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A Failed Theory or a Failed Republican Party?

What exactly would a Donald Trump nomination mean for political science?
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Donald  Trump greets people as he attends a campaign rally at the Sioux City  Orpheum Theatre on January 31, 2016, in Sioux City, Iowa.  (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Donald Trump greets people as he attends a campaign rally at the Sioux City Orpheum Theatre on January 31, 2016, in Sioux City, Iowa. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last week at Mischiefs of Faction, I wrote about the book The Party Decides and the extent to which the 2016 is causing trouble for it. I argued that the Republican race isn't providing a very clean test of the theory, while the Democratic race is. This invited substantial pushback from Jonathan Chait, Justin Grimmer, and others, suggesting that I was either protecting the theory from actual testing, or that the theory itself was untestable. So I'd like to clarify a bit and suggest just what evidence we've gathered this year.

I should concede at the outset that I've made some very strong claims in a number of previous posts that Donald Trump would get nowhere near the Republican nomination. I based some of those claims on the lessons of The Party Decides, but you really didn't need a political science book to reach that conclusion. A simple look at history would have served just fine. Parties nominate senators, governors, and generals for president; they don't nominate wealthy businesspeople or celebrities, even though many such people have sought the office. And beyond that, Trump is simply not where the party is on many key policies and would arguably be dangerous to it as its nominee and as president.

Trump, of course, hasn't won the party's nomination yet—the first contest is tonight—but he's done far better for far longer than I expected. So, yes, it's certainly fair to call me out on that. And even if he ultimately fails to win the nomination, it will not be because the party coordinated on an alternative and crushed Trump prior to Iowa. A Trump nomination is obviously a failure for the theory, and even a Trump loss is at best a weak win for the theory at this point.

 Sometimes a three-pack-a-day smoker will live to be 90; that shouldn't shake our belief that tobacco use shortens lives

Now, in my recent post, I focused on what I see as the central claim of the book: The party generally gets what it wants. That is, when party elites have selected a favorite candidate, they're very good at making sure that candidate wins the nomination, even if public opinion doesn't favor it initially. The Democratic case struck me as a particularly good test since that party has very clearly indicated a preference for Hillary Clinton but Bernie Sanders is doing well in polling for early contests. The Republican example was, I thought, muddier, since party elites have indicated a dislike for Trump but haven't, for any number of reasons, picked a favorite.

To re-state, a Trump nomination—not a win in one or several primaries or caucuses but the actual party nomination—would be a failed test of the theory. The theory suggests that a party should not nominate someone who's so clearly a threat to what party insiders want just because he's rich and famous. But the reasons for that failure might be unclear. If the party tried to stop him and failed, that would be a much clearer refutation of the theory than the party not even trying.

It may be helpful here to distinguish a second claim in the book, that the party will converge on a preferred candidate prior to Iowa. By my reading, this isn't necessarily a theory proffered by the book; the authors just claim that the party has an incentive to coordinate. But coordination is hard, and the parties have not always pulled it off. It's especially hard when there's a highly salient issue tearing the party apart, as the Iraq War did to Democrats in the early 2000s. That's part of the reason that party failed to rally around an alternative to Howard Dean in 2004 until after Iowa. The Republicans may be facing just such a problem now with the Tea Party insurgency. But if we want to focus on the claim that a party should converge early for a candidate, then it's clear that the Republicans haven't done that in the 2016 cycle, just as Democrats really didn't in the 2004 cycle.

Finally, it's good to reflect on just what a failed test of either theory would mean. I share Christina Wolbrecht's elation that political journalism is arguing over the falsifiability of political science studies. This is very healthy! But let's think about what a Trump nomination would mean. In general, if you have a pretty good theory that confronts an inconsistent data point, you have three options:

1. Treat the data point as an outlier. It's a stochastic world, and even the best theories will occasionally have cases they can't account for. Maybe the Republicans in 2016 were a mess, but in general the theory is still right.

2. Update the theory. Maybe it's mostly right, but some recent shifts in the political system (the rise of social media, party polarization, etc.) need to be accounted for.

3. Throw out the theory. At some point, it made sense to acknowledge that the Earth wasn't at the center of the universe rather than to keep updating and complicating a theory that just wasn't explaining much anymore.

Should Trump somehow win the nomination, it's not obvious which of these three paths should be followed. Any worthwhile theory should be able to survive a bad observation. Sometimes a three-pack-a-day smoker will live to be 90; that shouldn't shake our belief that tobacco use shortens lives. Of course, the theories laid out in The Party Decides rest on relatively few data points—presidential nominations from 1980 forward—so a failed test should certainly prompt some reflection. And if we end up grouping other recent contests (Mitt Romney's nomination amid tepid early party support in 2012, Barack Obama defeating early party insider marginal favorite Clinton in 2008, etc.) as similar failures, we might come to the conclusion that this theory doesn't actually describe current party nominations all that well.

But again, we're not there quite yet. This is, after all, a theory about nominations, so it might be helpful to see who actually wins this one.