Hillary Clinton's Grip on the "Invisible Primary"

Hillary Clinton's Grip on the "Invisible Primary"
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Hillary Clinton announced her bid for the presidency only a little over a month ago, but analysts are already calling her campaign a steamroller and a juggernaut. To the casual election watcher, this might seem premature, since not a single Democratic primary voter has cast a ballot.

Why are analysts so bullish on Clinton? The answer lies at least partially in the “invisible primary” –  the process by which the party leaders and highly active members, from the local to federal level, attempt to coalesce around a nominee before the Iowa caucuses (tentatively scheduled for Feb. 1), and then (through influence, money and organization) try to persuade the party rank-and-file to nominate their candidate. As other journalists and analysts have noted, Clinton currently seems to be dominating the Democratic invisible primary.

Using endorsement data, I drilled down a bit farther to put her performance in the context of past presidential nominees. The data suggest that Clinton is among the strongest invisible primary candidates in recent history – somewhere close to George W. Bush in 2000, Al Gore in 2000 or Bob Dole in 1996. And while Clinton is far and away the favorite to win the invisible primary as well as the Democratic nomination, winning the former far from guarantees her the nomination.   

So What Exactly Is the Invisible Primary?

The invisible primary is, in short, the large-scale process by which party officials, elected officials, interest group members, donors, activists and ordinary volunteers (broadly defined as “the party”) attempt to come to a consensus on which candidate they should support. Under this definition, “the party” is not just comprised of large-dollar donors and elected officials. Everyday campaign volunteers and activists also participate. Whether they’re high-dollar donors giving to a super PAC or dedicated phone callers in Iowa – people who spend time, money or influence to shape the outcome of the primaries by backing a candidate or trying to persuade someone else to do so take part in the invisible primary. The name “invisible” is apt because analysts and journalists simply cannot observe most of the conversation happening within the party. Not only are we unable to get into closed-door, high-dollar fundraising events, we are also unable to eavesdrop on dinner party conversations between local activists in New Hampshire or comb through Iowa homeschool email threads.

If a large enough segment of this disparate network of politically involved citizens, donors, elected officials and party bosses manages to come to a consensus on which candidate to support (which they do not always do – sometimes nobody wins the invisible primary), then that candidate receives a significant boost. That network’s funds, influence and organizational muscle flow to that candidate and help him or her get votes from the primary electorate. Invisible primary winners don’t automatically the nomination, but history shows they seem to gain a real advantage.

Looks Like Clinton Is Winning It

Invisible primaries don't lend themselves to empirical study – we can't get into every closed-door fundraiser and talk to every New Hampshire door knocker. But candidate endorsements made by elected officials provide a helpful measure of who is winning this contest for party support.

I used data from political scientist Marty Cohen’s website, the Hill and Eric Appelman to look at elected officials’ endorsements over the past 36-plus years. Since not every politician is equally powerful or influential, I used Nate Silver's and Harry Enten's weighted scoring system, giving candidates 10 “endorsement points” per sitting governor, five points per sitting senator and one point per sitting House member.

Note that this data is not perfect: it does not necessarily encapsulate the preferences of activists who are on the ground; in some cases, it may show the date on which the endorsement became public rather than when the candidate privately secured it; and it does not it tell us whether these endorsements influence primary voters or naturally flow to strong candidates. But it is one of the best available windows into the otherwise opaque invisible primary process. 

The lines on the graph shows endorsement points for Walter Mondale in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, and Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 in the year leading up to the Iowa caucuses. According to “The Party Decides” (the authoritative book on the invisible primary and the basis for much of this analysis) each of these candidates won his party’s invisible primary relatively quickly and easily. The blue point shows Hillary Clinton’s endorsement point total as of March 30, 2015 (her endorsements show up as a point because the most complete record of endorsements – compiled at the Hill – does not list dates).

This graph should make Clinton feel optimistic. Her endorsement point total is somewhere between Dole’s and the younger Bush’s. Dole and Bush beat back their primary opponents relatively quickly and easily in 1996 and 2000, respectively. This is a good sign if Clinton wishes to do the same.

Winners Don’t Always Get Nomination

But Clinton should remain cautious – the invisible primary winner does not automatically win the nomination. In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale, despite having clearly won the invisible primary, almost lost the nomination to then Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. Mondale bested Hart by fewer than 500,000 votes – a relatively thin margin considering that Hart, Mondale and Jesse Jackson together earned nearly 17 million votes over the course of the primary. While party support certainly helped Mondale, he still barely won the nomination.

And Hillary Clinton personally knows that a good showing in the invisible primary does not guarantee a presidential nod.

In the run-up to 2008, the Democratic Party chose Hillary Clinton. She racked up a significant number of endorsements heading into Iowa, yet she faced tough challenges from then-Sen. Barack Obama and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards. Obama, who trailed Clinton in the invisible primary, won Iowa. And although this graph does not show it, the party left Clinton for Obama in their ensuing protracted primary fight.

These examples show that cleanly sweeping the “endorsement primary” is not a silver bullet. Gore, Dole and both Bushes won their nomination fights easily after sweeping the invisible primary, but Clinton and Mondale did not.  

But Hillary Is Still the Right Bet

That being said, at this point in the Democratic nomination Clinton is still far and away the best bet. Her strong showing in the invisible primary is an advantage, and her polling numbers now far outstrip where she was at this time in 2007.

Perhaps just as importantly, Clinton does not yet face a challenger as tough as Hart, Obama or even Edwards. Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – a self-described “democratic socialist” – is the only other candidate who has officially jumped into the race. Sanders trails Clinton in the polls, and Clinton polls well among Sanders’ natural base – the far-left wing of the Democratic Party. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (who will announce his decision on a presidential campaign on Saturday) faces similar problems in the polls and with the liberal wing he might try to cater to.

So for now, Sanders and O’Malley look more like factional challengers (think of John McCain’s attack on George W. Bush from the party’s moderate wing in 2000 or Pat Buchanan’s conservative crusade against Bob Dole in 1996), as the most viable Clinton alternatives are on the sidelines.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at dbyler@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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