Who won last night’s debate? Who cares.
The Invisible Primary is much more important in indicating who the Republican nominee will be, and that primary hasn’t signaled a winner yet.
Pundits and polls proclaim the importance of debates but the reaction of talking heads and voter opinion are insignificant. As the authors of The Party Decides argue, it is endorsements conferred during the Invisible Primary that have the most impact on determining the nominee. The more interesting story of last night’s debate is going to come from the reaction of party insiders. That will take some time to sort out and the debate may have limited impact on insider endorsements.
The Party Decides argues that the party establishment – leaders and “intense policy demanders” – conduct a conversation among themselves during the Invisible Primary leading up to Iowa. If they can arrive at a consensus about the candidate who meets most of their policy wishes and can win in November – and this is often the second choice of many of them – that candidate should become the nominee. Voters seem to take their cues from the choice of the party establishment.
So Jeb Bush’s problem isn’t that he is doing poorly in the polls or that media experts assert he got stuffed last night by Marco Rubio. It is that despite Bush’s obvious advantages he has not secured many of the endorsements of the party establishment. As the Fivethirtyeight.com Endorsement Primary tracker shows, Bush has been endorsed by twenty-one congressman and three senators, but no Republican governor has endorsed Bush. Under Fivethirtyeight’s point system, Bush sits atop the field with thirty-six total points. But that is not a strong signal from the establishment.
No one else is garnering much elite support either. Pundits are praising Marco Rubio’s debate performance but thus far the party is unimpressed – he has only eight points in the endorsement tracker. Chris Christie has accumulated twenty-five points, Mike Huckabee twenty-four, Rand Paul fifteen, John Kasich fourteen, Ted Cruz eight.
The most coveted endorsement is that of a governor. There are thirty-one Republican governors; only four have endorsed. Christie has two, Huckabee one, and Kasich one.
In some years – 2004 for the Democrats for instance – the party fails to coalesce early around a candidate; or as in 1988 with the Democrats, waits to see how the candidates perform before actual voters. Usually the party decides during the Invisible Primary, but perhaps this year will be an outlier.
One thing the party can do effectively is reject a candidate it does not want. Trump and Carson sit atop the polls and garner out-sized media attention, but no Republican congressman, senator, or governor has endorsed either one of them. Acceptability to the establishment is much more important than poll numbers in the Invisible Primary.
Thinking back on my post after the Democratic debate, I mistakenly suggested that the debate played a role in clearing Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination. I was wrong; that path had already been eased by the party establishment which had decided via its overwhelming endorsement of her that Secretary Clinton should be the 2016 Democratic nominee. That happened before the debate.
The Republicans await such clarity.