Home / General / <i>The Party Decides</i> and the 2016 Republican Primaries

The Party Decides and the 2016 Republican Primaries




This post isn’t about what you think it’s about. I’m not talking about a looming coup; I’m talking about the problems facing political science, which — it recently occurred to me — are a bit like the problems facing macroeconomics after 2008.


Yet I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that so far this cycle the political scientists aren’t doing too well. In particular, standard models of how the nomination process works seem to be having trouble with the durability of clowns. Things don’t seem to be working the way they used to.

And this makes me think of the way some economic analysis went astray after 2008. In particular, I’m reminded of the way many fairly reasonable analysts underestimated the adverse effects of austerity. They looked at historical episodes, and this led them to expect around a half point of GDP contraction for every point of fiscal tightening. What actually seems to have happened was around three times that much.

A couple of points are worth making at the outset. First of all, it’s premature to declare the theory of The Party Decides dead. If Carson and Trump crash and burn in the actual primaries, the fact that they led in the polls for a longer period than the typical outsider if anything strengthens the theory and certainly doesn’t disprove it. And second, I don’t think that The Party Decides reflects quite as much a “political science” consensus as Krugman suggests. It is a good and useful book, but the contemporary competitive presidential primary comprises a small “n,” and even so the model explains some outcomes more persuasively than others, and these limitations are recognized by numerous political scientists.

All this said, I think Krugman is onto something. This is the considered judgment of a political scientist, not “political science,” but I think the robust performance of Trump and Carson does probably tell us something about the limitations of the most influential theory of how presidential primaries are decided. And yet I still think Carson has virtually no chance of winning the nomination and Trump not a lot more than that.

My theory is this: it is possible to win the nomination without the ex ante support of party elites. But it is not possible to win the nomination without serious commitment and a real campaign apparatus. Turning out votes in the long primary process has generally required a real organization backed up with money, and I still don’t think the magic of the internet means that this is no longer true. I don’t know if a Ben Carson who was running a real campaign could win the nomination, but I’m very confident that a Ben Carson who’s plowing 70% of his fundraising into more fundraising can’t. His pre-existing support among evangelicals might make him very competitive in Iowa if he stays in the race, but I think he’d be spent and maneuvered into oblivion after that just like Santorum and Gingrich and Huckabee were after their early wins against establishment candidates the base was notably unenthusiastic about.

This doesn’t mean that the party will “decide.” Although I’d put a modest bet on Rubio if I lived in a jurisdiction that allowed it, he may never catch fire. But if neither he nor Jeb! can emerge as a frontrunner, the most likely beneficiary is not Carson or Trump but Ted Cruz. Party elites don’t like him because of his grandstanding, but he has a lot of support in the base, and he’s an actual professional politician who understands the importance of organization and has a lot of cash. And if it comes down to Cruz v. Trump, party elites will mostly end up rallying around the former.

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