How to Understand the ‘Invisible Primary’

An interview with Georgetown professor Hans Noel

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?

They make their decision by talking to each other. These are people who are interacting with each other at various conventions, and in social settings. And they are debating amongst themselves the merits of the candidates, just as there is a debate in the media and ordinary voters are debating and so forth. But they’re listening to each other in particular because they know that they have particular insights beyond what some voter who just heard about the candidate knows.

These folks might not tell you what they’re thinking while they’re still figuring it out, but one way to see it happening is through endorsements. When one of the elite actors says, I support Mitt Romney, that’s part of that conversation. And it’s a signal to other people that the private conversation about the person being for Mitt Romney is for real.

A moment ago you said voters were typically less important than party elites in this process. Of course, the decision is ultimately made by voters in primaries and caucuses. What role do endorsements play in shaping that choice?

When endorsements start to converge, voters can sense that most of or all of the party is for a particular candidate. For the most part, people who are voting in the primaries are partisan, and they listen to that party signal. We show in the book that the relationship between who has the most endorsements and who does well is strongest among partisan voters. Independent voters don’t pay much attention, but then independent voters are a smaller share of the primary electorate.

But probably the biggest way in which endorsements matter is that they’re a way for us to observe the support that’s going on behind the scenes. If the governor of a state says I’m for this candidate, it might also mean he’s going to give some advice and say in my state, these are some things you want to know. Or his staff, or people who have campaigned for him, are going to be willing to campaign for the candidate. When you show up in South Carolina to build a campaign, there are only so many people who you want to hire who know how to do that. So those people are going to have a choice of which candidate they want to run with, and they might choose the candidate who their governor supported.

I should add, we spend a lot of time in the book talking about who has the most endorsements. But the argument isn’t that whoever has the most endorsements wins. It’s that whoever the party is supporting wins, and endorsements are one way of getting at that.

There’s a passage in the book where you and your co-authors write that the 2008 Republican race was not you what would have expected; there’s even a reference to the then-impending nomination of McCain as “an embarrassment” to your argument, because he’s historically not someone the party trusted. And you wrote that come 2012, you expected the party to take steps to avoid a repeat scenario. Do you see those expectations being fulfilled now?

One thing that would have satisfied that expectation would have been changes in the rules, like the changes that the Democratic Party made after Carter’s nomination. And I don’t see that, no. That isn’t happening.

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.

So to apply that framework to a couple specific candidates, Mitt Romney is generally regarded as the Republican front-runner. But he doesn’t seem to be generating much enthusiasm, and there a variety of things that may make him objectionable, from his religion to his record on health care. The overriding media narrative seems to be whether he can make himself acceptable to the party. If you were a reporter covering the Romney campaign, what would you be looking for?

I think that basic narrative is pretty accurate, and it speaks well of the journalism community that they’ve settled on that. The basic question is the right question: What can Romney do to make himself appeal to elements of the party that don’t trust him on his religion, on health care? And even beyond health care he had a fairly liberal record in Massachusetts that he was flip-flopping away from in 2008. Those issues still continue.

The thing that I would emphasize is that the people he needs to please are not the voters in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina. Ultimately he has to do that, but the path to doing that is to please important leaders on those issues in the party. So when he gave his speech at the University of Michigan awhile back, the response to that really mattered. And the response within the Republican Party wasn’t very good. I don’t know what the polling results would be about how ordinary voters responded, but what mattered was the National Review, which endorsed him in 2008, was not excited by his effort to explain his health care position.

To take a candidate who occupies a very different position in the race, what would you look for if you were covering Michele Bachmann’s campaign?

Remembering what we were saying a little earlier, the party base is expanding and shifting. The Tea Party leadership might have a stronger voice now, and her support among them matters. But she’s got to have some support outside the Tea Party, or else she’s a factional candidate, and that’s not going to be enough to get her through contests that are not in Tea Party-friendly states. So I would be looking for, are there major party leaders who are either hostile to the Tea Party or just not deeply involved in the Tea Party who are supportive of her?

I don’t think many of the individual claims in your book would draw a lot of objections from serious political journalists. At the same time, the standard model for covering a primary campaign is to assign reporters to follow around candidates, which may reinforce the candidate-oriented frame you’re trying to push back against.

You earned your undergraduate degree from Medill, and worked for a few years as a journalist before starting your scholarly career. So to ask you to put your editor’s hat on, how would you structure campaign coverage to reflect the story as you see it?

One thing you could do is—and I don’t want to overstate the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire; they are important but they’re not the end-all and be-all—you could have someone be responsible for learning about what’s going on in Iowa. So they would go and talk to the various party leaders in Iowa, various activists, people who have been influential in earlier campaigns. You would cover Iowa, rather than covering Michele Bachmann in Iowa. It’s daunting to say, go and understand a whole state. It’s harder than it is to follow around a particular candidate. But that is the place where the questions need to be asked.

You could also, for example, assign whoever is paying attention to congressional politics to keep track of the discussion there. And in general, try to find as many possible ways to divide things into coverage areas that lead to people making the decision. If you talk to Bachmann, she’s made her decision—she wants to run. And no one in the Bachmann campaign is trying to decide whether to support Bachmann. You want to talk to people who are trying to decide: do I support Bachmann, or Romney, or Gingrich, or Pawlenty, or whomever? And the only place we really see that routinely is in polls, where we ask voters to make that decision. But there are a lot of other people who are making that decision.

Are there other journalistic narratives you’d push back against?

Political scientists love to criticize horse race coverage, but I actually think horse race coverage makes a lot of sense, especially in a general election. That’s what you care about—who’s going to win. But often the perspective on the horses makes it sound like they’re out there running, and that’s all that matters. In a primary election it’s so much more about the terrain, and the metaphor of the horse race can’t capture that.

If the narrative were structured in terms of, the party’s having a hard time deciding which kind of candidate it wants to have—which I do see from time to time—that would be much more useful, I think. It’s harder, because you don’t have just one person to talk about. And you can’t just run off a poll and use that as a springboard for a story. But I think it’s possible to do it.

My sense is that the kind of coverage you want to see may actually be more common now than it used to be, when we were relying on the newsweeklies for national political coverage. In other words, the coverage may have become more party-oriented as it’s become more insider-oriented.

I think that’s right. I think part of the difficulty in writing the kind of story that I’d like to see is that there are lots of players, and your audience doesn’t know who most of them are. If you look at Time circa 1988 a lot of the coverage was, “Oh my goodness, Mike Dukakis just had this unexpected victory, we better have a profile of him.” So you get a long profile about this person that’s news-pegged off recent events. That’s time-consuming to do for the entire party—you can do it for one or two candidates, but to do it for everybody who matters is really difficult.

But as more and more political junkies know who the players are, and there’s a large enough group there that they can be the audience for, say, Politico, then it’s worth writing the story I’m talking about. And you can write the story without having to have a five-paragraph explanation about who, say, Jim DeMint is.

But the question then is the larger story about journalism—whether or not that reporting actually reaches a larger audience. There’s no equivalent to Time magazine, that we can figure lots of educated people are all reading.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , , , ,