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Analysis: Did Democrats Miss the Boat on the Women's March?

Millions of people showed up to protest the new Republican president and the Democratic Party was barely in sight.
People gather for the Women's March in Washington
People gather for the Women's March in Washington on Jan. 21. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Millions of people showed up to protest the new Republican President in one of the largest demonstrations in history and the Democratic Party was barely in sight.

This weekend's enormous women's marches in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere are the latest signs that the official Democratic Party apparatus, hobbled by a post-election lull that saw it lay off staff and freeze some operations, has so far missed out on opportunities to head the resistance to Donald Trump.

Only one of the seven candidates vying for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, attended a march, while the others participated in a forum held as part of a conference of Democratic mega-donors in Miami.

And as outside groups rush to capitalize on the moment, the party risks ceding its authority in the growing anti-Trump movement to organizations it doesn't control. Independence from the party can add credibility, but comes with downsides, as Republicans learned with the Tea Party.

"Millions of people are coming out to march and protest, and it's not because of the leaders of the Democratic Party,” said Dan Cantor, the national director of the progressive Working Families Party, which both endorses Democratic candidates and runs its own candidates on its ticket. “This movement and energy can't ever be run by the leaders of the Democratic Party, as it will also need to be able to hold Democratic elected officials accountable to standing up to Trump.”

Related: If Women's March Was 'Beginning of a Resistance,' What's Next

Established Democratic groups were slow to fully endorse the march, and made limited efforts to collect participants' information in order to communicate with them and try to convert marchers into volunteers and donors. While some groups had a presence, there were relatively few clipboards visible on the National Mall Saturday.

“We need to harness this tremendous grassroots energy and perhaps spend a little less time behind closed doors talking to rich donors,” said Democratic operative Lis Smith, who is supporting Buttigeig. “It would've made a lot of sense for Democratic and progressive groups to have had a bigger presence at these nationwide marches, as we need all the help we can get in the years ahead. After the success of the Women's March, I suspect that we won't see the same mistake repeated again."

People gather for the Women's March in Washington on Jan. 21. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

In the weeks leading up the marches, many professional Democrats quietly lowered expectations in case they were not successful, given real concerns about the organization behind the events.

“At first there was reluctance to embrace from a lot of progressive organizations because it was not something that we were pulling together ourselves. Do we embrace or just let it happen?” said one official at a progressive group granted anonymity to speak candidly. “Quite frankly, it probably was successful because it wasn't organized by such and such Democratic group.”

Turning that energy into a sustained, organized movement remains a challenge. But enthusiasm is often more valuable than infrastructure, as the 2016 election showed.

“The infrastructure does exist. It's just a question of plugging people in who are coming, perhaps for the first time this weekend, to understand what they can do,” said Marcy Stech of Emily's List, the Democratic Women's group that hosted a training for 500 potential candidates after the march in Washington, D.C.

What's unclear is how many of those people will be funneled into the Democratic Party itself.

“People are looking for creative ways to take action and not necessarily wait to take marching orders,” said Vicky Kaplan, the organizing director for “The Tea Party was very successful in getting people in their own party to choose sides.”

The Tea Party movement sprung up organically after a defeat at the ballot box, then became more institutionalized by large “grass-tops” organizations like FreedomWorks and the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity.

But it was always a double-edged sword for Republicans, as it fought a two-front war against both the Obama administration and the GOP establishment.

The Tea Party’s leaderless independence was a source of its strength and credibility, said Leah Greenberg, a co-founder of "The Indivisible," a guide for progressive resistance to Trump, which looks at the conservative movement as a model. “You have to have some faith in people once they've been activated to figure out their own next steps,” she said.

But that independence also made it impossible for the Republican Party to control, especially during contentious primary campaigns.

Tresa Undem, a pollster who has worked for reproductive rights and LGBT rights groups, said what’s driving people to the streets is Trump and Republicans in Congress — so the Democratic Party can only steer things so much.

“I’m not sure how much influence the Democratic party or progressive groups will have with controlling the momentum," she said. "They can tap into it, but I think the momentum has started and will end organically,” she said.

This weekend’s marches were far less confrontational or ideological than the Tea Party. But both were born and incubated outside the top professional ranks of their ideological movements.

The Tea Party was inspired by a rant from a TV commentator, while the march was sparked by a Facebook post from a grandmother in Hawaii and carried to fruition by a group of organizers with only limited affiliation to the Democratic establishment.

“This outpouring today is extraordinary and inspiring. But if all this energy isn't channeled into sustained pol action, it will mean little,” former Obama advisor David Axelrod said on Twitter Saturday.

In the end, major Democratic groups like Planned Parenthood did get onboard. And many members of Congress, governors, and other leaders proudly marched in Washington or their districts.

Now, many Democrats agree the party needs to let the marchers take the lead.

“Anyone who hopes to lead in either party needs to be listening to folks who turned out on Saturday...not capturing that energy but listening to it,” said Ilyse Hogue, the President of NARAL Pro Choice, one of the sponsors of the event.

Despite Rep. Keith Ellison and former Labor Sec. Tom Perez, the two leading candidates for DNC Chair, echoed the point point, even though they missed the march.

"This weekend's marches showed us who really holds the power - the people," Ellison said. "And it proves to so many, including my own niece who invested so much during the election, that the Democratic Party must support and partner with the energetic activists we saw."

Perez said the party, "must keep up this energy and organize, organize, organize around our shared values of decency and equality while addressing the structural turnaround our party needs to support those efforts."

But it will be at least another month before either, or any of the other candidates, will have a chance to do that, as the national party waits until its next chair is elected in late February.