Will the Party Decide? Or Will Donald Trump Get the Republican Nomination?

The book Party Decides suggests party insiders will keep a candidate like Trump from getting the nomination. Does the party still have that power?
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Donald Trump. (Photo: Andrew Cline/Shutterstock)

Donald Trump. (Photo: Andrew Cline/Shutterstock)

In a thoughtful post at Vox, Andrew Prokop takes issue with the idea that party insiders determine who wins party nominations. They don't like Donald Trump, he notes, but Trump seems to be winning anyway. Voters just aren't taking their marching orders from party leaders. So what's going on? Have party insiders lost their edge?

The main theory Prokop is interrogating comes from the political science book Party Decides, written by Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. (Disclosures: Noel and I both write for Vox, and Zaller was my graduate school advisor.) The book argues that party elites (basically, officeholders, major donors, activists, and key party actors) largely determine which candidate gets the party's presidential nomination. Since 1980, the insiders' candidate—the candidates with the most officeholder endorsements—has tended to win the nomination. Indeed, early endorsements are a far better predictor of nomination success than fundraising or polling positions. The year 2012 makes for a great case study, as pretty much every Republican candidate was the poll leader for a while, but the nomination race went to Mitt Romney, who dominated the endorsement derby all along.

Trump, Fiorina, and Carson are just the sorts of outsider candidates who do well precisely when it does them the least good.

But Prokop notes that the tendency described in Party Decides is hardly an iron-clad law. Party elites have an easier time coordinating when there's an obvious coordination point, like a sitting vice president or a highly popular senator or governor interested in running. But that's not always the case, and there have been a few instances where the party's early favorite has faltered or only won by a hair. And there really haven't been that many elections since 1980 (although others, including me, have had success applying this theory to congressional and state legislative elections), and the ways people run for office keep shifting, so maybe this theory doesn't really describe the way things run today.

Besides, this is an unusual election cycle so far. The Republican Party might have been able to converge on, say, Jeb Bush if there weren't other high-quality candidates running. But there are other governors and senators of considerable skill, so insider support is fragmented. Maybe this is the year insider control breaks down and allows the people's choice (that would be Trump) to cruise to the nomination.

While I appreciate Prokop's thoughtful analysis, here's why I think he's incorrect, or at least premature. I really can't put it better than Kristin Kanthak said on Facebook:

The book is called "The Party Decides," not "The Party Decides in September Over a Year Before the Election."

Basically, it's still really early. At this point in the 2012 election cycle, Rick Perry was the poll leader. It was Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani at this point in the '08 cycle. Wesley Clark was heading to an easy Democratic nomination at this point in '04. Oh, and Teddy Kennedy was beating Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination at this point in the 1980 cycle. It's actually pretty rare for the poll-leader a year out from the election to get the nomination. So just by that metric alone, a Donald Trump nomination would be highly unusual.

But another key point is that Party Decides offers a theory of which candidate will tend to win the nomination. No one has won anything yet in the 2016 race. There have been precisely zero primaries or caucuses. No delegates have been pledged. The only reason anyone is thinking Trump is in a good position for the nomination is because he's leading in polls, which are highly unreliable predictors of voter behavior this far from an election.

Now, it's not inconsequential that two more traditional candidates—Rick Perry and Scott Walker, both governors—have dropped out, while the early poll leaders are all pretty non-traditional non-politicians. But those politicians could read the writing on the wall—there are plenty of strong traditional candidates in the race, and they didn't see a way to get from where they were to the nomination.

In fairness to Prokop, it's certainly possible that the system has changed from the one described in Party Decides. The whole world of fundraising is pretty substantially different than it was just a decade ago. Super PACs can now do a great deal for a candidate even when traditional party funding sources have dried up. Fundraising and campaigning via social media have given candidates access to donors, supporters, and volunteers that they couldn't have achieved without substantial party support in previous generations.

And maybe party elites just aren't that powerful. Oh, sure, they could probably roll over a Bill Bradley or a Rick Santorum like in earlier years, but maybe they just can't stand up to a legitimate billionaire celebrity like Trump. He may have a hold on the Republican electorate that party leaders just can't shake.

It also may be the case that party elites are deciding later than they used to. A lot of potential endorsers have yet to weigh in on the Republican side this year, and both Republican and Democratic endorsers have been increasingly waiting until the Iowa caucuses to get some sense of how good the candidates are at organizing the vote. That's useful information, but it is a less bold version of the party deciding in advance.

But chances are, the world actually hasn't changed. As tumultuous as it may seem, the 2016 race is unfolding as many have in the past. Trump, Fiorina, and Carson are just the sorts of outsider candidates who do well precisely when it does them the least good. If one of them actually wins the Republican nomination or is coming close to doing so by the end of winter, then yes, Party Decides is due for a revision. But we can certainly wait a few months to see if anything like that happens. No sense tossing out a perfectly good theory before it's even been disproven.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

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