The death of the "invisible primary"

Another day, another poll, and another headline showing Hillary Clinton’s numbers tanking as she falls behind Bernie Sanders in Iowa for the first time. But is she worried? No, sir. Not a bit. And the professional political class isn’t really sweating it either. I was watching Morning Joe today and Steve Rattner was on the panel, armed with his usual stack of charts and PowerPoint presentations. Chief among those was the “insiders betting pool” which supposedly parallels InTrade in terms of predicting who will win the nominations and, eventually, the presidency. Hillary Clinton is still out in front by such a vast margin that her challengers can’t even see her dust on the horizon. On the Republican side? That same new poll linked above has The Donald up above 30% for the first time in the CNN survey, but the “smart money” still isn’t buying it. They’re still backing Jeb Bush 36% of time, though Trump has moved up to 15, even though he’s currently polling nationally around five percent.

Why all the confidence in the establishment picks which fly in the face of the polls? It may have something to do with what’s referred to as the invisible primary. Scott Clement explains how Hillary (and I’m guessing eventually Jeb) is building up a firewall among the true power brokers. (Washington Post)

But despite big polling movement, Clinton has a gigantic and growing lead in another key metric with a strong track record of influencing the nomination process: Endorsements from elected Democrats.

A 56 percent majority of Democratic governors, senators and U.S. House members have endorsed Clinton for president, according to data tracked by FiveThirtyEight.

No other candidate has a significant share of support from elected Democrats. Joe Biden has 1.2 percent support for a potential run, while 0.4 percent (a.k.a. one person) goes to former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. Sanders has no endorsements at all.

Why should we care about endorsements from party leaders? According to the invisible primary theory, these are the voices which move the cart down the road where it really matters. They weigh in locally and steer some of the vote, as well as influencing delegate selection. Further, many of them turn out to be so called “super delegates” at the conventions. In other words, it doesn’t matter all that much what the disorganized, unwashed masses are saying when they answer the phone for Marist. At the end of the day the people who run the smoke filled back rooms will still get their way.

But is it true? At this point both Trump and Sanders have been not only remaining competitive, but in fact surging for far longer than anything which could be called a summer fling. (I think the GOP had four different frontrunners during the summer of 2011.) And it’s definitely true that the super delegates have an oversized impact at the conventions – yet another reason that they should be outlawed – but if you’re relying on a pack of elites who answer to no voters to put you over the top, your campaign is in trouble. As for the rest of the convention tally, unless the state parties send actual delegates who are willing to flatly defy the results of the primary election they still outnumber the party insiders and heavyweights. None of this is assured, of course. Hillary could lose all the early states and then still roar back with her southern strategy and retake the lead, but that’s putting a lot of eggs in one basket which hasn’t been polled too heavily thus far.

In a few weeks we will be into October. That’s less than twenty weeks before people start voting. Unless the numbers start doing an abrupt about face, both Trump and Sanders may wind up having one heck of a lot of delegates lined up behind them. Is this the end of the invisible primary? The establishment leadership isn’t going to go down without a fight, but if the majority of the people reject the conventional wisdom and directives from HQ, there’s really not much they can do about it.