Don't Wait Until 2016 to Find Out Who Won

If you wait until the conventions in summer 2016, you'll miss how the parties are choosing their nominees for president -- starting now.

Not everyone can be an also-ran.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Good post over at the Monkey Cage today from political scientist Hans Hassell about the ways parties not only determine who wins nominations, but also shape the field.

The research focuses on Senate contests and how parties “clear the field" in those elections. But it’s applicable, in slightly different form, to presidential elections as well. Here's how this works:

1. In the early part of the "invisible primary," which is roughly the period from the previous election up through late winter in the year before the next election, candidates compete for support among party actors. That’s a large group: politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, activists and donors, and party-aligned interest groups and media. Some operate nationally, some at the state or local level.

This is when politicians decide whether to move to a formal candidacy, based on their ambition, their tolerance for risk and their assessment of the chances of winning (which in turn are influenced by what they hear from all those party actors). Quite a few candidates drop out in this period.

2. In the year before the primaries and caucuses, the invisible primary speeds up.  By summer it’s unlikely that anyone without a formal candidacy, including a campaign organization in the early primary and caucus states, can be competitive. Winnowing continues. More party actors make decisions, and some candidates, making the calculation based on their resources and ambition, drop out.  

Republican party actors appear to be better at clearing the field in the year before the Iowa caucuses than Democrats are (it's hard to know for sure, given how few cycles are available to examine). Candidates with full formal campaigns who leave before facing the voters -- such as Tim Pawlenty in 2011 -- are common on the Republican side and rare on the Democratic side.

3. By the election year, most party actors have settled on a candidate, or at least come close. Contrary to what Paul Waldman said yesterday over at Plum Line, once most party actors agree, they pretty much can “control” the primaries. The party candidate doesn’t always win every primary, but the favorable publicity that party support gives candidates directly and indirectly do the job effectively over the long term.

If uncertainty still exists in January, it's usually over after the first few contests, as party actors unsure about a candidate use those results to form their final opinion. That’s probably what happened to Howard Dean in 2004, when many of them were unsure if he held some special appeal to voters that they were missing. Therefore his defeat in Iowa was decisive. In 2012, many party actors held off in supporting Mitt Romney until his solid showing in Iowa and his easy win in New Hampshire. Contested primaries may go on for a while after it's resolved, with the media often pretending that the eventual result is in doubt.

4. Party actors can fail to reach a consensus, for ideological or any other reasons. That leads to “uncontrolled” primaries and caucuses. This has really only happened once since the modern system was fully established -- in the 2008 epic battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

This is a more complicated process than the one in the statewide elections Hassell studied, yet the outcome is basically the same: The party decides, and the party gets its way.

Be careful. Especially on the Republican side, you hear a lot of talk about “establishment” Republicans. There's no guarantee, however, that any particular faction will win intraparty contests. It’s best to see previous winners, Bob Dole and John McCain and Mitt Romney, as having been acceptable to a broad range of party actors, rather than think of those three as having been anointed by a cabal of “establishment” insiders.

So, we’re ending the first, more "invisible" stage. In a few months, we’ll see who survives the winnowing. At least on the Republican side, it will be interesting.

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