Question Day: Is the 'Invisible Primary' Kosher?

The average Joe or Jill can't run for office without gaining a party's favor. Far from thwarting democracy, the system improves it. 
Maybe it didn't work so well for him.

Commenter trisand asks:

Some days the invisible primary seems not very democratic to me, or at the very least, somewhat deceptive to primary voters. Is the 'invisible' nature of it a net positive?

We're talking about the time after a person announces his or her candidacy for president and before voter involvement begins in the Iowa caucuses, when candidates compete for the support of party actors. The criticism is that wealthy donors and other insiders use this period to essentially pre-select who the next president will be. But remember: Nominations are party decisions. They're about how the coalition which makes up each party defines what the party is going to be moving forward.

Yes, parties are, in a sense, conspiracies of some (interest groups, activists, politicians and others) against the whole (that is, all citizens). But they are, paradoxically, potentially beneficial to those who are left out. Parties help organize elections and governing in ways that those with only minimal interest can make sense of them.

If parties are permeable -- that is, if people can join or leave them at will -- then previously excluded groups have a fighting chance to make their positions heard. If not, the conspiracy against the whole leaves out too many and gives them little recourse. The requirement is even more the case in a two-party system, in which the ability to form new parties is essentially irrelevant.

Taking all that to the invisible primary, a nomination process, therefore, needs to do several things. It needs to allow the people most involved in the party coalition to compete, to bargain and to coordinate. It needs to be open enough that new people and groups can enter. And, don't forget, it has to choose a candidate without stalemate.

The modern mixed system does this reasonably well. The invisible primary allows those most engaged in party affairs to exert their influence, pushing candidates to support their positions and set other priorities. Then to the extent that party actors agree, they can lead public opinion to support them through the primaries and caucuses. And because the invisible primary involves gathering resources, new party actors become important if and when they can provide relevant resources: not just money, but also party-loyal personnel and endorsements and opinion leadership that party voters care about.

The system usually works -- not always, but well enough. There are plenty of things to question about U.S. political parties and democracy, but the invisible primary isn't one of them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Katy Roberts at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.