Over the past several years the most prominent academic theory about how the presidential nomination process works is that The Party Decides (TPD), not the voters. Are Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz or Donald Trump voters about to upend the theory?
The first thing to realize is, we won’t know for a while. TPD focuses on who eventually wins the nomination, not who wins Iowa or New Hampshire. The simple expression of the theory (for a much more involved and sophisticated book) is that the party consists not just of elected and party officials, but of large and diverse networks of loosely aligned intense policy demanders, who want someone reliable on their issues and who can win. When some consensus emerges among these actors that shows up via endorsements, then the party has decided and the votes (also polls, media, and money) follows.
These endorsers are sometimes called insiders or the establishment, but that doesn’t quite convey the argument. It might be closer to say that the policy demanders are repeat players with some influence in the party. For instance, Sarah Palin wouldn’t be considered a member of the establishment, but she has some influence as an endorser and has endorsed often over the years. Bernie Sanders has a number of progressive endorsements and progressives are surely a part of the Democratic Party.
At least insofar as Iowa goes, you can now give polls there some credence, as fivethirtyeight.com analyst Harry Enten says.
TPD has been taking a pounding – Ha! Trump and Cruz prove that the theory is wrong! That is one possibility, as Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight argues, or it could be that the Republican Party is failing. It can’t coalesce behind an acceptable (not perfect, just acceptable) candidate. Parties have not gotten their way on every nomination, but they have nearly always been able to stop a candidate they truly cannot stand.
In the GOP’s case, the party for the most part cannot stand either Trump or Cruz. The Texas senator seems to be pulling ahead for title of most despised candidate.
We’re nearing the end of the Invisible Primary, and TPD states that “if one wants to predict a candidate’s poll standing at the end of the invisible primary, early endorsements predict it more accurately than early poll standing.” But Trump has almost no endorsements and Cruz isn’t cleaning up either. The fivethirtyeight Endorsement Primary tracker does not follow endorsers in the same manner as TPD, but it does track all members of Congress and governors. Not one of them has endorsed Trump. Seventeen representatives have endorsed Cruz, but he’s still behind others who seem to be going nowhere, like Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee.
What Cruz does have is some good endorsements in Iowa, and they matter. TPD finds that Iowa endorsements and success are correlated. Endorsements can mean a commitment of resources, and that is a big help in a caucus state like Iowa. Also, voters often have little information about candidates due to “the poor quality of media coverage” which focuses on poll leaders and horse race, so voters may take cues from figures they respect, like Cong. Steve King or evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.
Iowa and New Hampshire will narrow the field. Will either Trump or Cruz get narrowed out then or soon after? That would leave only one detestable candidate left and perhaps then the party will decide on a viable candidate against him. But maybe Trump or Cruz will be the nominee, and that will be a sign that in 2016 The Party Lost Control.