Don't Fear the Zombie Candidates

Money, even lots of it, isn't enough to win a presidential nomination if party insiders want someone else.
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Rand Paul. (Photo: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

Rand Paul. (Photo: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

Andrew Prokop wrote a wonderful piece for the new Vox.com a few weeks ago on the dynamics of presidential nominations. The piece does a great job downplaying the hype associated with possible presidential candidates like Rand Paul, following the logic laid out in books like The Party Decides. Basically, just because a candidate is momentarily popular, great on TV, and even a good fundraiser doesn't mean he or she can win a party's nomination. Modern party networks have developed ways of channeling funds and endorsements away from celebrities and toward those candidates who largely stand for those things that party insiders value. Rand Paul's modified libertarian philosophies are simply too far afield from what most of the Republican Party's leaders want, and barring a really unusual cycle, he will simply be prevented from winning the nomination.

I certainly agree with this analysis. But I did want to dissent a bit from Prokop's conclusion, which contains a warning about the current campaign finance system:

[T]here's one main reason to believe [Rand Paul will] be an important force in the primaries — his formidable fundraising. "Campaigns never end because people want campaigns to end. They end because they run out of money," chief Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said last year.

And in our age of newly-empowered outside money and Super PACs, even one rich and motivated donor can prolong a campaign for months. [UCLA's Lynn] Vavreck said that in 2012, "Santorum and Gingrich stayed in the race through February, March, and April because they each had a big outside donor giving them checks for millions of dollars." Under previous rules capping donors' contributions, they would have had to drop out months earlier. So while Paul may be no front-runner, he's well-positioned to cause heartburn for whoever the front-runner turns out to be.

It's true that lax fundraising and spending rules may allow someone like Rand Paul to continue to have a robust campaign operation long after it's obvious to most observers that he has no shot at winning. Mark Schmitt described 2012 candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as "zombie candidates" because they kept running long after their campaigns would have been dead in any other cycle.

But being a zombie candidate is not the same thing as being, in Prokop's words, an "important force in the primaries." Yes, Gingrich and Santorum won their occasional primary victories in the early months of 2012, but they never really posed a serious threat to Romney. Party insiders remained strongly behind Romney, and it was difficult to see any way that his competitors could translate an occasional win into a sustained series of victories, no less a plurality of delegates.

Basically, just because a candidate is momentarily popular, great on TV, and even a good fundraiser doesn't mean he or she can win a party's nomination.

What's more, it doesn't appear that the zombie candidacies much affected Romney's campaign. Did he move to the right to blunt their moves? You could probably find isolated cases of him changing a stance or emphasis on an issue here or there, but even if that happened, voters apparently didn't notice.

You can see evidence of this in this Monkey Cage post (and also in John Sides and Lynn Vavreck's book The Gamble). In a YouGov survey, Americans were asked to place themselves, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama on a conservative-to-liberal scale throughout 2012. Not only was there no detectable rightward movement by Romney in the early months of 2012, but voters continued to view Romney as ideologically closer to them than they viewed President Obama, even though Obama faced no primary challenger at all.

Could we see more zombie candidates in 2016? Sure. It's not implausible that the party would rally around, say, Jeb Bush early on, even while a well-funded Rand Paul continues to contest primaries and caucuses. But the zombie candidates are by definition going to be the ones that party insiders didn't want, sustained only by the generosity of a small number of eccentric donors. Money, even lots of it, isn't enough to win a presidential nomination if party insiders want someone else.

In this sense, the zombies are better thought of as ghosts. They can still make a lot of noise and scare people, and some don't even know they're dead, but they have a very limited ability to actually affect events in the physical world.

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