I think the one big thing that has happened is the rise of the Tea Party, especially after 2010. There are a lot of people in the Tea Party who think, we have demonstrated that the country doesn’t like Obama, we’re sure to win, we want somebody who is ideologically pure, we don’t want to nominate another moderate. And they seem like they are in a position of strength.
Meanwhile, a lot of people in the party are a little more realistic and say, well, if the economy starts to bounce back, Obama could be in a much stronger position, and we don’t want to have nominated someone who’s unelectable. So that means that a lot of people in the party leadership are at odds with a lot of other people in the party elite, the Tea Party-like folks. And they’re not sure how to play that out, so as a consequence they’re waiting. I think that’s the main explanation for why very little has happened yet.
There was just a story in Politico about how few members of Congress have endorsed anyone in the field yet. Does that fit the story that you’re telling, about how the party is waiting to make a decision?
Yeah, I think so. Beyond Congress, I haven’t seen many endorsements at all—a handful, but not as many as there were in the last cycle. (Edit: After this conversation took place, another Politico story explored the state of the discussion among Republican governors.) I don’t think everyone thinks that Obama is unbeatable, but there’s still some question about what kind of candidate Republicans really want. And I think a lot of serious candidates are thinking, more often than not incumbent presidents get reelected, so I just want to wait for 2016. And so we don’t have the field that some folks would like, so endorsers are sitting on their hands and they’re waiting.
To pick up on the Tea Party thread, there’s an often-heard argument that the Internet has facilitated a decentralized brand of politics in which insiders have less influence than they once did. And that leads to the claim either that candidates can circumvent the party apparatus, or that there’s a shift in power between different factions of a party, as we’re seeing with the rise of the Tea Party. I’d be interested in your thoughts about that idea and its implications for your argument.
This kind of argument is actually not new. When television started being a major medium for political communication, you had a story that was pretty widespread and well accepted in political science that this was now candidate-centered politics, and candidates had found a way to end run around the parties. And of course the same thing was said about primaries in general, with the McGovern-Fraser reforms—this was a way in which candidates would do an end run around the party leadership.
And I think it’s true, these shifts do transfer power to perhaps a different group of people, or even to individual candidates as leaders of that different set of people. For example, I think there’s good evidence to say that the switch to primaries shifted power within the Democratic Party away from unions and to activist groups that were more sort of middle-class elites who had leisure time to go play politics.
But the thing that is important is that these party leaders still have to solve the same problems. That new faction, once they start playing the game, has to start thinking about, okay we can get what we want, but we need also to nominate someone who can win. And so they are brought very quickly into the fold with the rest of the party. Meanwhile the older group isn’t gone; they’re still around and they’re still engaging. I think that’s what’s happening with the Tea Party now. The party, loosely defined, is going to learn how to play with these new tools, and they’re still going to be trying to elect the best candidate who can also win in November.