The 2012 Iowa caucuses are still seven months away, but Republican presidential hopefuls are already well into the “invisible primary”—a tumultuous time of speechmaking, fundraising, coalition-building and constant travel, as they seek to boost their name recognition, stand out from the field, and secure the GOP nomination once the voting begins.
This part of the campaign looks very different than it did in an earlier era, when party bosses huddled behind closed doors at the convention to pick a nominee. But a 2008 book, The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform, argues that for all the changes, the real action during the invisible primary is still in the exchanges between party leaders. CJR contributor Greg Marx spoke last week with Hans Noel, a co-author of the book and an assistant professor of political science at Georgetown University about that argument, and what it means for reporters covering the campaign. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.
Let’s start with the claim made in the title of your book, which is “the party decides” who the nominee is going to be. At one level, that sounds almost banal. Is there something about your findings that is controversial, or contrary to conventional wisdom?
I think that there’s a fair amount that’s contrary to conventional wisdom. You see a lot of analysis of primary campaigns, both from political scientists and in the media, that orients everything around how this candidate is going to win in this state or build this result into winning later, and it’s all about these individual candidates who are competing.
The key insight of the book is to look at presidential nominations not from the point of the view of the people trying to get the nomination, but from the point of view of the party that’s trying to bestow it. There are only a handful of people in the party that are running for office. Most of the people in the party are not running for office, but they really care about who wins the nomination and who wins the general election. And so we should tell the story from the point of view of the players in the party who have an opinion about who the nominee should be and can do something about it.
I think that’s the big difference. We generally talk about individual candidates building a campaign, hiring people, doing the strategy, and all of these things. And they are doing that, but they’re doing it in the context where there’s a bunch of other people who are very, very important, who have a lot of influence, and can kind of decide, “Look, you can build all the campaigns you want, but if you’re Pat Robertson, you’re not going to be taken seriously, no matter how much money you’ve earned.”
Whom are you talking about when you talk about “the party”?
That’s part of the controversy about the book, which is that it’s hard to identify. Our argument is that the party is not just the formal DNC and RNC chair and the official hierarchy. It’s all of the people who have made a commitment to be part of the group that’s coordinating together to try to advance the party’s interests.
You could say the voters count too, because they’re doing some type of coordination and trying to encourage their friends. But their contribution is much smaller, because they don’t have as much influence. So we focus more on the high-profile actors, but we have an expansive definition to encompass all the elite actors who are trying to help the party achieve its collective goals.
And those goals are to find a nominee who can win, but who is also someone they can trust. Whether they can trust them because they’re in the right place ideologically is part of it, but it’s richer than that. It’s someone who they think will advance party goals over their own personal goals. One of the problems with someone like John McCain in 2000 is that one of his signature issues was campaign finance reform, which many Republicans were not pleased with. So, here’s somebody who, with the power he has as senator is doing things we don’t like. We make him president, and maybe he’ll do even more things we don’t like. You don’t want to nominate that person.
So what is the process through which this group makes its decision? And what are some of the key indicators of that decision?