Scott Walker, party regular.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

No, Scott Walker Isn't Ceding GOP Elites to Jeb

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction makes an important point: Be careful in identifying what is and isn’t “the party.”

The context is Scott Walker’s decision to use a “527” organization at this point instead of a political-action committee to fund his presidential campaign. This means he can benefit from a structure that has no limits on how much money can be raised or on who can contribute, because 527s don't "expressly advocate" for a specific candidate or party.

The issue, as described by John Guida of the New York Times, is whether this allows Walker to “circumvent the ‘invisible primary’ -- the period leading up to the actual primary contests in which elites influence the process through donations and endorsements." If Walker can put together a big enough pile of money, the idea goes, then he won't need party support. But this view mistakes what parties are, and how they determine nominations.

Even though the 527s are formally independent,  they are usually closely tied to the party network. They draw from the same universe of campaign professionals all presidential candidates use. We don’t know exactly how much of the money they raise is from regular party donors, but the best evidence is that it’s a large percentage of the total.

In other words, it’s a mistake to think that if Jeb Bush is the party’s candidate, then Walker could defeat him by going around the party. If Bush is the Republican choice (and I see no evidence of this yet), Walker’s campaign wouldn’t get off the ground, no matter how it was structured. Even if he was able to find plenty of money from unconventional sources, his cash wouldn’t stand up to the strength of the party's fundraising apparatus.

Not only would the party’s candidate have plenty of money of his own, but voters would respond strongly to cues from party leaders -- politicians, party-aligned group leaders and others. Typically, voters turn to trusted party leaders when little differentiates the candidates, as tends to be the case in nomination politics, so if the party has decided and is therefore able to send a clear signal, voters will follow it.

This is essentially what happened in 2012, when Newt Gingrich had plenty of money from billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The money proved irrelevant. Gingrich surged when he impressed voters in televised debates -- and then flopped when Republicans familiar with his governing record and other baggage denounced him. Campaign spending isn’t irrelevant to success in primaries and caucuses, but a unified or mostly unified party will trump its impact. 

By all accounts, the Republican Party hasn’t made any decisions yet. Bush has won some support, but so has Walker and so have some other candidates; plenty of party actors haven’t declared for anyone yet. I agree with Masket: The way the candidates set up their fundraising operations is unlikely to determine who wins the nomination. Any politician who thinks otherwise has a mistakenly narrow view of how our parties work.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net