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Yes, the Parties Still Pick Their Nominees

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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Many political scientists believe that the people most active within the party network, whether they are donors or activists or politicians or other professionals, choose presidential nominees. These party actors internally pick a candidate, and their combined resources are sufficient to persuade voters to go along in the primaries and caucuses. 

Yet Jonathan Ladd, a scholar of political parties, argues that “the 2008, 2012, and 2016 cycles have shown that party insiders have a harder time coordinating on one preferred insider candidate than it previously appeared.” For Ladd, the lesson is that while parties can defeat those they really oppose – a Newt Gingrich in 2012 and presumably a Donald Trump in 2016 – they have limited ability to secure presidential nominations for their favorites.

I don’t think that’s quite right.

It’s true that Republican party actors in 2008 and 2012 took plenty of time to agree on John McCain and Mitt Romney, and that Republicans this year are far from agreeing on anyone so far. And Democratic party actors split evenly between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008.

But what did we really learn from those cycles?

First, to say the obvious, an election in which there is no obvious choice naturally produces slower results than one in which there is.

In several cycles (beginning in 1980), one candidate was an internally popular vice president (Democrats in 1984 and 2000, Republicans in 1988) or a strong runner-up from the previous open nomination cycle (Republicans in 1980 and 1996, Democrats in 2016). In each of those cases, party actors converged behind the obvious choice, and party voters fell in line rapidly. Hillary Clinton’s apparently easy coronation will fit nicely into that pattern (see endorsement charts at FiveThirtyEight for some data).

In other cycles – for the Democrats in 1988, 1992, 2004, and 2008, and the Republicans in 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016 -- there was no vice president or strong previous runner-up available and running. Of those eight times, only Republicans in 2000 with George W. Bush clearly settled on a candidate before the Iowa caucuses, although one could also count Democrats in 1992 with Bill Clinton.

In each of the five other cycles, parties still wound up with one candidate who was acceptable to the existing party coalition, and soundly defeated those who would have threatened it (Jesse Jackson in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Rudy Giuliani in 2008, and Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Gingrich in 2012). 

But that’s not all that happens. Maneuvering behind the scenes during the invisible primary, then in the open during the primaries and caucuses, serves to test the strength of party groups and factions, and the results can change that existing coalition, at least to some extent.

So with that in mind, how can we understand this cycle’s Republican contest?

Many party actors have been holding back -- as they tend to do when there’s no obvious nominee. In part, they’re presumably working to make sure each potential nominee (at least the ones they might support) is on board with the party’s positions on the issues. When that agenda is internally contested, as it has been on immigration, candidates may need to reposition themselves, as Marco Rubio has been doing on that issue. Or they risk being eliminated – as Rand Paul has done because of his foreign-policy positions.

Party actors may also be waiting for evidence about the candidates from real voters in the early states. Is Jeb Bush really a dud? Can Chris Christie pull in conservatives and those from other regions of the nation? Do Republicans wary of inexperience hold Rubio's youth against him?

A minority of party actors wants to nominate Ted Cruz, presumably in an effort to shift GOP positions to their preferences. So to some extent the impasse thus far may be about a battle within the party.

Donald Trump’s strong polling numbers complicate all of that. Perhaps he’ll be able to translate that into success in the primaries and caucuses, and a total outsider (as opposed to Cruz or others who pose as "outsiders" but are comfortably inside the party) really can steal a nomination away from a political party. More likely, he’ll fall well short. What we know is that since 1984 no party choice has been seriously threatened. 

But remember: A party's nomination choice isn't only about the candidate. It's even more about the existing party coalition securing the nomination for its preferred policies, and sometimes about new or minority groups within the party challenging that agenda. That's the central story of presidential nomination politics. 

  1. Republican Dan Quayle in 1992 was vice president, but he was so unpopular among voters that he did not seem a natural choice at all when he ran for president. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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