Life of the Party: Trump and the Presidential Nomination

Club member Rosemary Harder arrives in a costumed hat before an appearance by Republican 2016 US presidential candidate Donald Trump inside a ballroom of the Mar A Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, USA, 15 March 2016. Several key states, including Florida and Ohio held presidential primaries 15 March. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

To call Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential race unexpected is an understatement. Polls consistently predicted a Clinton victory up until election night—as of November 8th, the New York Times claimed that Donald Trump had only a 15 percent chance of winning.

The news of his victory even seemed to surprise Trump, who had not started a transition plan before the election. As the world prepares for a Trump presidency, it’s worth remembering that this improbable victory is itself the product of earlier improbable victories. Against all the odds, Trump managed to win over establishment Republicans, drawing endorsements from those who had previously repudiated him. Most notably, Trump—an outsider with no government experience—managed to win the presidential nomination of the Republican party.

Trump’s victory in the primaries was the first surprise, as almost every analyst claimed that it would never happen. Andrew Prokop of Vox wrote an article in July 2015 entitled “Donald Trump is surging in the polls. Here’s why he won’t win.” In November 2015, Nate Silver published an article entitled “Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls.” This confidence was based in part on the theory that political parties can decisively influence which candidates may win the nomination—as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn wrote, that “no candidate has won the nomination without the support of those elites.” The message coming from political analysts and data journalists was that Trump’s campaign would be no different from those of fringe candidates like Herman Cain in 2012. And then Trump won 13.3 million votes during the 2016 primary—the highest vote count in the history of the Republican Party. If 2016 calls into question the established wisdom on how presidential primaries work, how can we explain the rise of Donald Trump?

The most influential explanation for how presidential primaries function is put forward in a 2008 book entitled can you buy dapoxetine in australia order proscar europe The Party Decides, co-written by political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller. The book’s central claim is that the most important players in presidential primaries are party insiders, who try to secure the nomination for the candidate that they prefer. The current nominating system was produced by the McGovern-Fraser reforms, which took effect in the Democratic Party in 1972 and were soon followed by changes in the Republican party. In the old system, state and local party officials chose the majority of delegates who attended national party nominating conventions without substantial voter input. This was the era of the smoke-filled room, the cabal of convention power-brokers and local bosses gathered to pick the candidate behind closed doors. In the reformed system, voters choose the majority of convention delegates through the system of primaries and caucuses.

Despite this highly democratic mechanism, however, the authors argue that party insiders have often been able to control the choice of their presidential nominee by agreeing on a consensus candidate and attempting to ‘sell’ this candidate to voters. In this context, the ‘party’ includes a variety of actors beyond the formal leadership structure—religious organizations, civil rights groups, organizers, fundraisers, pollsters, and activists. Such a broad coalition of partisans has good reason to attempt to coordinate on a candidate who is acceptable to all of its key groups. As parties are comprised of factions with strong policy preferences that may sometimes come into conflict, it is important to elect a candidate who can best unify the party by representing all of its core interests rather than the interests of a narrow faction. To achieve this, party insiders attempt to signal to one another which candidate is acceptable to the party, unite behind this candidate, and then to secure a victory for this candidate in the primaries. The authors refer to this process as ‘the invisible primary.’ The Party Decides demonstrates that both parties have been highly successful at ensuring that insider candidates win nominations. In eight out of ten cases since 1980, they found that “party insiders were able to form a solid united front behind a preferred candidate, and in all eight cases their preferred candidate won the nomination.”

In deciding on a suitable candidate and bringing them to victory, party insiders’ most important tool is endorsements. Examining contests between 1980-2004, the authors found that “endorsements are the most important predictor of success in the primaries.” Such endorsements serve several purposes. Often, they directly influence voters who trust the judgment of a governor, member of Congress, religious organization, union, or editorial board. In other cases, endorsements serve as a signal to other insiders about which candidate could unify the party. In addition, endorsements often represent a commitment of campaign resources by the endorsing actor. These can—and often do—include volunteer labor for telephone banks, funding, access to strategists and pollsters, and the use of local campaign infrastructure.

Yet, the endorsements from the 2016 invisible primary reveal a different pattern. Contrary to what The Party Decides would predict, the Republican party did not form a united front behind a preferred candidate. Based off of FiveThirtyEight’s calculation of endorsements points, which account for the fact that certain endorsements are more influential than others, no candidate won a majority of endorsements. While Marco Rubio won 139 endorsements points and Ted Cruz won 114, Trump only won 46. Kasich and Bush won 48 and 23 points, respectively. What this reveals is that GOP insiders were split between Rubio, Cruz, Trump and Kasich, and unable to coordinate on a single candidate. For Republicans, no candidate was acceptable to all factions. Amongst GOP conservatives, Rubio was unacceptable due to his role as frontman for the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill. On the other side, Cruz was unacceptable to the national party due to his ultra-conservative stances and reputation in Washington as a megalomaniacal ass.

While those who chose to endorse were split, the majority of Republican insiders opted not to endorse at all. Fewer endorsements were given in the 2016 GOP race than in any presidential primary since at least 1976. The three candidates viewed as most able to unify the party—Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio—collectively received a total of zero pre-Iowa gubernatorial backers. In contrast, before the Iowa caucuses in 2000 George W. Bush received endorsements from 27 of 32 sitting Republican governors. In short, the party couldn’t decide. As a result, it passed on greater decision-making power to voters—and the voters picked Trump. Why, though, were Republican insiders unable to ignore their factional interests and unite behind one candidate?

The Republicans were unable to unify because conflict within the party acted as a barrier to coordination. Divisions between Tea Party conservatives and the GOP’s establishment wing have made it increasingly difficult for Republicans to set aside differences and come to an agreement on a range of issues. The early 2011 clashes over the size of budget cuts that pitted the GOP-led 112th House against the Democrat-controlled Senate were perhaps the first sign of this. Two-thirds of Tea Party Republicans pushed House Speaker John Boehner to shut down the federal government rather than compromise, while majorities of moderate Republicans preferred meeting the Democrats partway on spending cuts. Divisions have continued to grow since then. In 2014, Eric Cantor became the first sitting House majority leader in history to lose his congressional seat after he was defeated by Tea Party challenger David Brat, who accused him of being soft on immigration. In 2015, after an internal conflict that resulted in Boehner’s resignation, the Republicans struggled to find a House Speaker capable of appealing to both moderates and the House Freedom Caucus.  This division between conservatives and moderates within the GOP extends to voters as well. As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson write in The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, “[a]s of early 2011, non-Tea Party Republicans were closer to independents and Democrats on many issues about public spending and the role of government than they were to Tea Party-oriented Republicans.” As the GOP becomes fractured and Tea Party Republicans maintain a no-compromise posture, setting aside differences to do what’s best for the party has become increasingly difficult.

Yet, pointing to split endorsements and intra-party conflict only goes so far in explaining Donald Trump’s victory. While Republican insiders didn’t signal which candidate was acceptable, many certainly communicated that Donald Trump was a deeply unacceptable candidate. As of June 2016, over sixty elected Republicans publicly opposed the presumptive nominee, and Lindsey Graham called on other Republicans to ‘un-endorse’ him. Overall, though, Republican insiders’ cues to voters about Trump were mixed; he was celebrated or ignored by the same candidates who latter attempted to present him as a dangerous threat. For instance, Ted Cruz eventually emerged as the only candidate left who could potentially defeat Trump and offered bitter attacks against his rival. One attack ad concluded: “We wouldn’t tolerate these values in our children… Why would we want them in a president?” However, only months earlier Cruz had lavished Trump with praise. Seeking to position himself to pick up Trump’s supporters when the businessman’s campaign inevitably faltered, he told reporters he was “grateful” that Trump was highlighting illegal immigration, and described himself as “a big fan of Donald Trump.” Other candidates continued to ignore Trump throughout the primaries, signaling that he was a non-threat. In early primary debates, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio focused primarily on attacking one another. Super PACs had spent $215 million by March 2016, but only $9.2 million, or around four percent, was dedicated to attacking Donald Trump even as he surged in the polls. Thus, in many ways, Republicans failed to send a clear signal that Donald Trump was an unacceptable candidate.

Voters’ rejection of anti-Trump signaling may also represent the waning influence of the national Republican party. The importance of endorsements by elected officials is largely predicated on the trust of voters. Endorsements have been predictive of the eventual winner in large part because they represent party officials using voters’ trust to persuade them of how to vote. However, elements within the GOP have spent the past years signaling that insiders cannot be trusted, partially severing the party establishment from the Republican base. In 2013, Ted Cruz spoke on the floor of the Senate, saying “[l]et me be clear: I don’t trust the Republicans. And I don’t trust the Democrats… and I think a whole lot of Americans likewise don’t trust the Republicans and the Democrats.” In fact, the 2016 primary as a whole seemed to represent a repudiation of the establishment. After the first GOP primary debate, three outside candidates topped the polls—Donald Trump, followed by Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. The national party’s rejection of Trump may have even proved counter-productive, bolstering his status as a true outsider who would “drain the swamp.”

While endorsements played little role in determining the outcome of the 2016 Republican nomination, media certainly contributed to Trump’s victory as a factional candidate. Media attention is significant in raising candidates profiles, particularly as primary voters possess little information about the candidates that they are choosing between. Often, the part that the media plays in the primaries serves to benefit frontrunners, as the media covers leading candidates much more than others. In the six months leading up to the 2012 Iowa caucuses, for instance, Romney received 30 percent more coverage than Newt Gingrich and eight times that received by Rick Santorum. Yet, a study on the invisible primary by Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School reveals that Trump received a level of media coverage that would not have been predicted by factors such as endorsements, polls, or fundraising. Patterson concludes that “[w]hen [Trump’s] news coverage began to shoot up, he was not high in the trial-heat polls and had raised almost no money.” In 2015, Trump received over $55 million dollars in ‘free media,’ thus limiting the extent to which he needed to advertise. In contrast, Rubio received only $34 million, and Cruz only $32.5 million in free media.

The type of coverage and the stories featured in the news also contributed to Trump’s victory in the primaries by exacerbating inequalities in name recognition. Rather than providing voters with information about candidates, most media coverages focused on the horse-race and the campaign trail. During the invisible primary, only 12 percent of Trump’s coverage addressed his issue stands and political beliefs. In contrast, 56 percent of what was reported about Trump was centered on polls and projections and framed around his move to the top. During the presidential primaries in early 2016, substantive concerns—including candidates’ policy positions, their personal characteristics, their histories, and group commitments for candidates—made up only 11% of news coverage. Again, the majority focused on Trump’s victories in the competitive game. As research has demonstrated that voters are attracted to candidates in large part because they appear most politically viable, such coverage likely benefitted Trump in the primaries.

While the party and media previously limited candidates’ communication with voters, changes in media coverage of presidential nominations have made outsider candidates better able to get their message across to voters. In the past decade, for instance, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of presidential candidate debates being held. Before 2008, most presidential primaries featured 15 debates or fewer for each party. In 2008, however, the Democratic Party candidates participated in 25 debates, while the Republicans participated in 21. In 2012, the Republicans held 23. While the number of debates scheduled for 2016 dropped—the Republicans scheduled 13 official debates—the audience for these debates has increased. The first GOP debate, hosted by Fox in August 2015, drew more than 24 million viewers—making it the most watched non-sport event in cable television history.  Such debates offer exposure to candidates with little establishment backing, allowing voters to hear from candidates who may have garnered less media attention or have smaller coffers. Bernie Sanders, for instance, rose 5 percent in the polls after the first Democratic debate in October 2015.

Overall, media coverage has rendered the invisible primary more visible.  Prior to 2000, the majority of debates occurred after the Iowa caucuses, during the primaries. Beginning in 2000, however, the majority of debates have occurred before the Iowa caucuses—during the invisible primary. What this suggests is that there is greater political interest in the presidential nomination during the period of the invisible primary and that, consequently, it has become less invisible. As political scientists have become increasingly aware of the importance of the invisible primary, journalists have made a greater effort to cover the period. Pre-Iowa coordination is certainly less invisible when websites like FiveThirtyEight keep readers updated on the results of the “endorsement primary”. As a result, increased attention to the invisible primary may make it more difficult for party insiders to winnow the field and coordinate on a candidate before voters begin to pay attention to the potential nominees.

As the media analyzes Trump’s cabinet picks and attempts to decipher which campaign promises he’s likely to carry out, the future of the Trump presidency seems deeply uncertain. We have yet to determine the extent to which Trump will work with the Republican establishment or the extent to which Democrats will work with Trump. Likewise, it is unclear whether Trump’s agenda or Ryan’s agenda will dominate over the next four years. Amidst this speculation, though, little attention has been paid to the shape of future presidential nomination contests.

The Republican Party’s deep divisions in 2016 reveal one possible trajectory for future nominations: a realignment of the Republican coalition. If the Republican party remains divided to the extent that it is unable to manage one of its most central functions—the selection of a presidential nominee who represents the party—this coalition may no longer be stable. In American politics, party coalitions have occasionally come apart in the process of selecting a nominee, most recently with the Dixiecrats following the 1948 Democratic Convention. Following Stephen Skowronek’s analysis in The Politics Presidents Make, multiple commentators have described Donald Trump as a practitioner of the ‘politics of disjunction.’ According to Skowronek, presidents’ opportunities for political action are shaped by past presidents, and each successive president in a dominant party tries to maintain the regime’s commitments in the face of new challenges. Yet, coalitions fragment over time until different factions within the party can no longer be reconciled with each other. ‘Disjunctive’ presidents attempt to invigorate the old regime and to repair breaches within the party by offering something new to each faction. Constitutional scholar Jack Balkin notes that Trump can appeal to the white working class on trade and immigration policy, while he continues “to support the interests of wealthy supporters on other issues like lowering taxes and opposing business regulations.” But disjunctive presidents are also a sign that the dominant regime and its coalition are ready to unravel. In this sense, the election of such an unorthodox leader as Donald Trump may point to the coming collapse of the Republican coalition.

More broadly, 2016 revealed that The Party Decides, which represented the most influential understanding of presidential primaries, understates the forces that can prevent party coordination as well as the incentive for factionalism in nominations. These do not appear isolated to one election. While Trump’s nomination is unparalleled, recent contests have also seen stronger-than-expected performances from outsider candidates like Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Perhaps the power of party insiders is waning overall.

However, history shows that while changes in nomination contests may briefly stump party insiders, the latter usually find a way to regain control. Following the McGovern-Fraser reforms, many party leaders were shocked at the outcomes of nomination contests. Yet, four years later both parties had mastered the post-reform system, and insider candidates won every nomination through 2000. If changes in media have made the ‘invisible primary’ more visible, parties may beat these changes in subsequent cycles. Just as party insiders learned from Carter, perhaps party insiders will learn how to avoid the factors which led to a Trump victory in 2016.