the nominee is. Other times he makes it clear he'll keep running against Clinton, even if it hurts her in the general election, and even wants to force a contested convention.

BTW, quickie history lesson: When Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, many of her supporters, known as PUMAs, claimed they wouldn't support him. (PUMA = Party Unity My Ass.) Though Dem voters were pretty split, ultimately it was clear Obama was going to win, and Clinton supported him at the convention. Obama went on to win in pretty much a landslide.

Why don't some Democrats support Hillary Clinton?

Lots of complicated reasons. Many #NeverHillary/#BernieorBust voters believe Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy or don't believe she is sufficiently progressive. And many think she's too closely aligned with Wall Street.

(BTW, many Clinton supporters think much of the opposition to her among Democrats is the product of years of anti-Hillary attacks from the right and that it smacks of sexism.)

Many Sanders supporters who want to bring revolutionary change to government see Clinton as the "establishment" candidate and believe Sanders, even though he has long served in the House and Senate, is more of an outsider.

Some Sanders supporters plan to write his name in or hope he'll defect from the Democratic party and run as an independent.

BTW, Trump hopes this will happen too.

While Hillary is hoping for unity.

Will lack of unity affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election?

Everyone in both parties is panicked about the possibility of losing the election. They're worried about voters who lean their way either sitting out the election or voting for the other party's candidate. (Or doing a write-in vote or voting for a third party candidate who doesn't really stand a chance.)

They're also worried that party in-fighting and lack of clear agenda and unity will scare off independent voters. Everyone needs independents' votes.

So, many Republicans want to #UniteRed and many Democrats are calling for #UniteBlue. The unifiers want everyone in their own party to stay focused on what's most important: the overall party agenda and other important things like nominating Supreme Court justices.

#NeverTrump people on the right are being told about the dangers of a Clinton presidency, and and #NeverHillary people on the left are being reminded of the dangers of a Trump presidency. They say too much is at stake not to unite.

It's too early to tell whether Republicans and Democrats wary of Trump and Clinton will get on board after the party conventions in July or whether they will rebel. If history is any gauge, most people will probably end up supporting their party's nominee, but so far this election has been anything but standard.

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What Is Party Unity, and Does It Really Matter?

Holly Epstein Ojalvo

Holly’s mission is to inform, inspire, and empower engaged activists who will change the world. She was previously an editor at The New York Times and a high school teacher. She spent her brief 20’s slump at a mousepad factory. Holly earned a B.A. at Lafayette College and M.A.'s at U Delaware and NYU. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, daughter, and cat, Tomie Twotone. Follow: @heoj.

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