By Chad Stewart

In The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform, Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller examine and analyze the presidential nomination process in the United States and its history. Cohen et al. argue that the political elites and party leaders, not the general rank-and-file voters, play the largest part in selecting the candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties and that those with political influence ultimately decide who each party nominates. By thoroughly detailing the way in which presidential candidates were selected in previous elections throughout the history of the U.S., they are able to develop a convincing argument for why this might be true. And while I think they are correct in most instances, when it comes to 2016, their argument only applies to the Democratic primary and not that of the Republican party.

At the beginning of the book, Cohen et al. share the story and the background of the nomination of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. In 1968, Humphrey did not enter any state primaries, while his competitors Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy entered as many as they could and faired quite well. Despite never entering a state primary, Humphrey was appointed the Democratic nominee at the convention. Instead of campaigning to the voters of the United States, Humphrey campaigned “among party leaders, union bosses, and other insiders.” Because of the large amount of delegates controlled by these political insiders, “the opinions of the voters in the primaries could be safely ignored” by Humphrey.[1]

The case of Humphrey might be the most extreme example of the party deciding the outcome of a presidential primary, and that is why it led to the McGovern-Fraser reforms, which attempted to put the power back in the hands of the people. However, Cohen et al. argue that the reforms did not do that at all and party leaders and insiders still control the nomination process. They sum up the basis of their argument in three key points. The first being that interest groups and other groups with a common goal may have just as much power in shaping elections as political leaders once did. Second, party coalitions can endorse candidates they prefer, which influences “rank-and-file voters to follow their lead.” And third, what is often considered strategic behavior by a candidate is actually strategic behavior by “party leaders, groups and activists.”[2]

Cohen et al. then go on to describe certain instances in which their argument is correct such as the 2000 primaries. George W. Bush and Al Gore both faced strong competition, but because they garnered the support of political insiders during the invisible primary, they were able to claim victory in the primaries rather easily.[3] Cohen et al. believe in the group-centered theory of parties rather than the candidate-centered theory because parties are formed in order nominate and elect “office seekers who will serve the interests of the party’s intense policy demanders.” In their view, the ultimate goal of parties is to make policy gains, and therefore do not exist to simply elect a candidate affiliated with their party, but one who is committed to “the maximum feasible achievement of group goals.”[4]

Next, Cohen et al. explain their view of the invisible primary, which is when insiders have the best opportunity to showcase their influence.[5] Voters have no influence in selecting the candidates that make it through the invisible primary and into the presidential primary, and this is perhaps the evidence that most strongly supports Cohen et al.’s argument. They explain multiple years in which an outsider has attempted to earn a presidential nomination and their success — or lack thereof. The 2016 presidential primaries illustrate interesting parallels in this regard. In the Democratic Primary, an insider-backed candidate, Hilary Clinton, took down an outsider candidate, Bernie Sanders, and in the Republican Primary, the opposite occurred; insider-backed candidate Marco Rubio was defeated by outsider Donald Trump.

From the beginning of his campaign, it seemed obvious that Trump stood little chance against the 16 other Republican candidates in the running for the Republican Presidential nomination. However, as time went on and more and more candidates disappeared from the debate stage, he remained ended up being the last one standing. And it wasn’t a particularly close race either. This is despite running against numerous insider-backed and career politicians and Republican insiders and elites seemingly doing whatever they could to stop Trump from winning the nomination. But he managed to prevail. In this instance, it is clear that party did not decide.

When it comes to endorsements and campaign contributions, Trump had the most of neither. Rubio had a clear lead in both categories yet Trump beat Rubio rather handily. According to FiveThirtyEight, Rubio was endorsed by 58 elected officials (representatives, senators, and governors) while Trump garnered the support of just 15 such officials. Ted Cruz was even endorsed by nearly three times as many elected officials as Trump (44 officials), and John Kasich received the same amount of support from elected officials as Trump.[6] Still, rank-and-file voters overwhelmingly preferred Trump over the other three despite the Republican establishment attempting to influence them to vote for any of the other leading candidates.

And it wasn’t just the endorsements that Trump severely lacked. There was also a sizable gap in campaign contributions between him and the other candidates. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Rubio received $109,508,647 in external funds while Trump received just $40,007,484. Cruz and Jeb Bush both received more than Trump as well, $53,389,147 and $121,305,749, respectively.[7] These statistics appear to make it clear that the goal of the Republican establishment was to nominate Rubio or Bush and that they would have even settled for Kasich or Cruz over Trump. But the voters opted to vote for the outsider over the insiders, and Trump ended up earning a whopping 1,447 delegates compared to Cruz’s 551, Rubio’s 167, and Kasich’s 161.[8]

Now, one might argue that Trump’s ideas, views, and rhetoric might represent a rising faction within the Republican party, and they quite possibly could. But even if they do, a majority of Republican elites are not in agreement with them just yet. This much was demonstrated by the strong push they made to nominate almost any another candidate.

While Trump did not have the support of many elected officials, he did have support from some key media members and influencers such as Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reily, and Ann Coulter. Cohen et al. focus mainly on the influence of political insiders, elected officials, and interest groups, so I am not sure that they would consider the aforementioned people part of “the party,” as Conor Friedersdorf argues in his piece titled “How the Party Decided on Donald Trump” since they are simply members of the media, do not gain much at all from the candidate they prefer being nominated, and they do not partake in the invisible primary.[9] I actually think that one of the biggest reasons people like Hannity support Trump is because the rank-and-file voters do. Because so many voters support Trump, more of them might be encouraged to tune in to Hannity’s show if he also shares the same views as them, so in that way, I think it behooves certain media members to support the candidate that the majority of voters do.

As I mentioned earlier, while I believe the argument put forth in The Party Decides does not apply to the Republican Primary, I do believe it applies to the Democratic Primary. Just like Trump, Bernie Sanders seemed to have the odds stacked against him from the beginning since his main opponent was former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The difference between Trump and Sanders is that Sanders is a politician, currently a Senator in Vermont. However, his far-left views and the fact that he was elected in Vermont as an Independent, not a Democrat, make him an outsider when compared to Clinton, and the disparity in endorsements and campaign contributions between the two candidates confirm just that.[10]

Clinton was endorsed by 144 elected officials while Sanders was endorsed by a measly nine elected officials.[11] Clinton also had the pledged support of 591 superdelegates compared to just 48 for Sanders.[12] On top of that, Sanders generated just $871,772 in external funds compared to Clinton’s $143,509,897.[13] There’s no hiding the fact that the Democratic elites preferred Clinton over Sanders, and the leaked emails between Democratic National Committee members further confirmed this, but it is still hard to know for sure if the reason that Clinton beat Sanders in the election is because of the support she received from Democratic elites or that voters simply preferred to vote for Clinton because she is a more recognizable name and is more moderate in her political views.[14] Regardless, I do think that the 2016 Democratic Primary confirms the thesis of The Party Decides.

Overall, I think that Cohen et al.’s argument is very poignant and can be applied to most elections. The extent at which it can be applied to the 2016 presidential primaries appears to be limited to the Democratic primary, however, and the evidence is hard to ignore. Conversely, the evidence is also hard to ignore when it comes to the Democratic party’s influence over their primary. In the end, I think Cohen et al. do overstate the power of the political party a bit, as demonstrated by the 2016 Republican primary, but their thesis is supported by the vast majority of primaries throughout history, including the 2016 Democratic primary.


[1] Marty Cohen et al., The Party Decides: Presidential Nomination Before and After Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 1.

[2] Cohen et al., The Party Decides, 3.

[3] Cohen et al., The Party Decides, 5.

[4] Cohen et al., The Party Decides, 31.

[5] Cohen et al., The Party Decides, 187.

[6] Aaron Bycoffe, “The Endorsement Primary,” FiveThirtyEight, June 7, 2016, accessed October 2, 2016, http://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-endorsement-primary/.

[7] “2016 Presidential Race,” Center for Responsive Politics, accessed October 2, 2016, http://www.opensecrets.org/pres16/.

[8] Wilson Andrews, Kitty Bennett, and Alicia Parlapiano, “2016 Delegate Count and Primary Results,” The New York Times, July 5, 2016, accessed October 2, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/us/elections/primary-calendar-and-results.html?_r=0/.

[9] Conor Friedersdorf, “How the Party Decided on Donald Trump,” The Atlantic, May 3, 2016, accessed October 2, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/how-gop-influencers-cued-voters-to-choose-donald-trump/480294/.

[10] Nicole Gaudiano, “Bernie Sanders’ party affiliation? Not a simple question,” USA Today, July 28, 2016, accessed October 2, 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2016/07/28/bernie-sanders-party-affiliation-not-simple-question/87666494/.

[11] “2016 Presidential Race.”

[12] Wilson, “2016 Delegate Count and Primary Results.”

[13] Bycoffe, “The Endorsement Primary.”

[14] Aaron Blake, “Here are the latest, most damaging things in the DNC’s leaked emails,” The Washington Post, July 25, 2016, accessed October 2, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/07/24/here-are-the-latest-most-damaging-things-in-the-dncs-leaked-emails/

Advertisements