The invisible primary
posted at 1:04 pm on January 31, 2012 by Karl
Today is the Florida primary, which most expect to be won by Mitt Romney. While we await those results this evening, it is worth reflecting on the other primary Romney essentially sews up today: the invisible primary.
Yesterday, I referred to the GOP apparat — and some of the response was to have a little fun with the idea, or to express weariness with debates about the “GOP establishment.” Such responses are understandable. After all, the Republican Party is not a conspiracy. Moreover, post-1968 reforms took presidential nominations out of the hands of party bosses and into the hands of caucus and primary voters, right? At the very least, it placed the process more in the hands of candidates and their campaigns, yes?
Some political scientists think it is more complex than that. For example, in The Party Decides, Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller argue the rise of the invisible primary still gives the party control of presidential nominations:
The invisible primary is essentially a long-running national conversation among members of each party coalition about who can best unite the party and win the next presidential election. The conversation occurs in newspapers, on Sunday morning television talk shows, among activist friends over beer, in chatter at party events, and, most recently, in the blogosphere. ***
Some voices obviously count for more than others in the invisible primary, but anyone can join in simply by paying attention, attending party gatherings, and chiming in. The weighting of voices is determined by the resources (money, labor, expertise, prestige) the speaker can bring to party business and by the cogency of the remarks offered. Politics enters as well: pressure to go along with one’s group, to get on the bandwagon of the likely winner, or to repay old obligations. But the main business of the invisible primary is figuring out who can best unify the party and win the fall election.
Note the authors’ definition of the party extends beyond its elected officials and party functionaries, but extends to activists, fundraisers, interest groups, campaign technicians and others.
As Jay Cost noted last summer, the invisible primary has become extremely important because the cost of campaigning has increased exponentially and frontloading has altered the nature of the nomination battle. Since the institution of the caucus/primary reforms, Jimmy Carter remains the only candidate to win his party’s nomination without winning the invisible primary, as typically measured by fundraising and endorsements — and that was largely because the parties had not recognized that someone could beat the system before 1976 and the system was not as frontloaded. Howard Dean attempted a similar feat in 2004 via the Internet, but failed. Barack Obama may have beaten the seemingly establishment Hillary Clinton in 2008, but he raised more money than her heading into the Iowa caucuses and his endorsements in early states were competitive with hers. The closest example in the GOP, John McCain, stumbled in the summer of 2007, but started and finished as the winner of the invisible primary (especially after accounting for Romney’s significantly self-funded 2008 campaign).
This cycle, anyone following politics could see the efforts mounted to pull Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan and Chris Christie into the race. The names of those behind such efforts were not always public, but it was hardly a shadowy cabal, either. Tim Pawlenty’s early withdrawal from the race was a product of the invisible primary (donors lost confidence in him after the Iowa straw poll). Most commentary and coverage of Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann reflected the judgment of the invisible primary that these were not serious candidates. The invisible primary has never been more visible.
Of course, opinion is far from unanimous on the theory that party elites play a decisive role in determining presidential nominations. Nate Silver is among the skeptics, helpfully noting that Romney may be preferred by GOP elites, that preference is rather tepid. Silver focuses primarily on the relative scarcity of endorsements overall, but that data is corroborated by reports that many big-name GOP donors did not commit to Mitt until Chris Christie was officially out.
However, even if you are more partial to the view that the current rules emphasize candidates, their consultants and voters over the party per se, Jay Cost correctly notes the early caucus and primary states often favor moderates and attract large numbers of the poorly informed. Even if you do not think the party decides, the party does more or less set the calendar. You know who that benefits?