Yup, Donald Trump is still leading the Republican race. That NBC poll showing Cruz ahead is what we call an "outlier." And, the betting odds on PredictWise still look asymptotically bounded by 50% for reasons that I find inexplicable. And political science is still in a state of denial about it. In a previous post, I described “Type A Trump denialism,” as the persistent denial that Trump has a strong chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination. This post will begin an examination of Type B Trump denialism— the failure to accept that existing political science models have deep problems, revealed by Trump beating expectations so thoroughly. Each post in this series will examine a different model, and why it failed.
Let’s start with the big one. The Party Decides. If you get your news from sources like Vox or read prominent political science bloggers like Jonathan Bernstein, you have encountered the argument from The Party Decides. It goes something like this: party elites use endorsements and other tactics to signal to voters who the correct choice is, and voters respond by nominating whoever the elites want. If you get your news from Party Decides apparatchiks, you will be confused by Trump’s persistent lead because Republican establishment types hate him and his one weird trick to make America great again.
And yet, the model never worked all that well.
So, some history. In 1968, the Democratic convention blew up. Eugene McCarthy performed best in the primaries, but it didn’t matter. Most of the delegates to the convention were party muckety-mucks (technical term), and they wanted Hubert Humphrey. So, they nominated him. McCarthy supporters rioted. Humphrey lost. The party decided that change was in order. (See what I did there?). They formed the McGovern-Fraser Commission to propose new rules for the nomination process. Under the new rules, delegates were to be selected by primaries and caucuses. In 1976, the unwashed masses nominated Jimmy Carter, who won, but had a rough presidency and lost to Reagan in 1980. The parties spent years afterwards looking for ways to reassert control to prevent future Carters. He was, after all, history’s greatest monster.
By 2000, it looked like the muckety-mucks were back in control. In 1996, the crowded Republican field had a clear institutional favorite— Bob Dole. Phil Gramm had gobs of money, Steve Forbes had that vaguely libertarian appeal that pundits keep saying is so important, Pat Buchanan had the conservative populist schtick (he even won New Hampshire!), and Bob Dole had the establishment. He won. Then, in 2000, George W. Bush fended off an insurgent candidacy from John McCain (who won New Hampshire!), and Al Gore defeated an insurgent challenge from Bill Bradley (who did not win New Hampshire).
This was the backdrop in which a group of scholars at UCLA began putting together what became The Party Decides. It looked like the muckety-mucks were back in control. They endorsed and donated to their choices, and voters followed suit. The book wasn’t published until 2008, but even before then, it started running into trouble. For 2004, Democrats had an institutional choice by around 2002— John Kerry. He won, right? The party decided, right? Not so fast. There was also a legendary screamer named Howard Dean. Dean appealed to liberal activists, but worried the muckety-mucks because they thought he would be less electable than Kerry. Dean dominated the polls for much of the contest. Then the endorsements came in. Nervous about getting on the wrong side of a contest they couldn’t control, Democratic muckety-mucks started to endorse Dean. Then came the Iowa caucus. Dean had a rough battle with Dick Gephardt. And here’s the thing about a multi-candidate race. When two candidates beat each other up, the uninvolved candidates benefit. As Dean and Gephardt tore each other down, Kerry and Edwards rose in the polls, coming in first and second respectively. Dean continued his slide into oblivion, Kerry locked up the nomination, and eventually the endorsements came in for him.
See the problem? Authors of The Party Decides thought that endorsements would shift the voters to party-preferred candidates. In 2004, it happened the other way around. Muckety-mucks started endorsing the insurgent because they didn’t think they could beat him, and only shifted to endorsing the establishment choice after the insurgent started collapsing, who collapsed as two leading Iowa candidates just beat each other up, leaving the others to benefit.
And it only got worse in 2008. Democratic muckety-mucks lined up quickly behind Hillary Clinton. Obama won anyway. Republicans nominated McCain, who was widely disliked by his party establishment. Remember how he was the defeated insurgent in 2000? Much of that had to do with campaign finance reform, but he had also attacked the 2001 tax cuts, and regularly looked for ways to poke his own leaders in the eye to brandish his credentials as a “maverick.” Incidentally, McCain was a lousy pilot. Regardless, he was the guy the party didn’t want in 2000. If he won in 2008, that’s kind of a problem for those who would claim that the muckety-mucks run the show. Party Decides apparatchiks might claim that the party just didn’t have anyone better in 2008. The party can make its choice, but it is limited by the field. Now, in 2012 they managed to find the right person to rally around— a staunch conservative, trusted by all. An experienced Governor with the right positions on social, economic and foreign policy issues. That man was… Mitt Romney. Why did the Republican muckety-mucks get stuck with McCain in 2008? Because they didn’t have anyone better. You know, like Romney.
Oh, wait. If Romney was the right guy in 2012, then we cannot assert that the Republicans were stuck with McCain in 2008 due to a lack of any better alternative, because Romney was in that field too.
The Party Decides has a… mixed record of success at best since its inception. Should we really be surprised that it isn’t doing well in 2016?
Donald Trump is dominating the Republican field He has no allies among Republican muckety-mucks. No, Sarah Palin doesn’t count. The National Review put out an entire issue devoted to tearing him down. He has few important endorsements, enemies galore, a policy record that no serious conservative should trust, no political experience, high unfavorables among the general electorate, and represents everything the “establishment” of the Republican Party opposes. If they can’t defeat him, then the establishment is impotent.
Can the apparatchiks salvage their model? Perhaps the party has been beset by a coordination problem. The field originally included not just Rubio, Kasich and Bush, but Walker, Christie, Jindal and more. With so many choices, perhaps the establishment just couldn’t agree on one, leaving the establishment-friendly voters without a clear cue, and Trump winning by default. So really, the party could have stopped Trump, except for that darned coordination problem. Just like Bart Simpson. People are disparaging Rubio now because of his debate glitch, but for a long time now, he has been the obvious establishment choice. With Walker gone and Bush floundering, the muckety-mucks should have rallied around Rubio and crushed Trump. They didn’t. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley just endorsed Rubio, but he is way behind in the polls there, making it likely too little, too late. Why haven’t the muckety-mucks rallied around Rubio?
My best guess— they were terrified of Trump’s reprisal, and weren’t sufficiently confident that they could beat him. This was Dean 2.0. Just as Democratic muckety-mucks rushed to endorse Dean when he looked unstoppable in 2004, Republicans didn’t want to get on Trump’s bad side by endorsing Rubio if they couldn’t shift the race. And even if they could push Trump out, then they run the risk of him running as an independent, giving Hillary a lock on the White House.
Of course, Trump could still lose! Betting odds still put him right around 50%. But if The Party Decides model worked here, he wouldn’t have made it this far. Republican muckety-mucks should have crushed him long ago. They still could. Suppose they get together, coordinate to back either Rubio, Bush or Kasich, quickly endorse their choice, signal that choice to voters, and sway the race to a non-Trump. That would be a spectacular victory for The Party Decides. I will readily concede the wisdom of the book if that happens. If Trump wins, though, what will Party Decides apparatchiks say?
The gray area is this: what if Trump and Cruz tear each other down, leaving Rubio by default? Then we’re back to 2004. And let’s not forget that there’s another candidate the “establishment” despises, but who has a real chance— Ted Cruz. Suppose, for a moment, that the muckety-mucks decide they hate/fear Trump more than they hate/fear Cruz, rally behind the latter, and get their way. Will the party have decided? If the only way they can find to defeat their least favorite candidate is to back their second least favorite, then how strong are they, really?
2016 is looking like a disaster for The Party Decides. Even if Trump loses at this point, he shouldn’t have made it this far. Then again, the model’s track record was never that strong.