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Does Donald Trump prove 'the party' doesn't decide?

Everything about current presidential politics goes against 'The Party Decides' thesis, but there's not yet hard data to prove it.

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    Donald Trump speaks in Las Vegas. Legions of Republican voters are coming to grips with the idea that Donald Trump may be their party’s best chance for retaking the White House. Some love the idea. For many others, there’s shock, confusion and anxiety, but also a feeling that he’d be better than another four years with a Democrat in the White House.
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Longtime readers know that I have periodically expressed skepticism regarding “The Party Decides” thesis. That is the argument, made most thoroughly by the book of that title, that party leaders act in effect as gatekeepers who control who wins their party’s nomination. They do so through a variety of signaling mechanisms, such as endorsements, or by steering financial contributions, that collectively help winnow the candidate field and, ideally, focus voter support behind a single candidate – preferably one who shares the party’s dominant ideological perspective and can still win the general election. Moreover, much of that winnowing takes place prior to any actual voting for party delegates, as party leaders work behind the scenes to eliminate unwanted candidates as soon as possible.

My skepticism rests on three essential points. First, the authors use what I consider to be a rather generous definition of “party,” or intense policy demanders. This allows them to claim that, for the most part, party leaders have retained control of the nominating process despite ostensibly significant changes in how delegates are selected, as in the movement from a convention-centered nominating process to the current post-McGovern-Fraser emphasis on caucus and primaries. (By the way, the book does a wonderful job providing an historical overview of the evolution of the presidential nominating process, which is an important reason why I continue to assign it in my elections class.) A second concern – and perhaps an unfair one – is the difficulty the authors have in showing how this coordinating process actually takes place. As far as I can tell, there’s no smoking memo where party leaders confirm which candidates they will support. So one must infer the existence of a party-driven winnowing process.

Of course, as I tell my students, when it comes to explaining political behavior, you don’t beat something with nothing. If the party isn’t deciding, then who is? My sense is that at least since the McGovern-Fraser reforms, it is more typically the voters who decide – at least those voters who participate in the series of caucuses and primaries that constitute the modern nominating process.  Admittedly, they are not generally representative of the broader public but neither are they the equivalent, at least from my perspective, of the traditional “party bosses” who used to control blocs of delegates. However, voters aren’t free to choose just any candidate.  Instead, they choose from a candidate menu that is heavily influenced by the media’s perception of which candidates are truly viable. The media does not do well with candidate complexity, and so it moves early to simplify the narrative by classifying candidates based on expected strength.  For example, think of the segmentation of the Republican debate participants by the various cable networks into a “grown up” and “kiddie table.” Under this alternative scenario, party elites don’t decide so much as they anticipate who the likely nominee will be based on their read of the political landscape and potential candidates. When the indicators all point in the direction of a particular candidate, party leaders endorse early, in order to position themselves for any benefits that may accrue from being among the first to jump on the winning candidate’s bandwagon. But when the crystal ball is a bit foggier, they wait to endorse, heeding the famous adage to “don’t back no losers.” It is precisely that uncertainty, I believe, that has caused many Republican leaders to hold back on endorsing anyone during the current election cycle. It is not, as some political scientists claim, that they have simply decided not to endorse – it is that they don’t know who to endorse.

Of course, one can’t possibly do full justice in a blog post to the Party Decides thesis, which rests on a slew of data and careful analysis – you really should read the book and decide for yourself. For what it is worth, most of my students who have experience working on campaigns seem not to buy the argument.  However, I haven’t presented any evidence indicating that my alternative take is more plausible (although my students and I are working on it!)

“But what about Donald Trump?” you may ask. With his commanding victory yesterday in Nevada, Trump has now won three of the four Republican nominating contests to date.  Moreover, despite not having the support of the Republican Party (at least not by the usual indicators) he seems to be gaining strength and appears poised to do quite well on Super Tuesday.  Doesn’t he disprove the Party Decides thesis.

Perhaps.  But I’m in no position to make that case! I often tell my students that in contrast to the general election, political scientists have a more difficult time predicting the outcome of the nominating process – there are too many candidates and decision points, and the party label doesn’t serve as a useful decision cue. But this year I made it quite clear that I was certain about one thing: Donald Trump would not win the Republican nomination. Indeed, on the day he made his announcement that he was running, I wrote what I believed to be a very clever and amusing tongue-firmly-in-cheek post explaining why I was breaking my long tradition of not voting in presidential elections in order to cast my ballot for The Donald.  Alas, it was too clever by half and, at this point, the laugh is on me. Make no mistake about it: Donald Trump is clearly the front-runner for the Republican nomination. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Note that I disagree with my colleagues who claim the Republican Party has implicitly allowed him to take the lead. I just think they don’t have any tools to stop him. He clearly doesn’t need their endorsements to win – I think one member of Congress has endorsed him so far although, if my theory is correct I expect more members to get on the Trump bandwagon. Nor does he need party funding. Indeed, he has proved a master at getting free publicity and he has spent comparatively little on advertising. Leading party members and fellow candidates – most notably Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and poor Jeb! Bush – have openly criticized him. But it seems to have no effect – instead, Trump uses that opposition as a selling point to his followers, as I’ve seen firsthand at his rallies.

And it is those rallies that, to me, hold the key to understanding Trump’s success. I’ve described them elsewhere,  but a couple of points are worth highlighting. First, it is commonplace to describe Trump’s followers as “angry.” But his rallies are anything but an expression of anger – in fact, audience members seem to take particular delight in hearing Trump explain how he will make America Great Again. These are festive events, replete with vendors hawking Trump memorabilia, musicians playing, and crowd members chatting excitedly despite lengthy lines and often inclement weather.  Audiences even participate at key moments, as when Trump asks “Who is going to pay for the wall?” and they scream out in unison “Mexico!” The second point is that Trump does not talk down to his audience – instead, he takes their views seriously, and by expressing those views in plain, often politically-incorrect (and admittedly superficial) talking points, he appears to validate them. Yes, part of his support is driven by economic discontent – for many middle and lower-income Americans, wages have been stagnant for some time, manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and the future holds little promise of improvement. But he is winning across all income groups, although his support is  stronger among lower- and middle-income voters.

In addition to his policy stances, then, part of his appeal is that he appears to be on his audience’s side – he doesn’t try to excuse or explain their beliefs as an illustration of intolerance or bigotry. Instead, he says they are right to hold those beliefs, and if elected president he is going to act on them. At the same time he doesn’t pretend to be one of them. Instead, he flaunts his wealth, his education, his beautiful wife and his “New York values” lifestyle. In so doing, he comes across as authentic. But he also says, “See – I’ve made it. Don’t you want to make it too?” They understand that Trump doesn’t have to be doing this – he tells them as much in his standard stump speech – but that he really does want to make America, and by extension, his audience, great again. And they really believe he will – or at least they are willing to take that chance. After all, what do they have to lose?

Yes, we need to be careful in overstating the extent of Trump’s support – but it appears to be growing, despite high unfavorable ratings. And it is not immediately clear who the alternative candidate will be. Despite repeated media attempts to prop him up, Marco Rubio hasn’t come close to challenging Trump since his overhyped third-place finish in Iowa. Ted Cruz has a solid core of conservative followers, but he’s shown little ability to expand beyond that base. Maybe John Kasich will take off, but so far his brand of sunny optimism and social conservatism hasn’t caught on, despite a strong resume. And Ben Carson’s support continues to dwindle.

So what will it be? Will The Party decide to back The Donald, or to block him? At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Matthew Dickinson posts his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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