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Do America’s political parties matter in presidential elections?

April 2015 will go down in history as the month that the 2016 race for the White House began in earnest. Hillary Clinton’s online declaration of her presidential candidacy was the critical moment. With it America’s two major political parties have locked horns with each other.

The Democrats intend to continue their control of the presidency for another four years; Republicans, for their part, hope to finally make good on a conservative bumper sticker that began appearing on automobiles as early as the summer of 2009 and that read: “Had Enough Yet? Next Time Vote Republican.” To be sure, the electorate decided in 2012 that it wanted more of Barack Obama and Democratic leadership. But Republicans are clearly banking that “time for a change” sentiment will rise to flood level by November, 2016.

“Wait a minute,” you might be saying to yourself at this very moment. “Political parties? How can one claim with a straight face that the political parties – the organizations themselves, their officials, and the hundreds of office-holders on Capitol Hill, in governors’ and mayoral mansions, and in statehouses – have just now gotten down to a contest for control of the White House?”

There is a lot to be said for this retort – call it the “weak parties” view of American presidential politics. But a new view of political parties – propounded by several scholars who all did their graduate work together at UCLA about 15 years ago and who have become the Young Turks of the political science of American parties – shows that in fact the two political parties are doing the selection of their nominee. Parties just happen to be doing the selection in a way that is far more protracted than before. The heart of this alternative view is to recognize that what we are now seeing is the “invisible primary” – a phase during which candidates persuade party leaders around the country and another key party elite (the party’s major donors) that their candidacy is viable. That period in the struggle is well underway and will continue until early next year, when the next moment (the preference primaries) brings the active voter bases of the two parties into the bargaining process.

The Presidential Candidate As Ulysses

The quest for the presidency first and foremost appears to be a personal odyssey – one that begins with a video or a press conference, quickly followed by trips to Iowa and New Hampshire (which are the two states that have tenaciously held on to their positions as the venues for the earliest popular preference primaries.)  The trek seems, indeed, to be Exhibit A for the old saw that American political parties are extraordinarily weak. Political science textbooks tell us that a central function of political parties is to recruit the men and women who can successfully compete for electoral favor. The presidential selection process, by contrast, seems to start when and how someone with a big ego and perhaps delusions of grandeur wants to start it – and what happens after that is like a board game with cards, dice, and a winding path to the spot at the center of the board labelled “Oval Office.”

An historical perspective, moreover, adds weight to the “weak parties” thesis. At one time, party regulars met at the nominating conventions – and they collectively bargained over who their standard bearers would be. They pooled their knowledge of a candidate’s acceptability to the party’s various factions, and they settled on a running mate who could be counted on to heighten party unity and stoke voter enthusiasm.

Image: Bumper sticker car parked in Santa Cruz, California. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

But that all ended with tear gas and the fury of protest in 1968 at the disastrous nominating convention that the Democrats held in Chicago. Party bosses, chief among them Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, anointed Vice President Hubert Humphrey – even as the city police clubbed anti-war protesters in the streets. Determined never to repeat this searing experience, the Democrats reformed their delegate selection process. By 1976, when a little-known dark horse from Georgia, Governor Jimmy Carter, won the nomination more or less by himself, the new, candidate-centered era had begun. Republicans soon mimicked the Democrats, which is why the Goldwater wing of the party eventually triumphed over the Northeastern Republican establishment. Their internal revolution in fact paved the way for the Reagan Era. Now the nominating convention in both parties seems to be little more than a formal coronation of whoever succeeds in winning the required number of delegates for nomination – besides, of course, being an opportunity for the nominee both to catch the mass public’s attention and to start focusing loyalists and independents on the choice that they will soon face at the ballot box.

The Presidential Candidate As The Party’s Choice

Yet, this is where revisionist scholarship comes in to help us fundamentally re-think the “weak parties” conventional wisdom concerning presidential selection. Instead of parties doing their collective bargaining over their nominee in a compressed period of a few days at a nominating convention, they now do it in several stages lasting a little over a year, sharply reducing the risk that the nominee is potentially unpopular, alienated from a key faction or set of activists, or inept. The first stage – the invisible primary – is the segment that we have now begun. On the Democratic side, Mrs. Clinton has already won this primary;  no one is contesting her primacy. Her main goal is to lock in funding commitments that will make her campaign astonishingly well funded – around $2.5 billion. The Republicans have 19 candidates in all, however; their invisible primary will therefore winnow the field to those few – Jeb Bush?  Scott Walker? Ted Cruz? – who can compete in the primaries to the bitter end. In both cases, the nominee will be the consensus winner of an extended bargaining process. It involves party leaders, each party’s major donors (most of whom are as intensely ideological as the activists and volunteers who work during for candidates during the primary elections and the general election), and finally the most loyal voters of either party, who show up at the primaries to register their preferences. The end result for both parties is actually superior to the old system of a nomination convention. The consensus that now infuses the nominating convention and that turns it into a media event reflects, in fact, just how much the nominee is not just the party’s choice, but the party’s considered and enthusiastic choice.

Weak Parties?  No, Stronger Parties

In short, the evolution of the presidential selection system suggests not that American political parties abandoned a key function of party politics sometime in the 1970s, that is, the task of picking the presidential nominee. Instead, the crises and factionalism that the two parties experienced paved the way for an improvement in how the parties select their leading politician. Instead of a nominating convention, we have today a complex, very expensive, and highly participatory substitute for it. The attentive public, journalists, and politics junkies are just now tuning into the first phases of it. They will have a feast of events, so called “game-changers,” gaffes, and any number of tactical twists and turns to entertain them. But behind the spectacle, the parties are choosing – and between Labor Day weekend 2016 and the general election the great majority of voters will focus and decide whether their psychic identification with one party or the other is the proper guide for their choice. By Election Day there will only be a small number of “persuadable” voters – but even those voters tend to identify with one party or the other. Even at the end, then, the parties decide – that is, the distribution of party strength in the electorate will be the most important determinant of the election.

Featured image credit: Replica of the Oval Office, from the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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