Friday, October 7, 2011

Q Day 4: Party Actors?

Related questions about parties nominations and elections. First, from an anonymous commenter:
How important are advisers and aides to politicians in the nomination process? You often argue about the expansive and amorphous nature of parties, but I am wondering if a 'candidate' is not also similarly expansive and amorphous.
Exactly correct!  Why, for example, is Congress polarized? We have about four answers: 1. District based: lopsided districts mean that primaries are more important than general elections, and primary electorates as hard partisans, so Members reflect median of (extremist) primary voters; 2. Congress based: Congressional party cartels use various legislature-based resources to force moderates in their party to stick with the party majority; 3. Politician self-selection: the people who actually run for office are a partisan, polarized group; and 4. Staff effects: candidates recruit staff and other aides from a partisan pool, and those assistants wind up influencing policy positions on everything that's not dictated by the politician (who may only care about a few things) or constituents (ditto). I've done some research on this, and believe that #4 is a real and overlooked factor. See too the next questions.

Next: @louisirosenthal tweeted: "who, exactly, are those party "actors" that telephone christie, perry, etc. to encourage a prez run? karl rove? big donors?"

I've started using the phrase "party actors" lately...I want to distinguish between "the party" or what I've called the Expanded Party -- that is, the combination of formal party organizations and party networks -- from people who are just voters and nothing more. Included in party actors are:

Party professionals
Campaign professionals, including campaign staff and party consultants;
Governing professionals: Hill staff and other partisans involved in governing;
Formal party organization officials, such as a Chair of a party's county commitee;
Formal party organization staff, such as an executive director of a state party;
Party-aligned interest groups;
Party-aligned media

In my view of parties, people compete for influence both within and between these other words, it could be that politicians dominate (but that there are continuing factions among politicians), or it could be that activists and donors dominate, or any other combination. Note too that some of this is fluid; today's activist can be tomorrow's politician, and the Missouri GOP press secretary may be some Republican Senator's legislative director next year. Put them all together, and you have a political party.

And then back to comments, for another anonymous commenter:
Just finished The Party Decides, seeing as it was mentioned all over the blogosphere, and found it pretty fascinating. I was wondering what of that theory -- that party actors engage in essentially a large-scale coordination game in order to decide nominees -- it presents is applicable to lower tier nomination contests in the US -- statewide, congressional, local -- and what is idiosyncratic to the presidential process? Is there any good books/research that covers similar ground in those types of contests to that book?
The best book from this perspective on sub-presidential is Seth Masket's No Middle Ground, which looks at nominations in California -- although for local nominations, it's much less a question of complex coordination and much more a question of establishing and then sustaining a cartel that controls nominations (and I hope that Seth will jump in if I have that not quite right; it's been a while since I read it). In general, we have several studies of how Expanded Parties attempt and succeed in controlling nominations; what we have less of an idea of is a full account of how it varies in different places and times and why.  As with the presidential stuff, there's a competing "candidate-centered" school of thought that focuses on candidates, voters, and to a lesser extent media. My impression is that to date the party-centered story is (again, within political science) more accepted at the presidential nomination level than at the subpresidential level, which could be for many non-substantive reasons, but could also be (although I don't think it is) because subpresidentials are less party-centered and more candidate-centered. Again, while I tend to think the answers tend to be more party- than candidate-centered, it is also the case that there are a hell of a lot of party nominations in the US, and we by no means have enough research to say whether and how they vary as to the degree of expanded party influence. (And I do hope that Seth chimes in on this one).


  1. Also, for sub-presidential stuff, let's not forget Casey Dominguez's work: she's got a piece in last month's Political Research Quarterly, a piece coauthored with our distinguished host in PS a few years back, and her dissertation (which I think is going to be a book eventually, but she has it as a .pdf on her webpage at USD)

  2. I think you got this right, Jon. My impression from some other research I've conducted is that sub-presidential nominations are pretty party centered, but that varies considerably in style and intensity. The reasons for these variations are pretty complicated. To some extent, it's because of institutional rules; you organize politics differently in California, where the formal parties are highly constrained by law, than you do in Illinois, where the formal parties can engage in more direct hands-on activity. There are variations in political culture which appear to be important, too. Some places (notably smaller, more rural ones) do seem to have some kind of elite organization of politics, but it's not necessarily operating within a party. That is, it may just be a group of local notables influencing nonpartisan city and county elections without much interest in either of the major parties.

    Ehrenhalt shows some of the variations along these lines in United States of Ambition, and Trounstine shows the differences and similarities in local "machine" and "reform" organizations in Political Monopolies in American Cities.

    I'd also encourage readers to look at Mayhew's Placing Parties in American Politics, but I'd also point out some of the limitations of his approach. He uses local news and academic reporting to describe the level of party organization in each of the 50 states (as of about 30 years ago), placing each on a 5-point "Traditional Party Organization" scale. It's impressive work, but I think it misses a lot of other kinds of organization out there.

    My impression is that actual candidate-centered politics, where a candidate unaffiliated with local party elites can jump in and win a nomination based simply on money and campaign skills, is very rare in this country, media reports to the contrary. Figuring out how to survey this in a broad and systematic way is really tricky, though.


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