Thursday, August 18, 2011

Party -- All of It -- Decides

Via Seth, Jay Cost has an excellent piece up talking about the invisible primary and the ways that the party chooses its presidential candidates.

I have only one clarification, but it's an important one. Cost:
The “New Politics” reformers of the early 1970s thought they were sending the power to nominate back to the people, but that didn’t really happen. The people have some power, no doubt, as exercised through the primaries and caucuses, yet the party establishment still retains significant control. Through the money and endorsements that are dispensed over the course of the invisible primary, they determine who is and who is not a viable candidate – and it is from this list that the voters ultimately must make their choices.
Exactly, but for one word: establishment. Party actors choose, and voters at best choose from the remaining choices. But whether those party actors are "establishment" or "insurgents" or "base" or whatever is entirely up in the air. As regular readers might notice, I've adopted the term "party actors" to account for all of them. I can note, for what it's worth, is that in my experience the overwhelming majority of those party actors on both sides of the partisan aisle do not think of themselves as the establishment -- that's always those other folks. At any rate, references to "establishment" actors undervalues, in my view, how permeable the ranks of relevant party actors really are, and how easy it is for influence to shift among them over time. The important distinction isn't between establishment and non-establishment; it's between party actors and voters-as-voters.

What's happening now is two things, simultaneously. Republican party actors are coordinating on their choices  for nominee. But those individuals and groups are also competing for influence within the party (and therefore over who gets the most say in choosing the nominee). To the extent that the party is mostly stable, then it's just a coordination problem, but parties are not usually all that stable -- or, at least, there are usually multiple party actors who don't want to respect their place in the old status quo. All of which is why presidential nominations matter so much, and why they are great stories.


  1. It seems like you read The Party Decides, so I don't understand why you always fail to mention the theory's biggest caveat: the party only decides when it actually decides. That is, there is no guarantee that the party actors will coordinate on a nominee, and in fact, according to the authors, the Republican party did not not decide in 2008 on John McCain (similarly the Democrats did not "decide" on John Kerry in 2004).

    I really appreciate your posts on the importance of party actors in the nominating process, because the media certainly downplays this aspect of the process. At the same time, however, we must be careful about over-stating the role of party actors, when of the four major-party candidates in the last two elections, the party "decided" on one (Obama, which I think is one of the least-convincing parts of the book), didn't decide and got stuck with two (McCain and Kerry), and the final one was an incumbent so the sae rules don't really apply.

    Maybe instead of just repeating "the party decides" mantra we can look to the ways in which the party is and is not deciding on the 2012 nominations.

    Sorry if this comes off as a screed. I really do love this blog!

  2. Gotta disagree on Kerry. He was chosen as well. Dean was the insurgent, and he was put down by the establishment, and Kerry was acceptable to both the establishment and the masses.

    The masses didn't want Gephardt, apostate that he was, and he was sorta in the Pawlenty mode in that certain way. He would have annihilated Bush in the general, imo, but he couldn't secure the nomination. I strongly believe the establishment would have gotten behind him and he would have won, however. But Kerry was a certain loser, imo.

    So the process sucks, but it's the one we have.

  3. My sense of these things is very close to, but I think slightly different, than Cohen et al. I think that the party does decide in presidential nominations -- it's just that it's sometimes difficult for outsiders to show how it's happened.

    I wrote about the Kerry nomination for The Forum, and while that was speculative I think it holds up pretty well.

  4. It appears to me that people are missing the point of this post. Jonathan is explicitly arguing against the notion that there is a unified Party which will or will not choose a candidate. Rather, in his model there are many Party Actors, with the possibility of new people becoming Party Actors, and the possibility of the relationships, coalitions, and so on between Party Actors changing relatively rapidly.

    As I understand it, Obama versus Clinton provides a lot of support for this suggestion. Obama eventually had a lot of Party Actors supporting him, but he didn't accomplish that by simply stepping into a pre-existing place in the Party's internal structure--that was more Clinton's strategy. Rather, his campaign took an independent approach to creating new Party Actors and bringing together pre-existing Party Actors to support his candidacy, and eventually his Party Actors were able to overwhelm Clinton's Party Actors.

    I don't know if that exact approach is possible in 2012 in the Republican Party, but I think the general point is that understanding the importance of Party Actors is not at all the same thing as assuming a fixed set of Party Actors with a fixed internal structure.

  5. Important to note that the R primary is pretty much a zoo, much as Mr. Bernstein has described it, while the D primary includes those awful super delegates, which promotes an inside game.

    The zoo is ugly. But it's democratically ugly.

    We're getting close to being able to say that we'd have all been better off if Hillary had been nominated, and when we dissect the reasons why she wasn't...

  6. We're never going to get closer (or farther, for that matter) from knowing whether a Clinton nomination would have been better. That proposition depends on what would have happened in the election if Clinton had been nominated, and what would have happened in the next few years if she had been elected. We're really not getting new and useful information about those counterfactual worlds, so people who originally supported Clinton will continue to imagine that she would have done a better job handling the challenges Obama has faced, and people who originally supported Obama will continue to imagine that she would have done a worse job handling those challenges. And neither side can really disprove the other.

  7. @Anonymous (8/18, 9:56 am) I disagree with you, for a few reasons:

    *The R primary is a "zoo" this year because the primary is pretty much always "zooey" for the out-of-power party. (For example, the R primary this year reminds me of the D primary in '92.)

    *When there's no incumbent on the ballot (e.g., '08), then both parties tend to have "zooey" primaries.

    *When an incumbent is running for reelection, that party's primary is typically less "zooey", even with relatively weak incumbents (e.g., Bush in '94, Carter in '80).

    *You can make an argument that winner-take-all primaries and caucuses are more "democratic" than proportional allocation of delegates...but it's not going to be a particularly strong one. (Republicans have traditionally had winner-take-all primaries; their rules for '12 currently reserve winner-take-all primaries for April and later.)

    *You yourself may well be "getting close to being able to say that we'd have all been better off if Hillary had been nominated", but that's a highly subjective hypothetical. (Not to say it *couldn't* be correct, just that it's both impossible to prove and there's a fair amount of political science research and judgment out there that would argue against that hypothesis.)

    *Superdelegates were largely a trailing indicator for the Dems in '08---by which I mean that many of them remained uncommitted until it was clear that Obama had the lead and Clinton's only chance of winning was if superdelegates "overturned" the "verdict" of primary and caucus voters.

    *Obama won the nomination in 2008 largely (in my view) because of the following factors:

    1 - as a freshman US senator, he successfully recruited an extraordinarily talented legislative and political staff (basically, the heart of Tom Daschle's and Dick Gephardt's staffs), which is a key part of the "invisible primary";

    2 - just as there's always room for a "social conservative" candidate in Republican primaries, there's always room for an "anti-war" candidate in Democratic primaries. Because of his early opposition to the Iraq War (and because he didn't have to vote on it like all his major competitors), Obama won the "race" for the "anti-war/insurgent" candidate slot. (A second aspect of the "invisible primary".)

    3 - Obama raised a ton of early money from donors big and small. As our gracious host has repeatedly noted, this too is a crucially important aspect of the "invisible primary". The consequence was that once Obama established himself as Clinton's primary opposition, he had enough money to wage a nationwide campaign after IA, HN, SC and NV. (Note: No other Democratic insurgent campaign in the previous 30 years had overcome this hurdle.)

    4 - Finally, Obama's campaign staff (somewhat inexplicably) understood the party nomination rules better than Clinton's staff. That's how Clinton's primary win in, for example, New Jersey was effectively wiped out by Obama's win in the Idaho caucuses.

  8. I wish the parties would just go back to choosing their nominees in smoke filled rooms so the nominating process wouldn't have to be so visible for 2 years out of a four year term, especially if the parties are choosing their nominees anyway.

    Maybe not so many "great stories" but I don't see how any of this helps the governing side of things.

  9. The D candidate was going to win in 2008. McCain on the ballot pretty much ensured it, although I don't think the R's could have put up another candidate that could have won that election. Yes, I realize there's no way to prove hypotheticals, but then, there's no way for me to prove that an R governor is going to whack Obama in November 2012, either, and we all have to make that the odds on probability right now. And the political landscape and weightings are about the same as they were back in 2007... just flop a few names around... and you're there. Dead man walking incumbent, and folks are ready to make a move.

    I will grant a black swan event occurred with the WS crash, and absent that, perhaps an R candidate might have been more competitive. But I submit that Hillary in this same election would have taken as much as Obama, states and votes.

    Those super delegates had effect on that primary race and thus the general winner, then.

    I think the R's make early primaries proportional representation to discourage states from earlier and earlier primaries. States trying to get early influence will find that influence watered down, and discourage the "perpetual campaign", with state primaries held the day after offyear election. The later R primaries seem to be winner take all, allowing a candidate with momentum to close it out with a bang, or a trailer to go for the gusto and come from behind.

    I'd certainly call the above more democratic than super delegates, open for sale, available to the highest bidder. And none of those super delegates are subject to campaign finance rules, to my knowledge. I firmly believe cash/favors/business exchanged hands in 2008 over those votes. Now if you excuse me I have to check out the window for black helicopters. ;-)

    Dean was the anti war candidate in 2004, and the establishment snuffed him out, and the establishment and the masses both opted for Kerry, whose first action as nominee was "reporting for duty" in the war he and his VP nominee had both voted for. I don't think the anti war thing is relevant at all. Obama's nearly quadrupled our troop counts in Afghanistan, and basically invaded Libya unilaterally, so now it's REALLY irrelevant, I'd say.

    That 2008 primary race was close, and I don't think many have ever out campaigned the Clintons, certainly not this lightweight Obama... check his failing presidency as to his organizational and strategic abilities. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are the 2 best electoral tacticians of my lifetime, and Hillary had Bill to help strategize (and W, too, if you believe the rumors!).

    Did some anti Clinton bits in the 2008 D tribe have their effect, helped along by the weird super delegate business? Oh yes.

    And I'm not some Clintonphile, either. I'd consider voting for her, and I'd never vote for Obama, but neither would I ever vote for McCain. I think I'm giving this all a fair read... but you may disagree.

  10. We have a problem with the two-Party system, in that the Democrats are controlled by the 10-15% most liberal and the Republicans are controlled by the 10-15% most conservative. That leaves most Americans having to choose who they believe is the more moderate candidate, without having a true moderate available. I have written a platform for a moderate party, and anyone who wishes to comment can go here:


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